the temptation to grasp for power

(1st Sunday of Lent, Year A: Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Ps 91; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11)


I was first inclined to approach the three temptations of Jesus that we read this week in the gospel as representing three separate things, as we often hear. I recall one teaching that associates the three of them with fasting, prayer and almsgiving, and another that associates them with poverty, chastity, and obedience. But perhaps all three of the temptations can be seen as all of a piece, one overriding temptation having to do with power. Think of it this way: the first temptation––to turn the stones into bread––was for Jesus to use his power for himself, like magic. In the second one––to cast himself down from the parapet: maybe it’s not that the devil is putting the Lord God to the test; perhaps he is tempting Jesus to put God to the test or, again, tempting Jesus to put his own powers to the test, like Icarus flying too close to the sun. And the third one––the invitation to worship the devil––is a choice about from whom or from what or from where Jesus was going to choose his power.

But we can also look at this story in its liturgical context. Each of the three years we hear an account of the temptations––each year from a different evangelist, of course––and each year also against the background of a different reading from the Hebrew Scriptures as well as a different epistle. This year (Year A, which especially in Lent is the quintessential cycle of readings for the catechumenate) both of the ancillary readings to Matthew’s version are pointing us back to the original sin, or at least to our foundational myth about how sin came into the world––Eve, the serpent and the apple.

I want to return once more to this idea that I got from the transpersonal psychologist Michael Washburn, that we come forth from God as if from the womb of possibility, from the dynamic ground of being (and consciousness). And we start on a trajectory in the normal course of growth toward becoming an independent generative person bursting forth with creative energy––developing an ego, developing a sense of ‘I, me, mine.’ Now you might say that that’s actually the real problem, this ego, this ‘I’ sense, but I think the ego gets a bad name, especially in spiritual circles.

Our friend the Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski writes beautifully about this in his book Living Presence. He says that the ego “is a fundamentally positive energy,” and it has all kinds of positive qualities––“aspiration, diligence, responsibility, self-respect, discipline, integrity” all come this strong sense of ‘I.’ The ego is simply something that is formed through “trying to hold a place for ourselves in a world that has many contrary forces. As we grow into life, we face challenges and demands,” and our ego is our way of establishing “a position from which or through which to act.” The ego is the reason I can be in relationship with you and with the world around me in general. As we develop this positive aspect of the ego, “we find that the ego can be supported by spiritual intelligence and wisdom,” and if it is then the ego can “act as an instrument of this spiritual intelligence and wisdom,” rather than merely as “a proponent of its own self-interest.”

Ah, but that’s just the problem––sin may be when these positive qualities of the ego are taken too far. When we establish so much autonomy, when we, through hubris, think that it is all about my independence and strength and my generativity, then the ego isn’t supported by spiritual intelligence and wisdom. It will have lost its grounding in the divine. The knowledge of good and evil (the discriminating mind?) in this context, removed from the spiritual wisdom that assures an underlying unity, is deadly. Then the ego doesn’t act as an instrument of greater intelligence but only as a proponent of its own self-interest. The powerful scene of Adam and Eve realizing that they were naked­­ is a great image of them being separate from the rest of creation and in some way now separate from their own bodies, since the texts tells us twice that before this they were naked and unashamed. All the unities have fallen apart because of the loss of the primal unity, the unity with the divine ground through seeking to be independent and autonomous.

Now Kabir says that what is needed is simply “to establish a subtle balance––the ego in co-creatorship with the Spirit,” but I think it’s even more than balance. What is needed is to establish the primacy of the Spirit. We do not live on bread alone; we do not put the Lord to the test; we do not worship anything over the Spirit of God––especially our own autonomy and independence.

The problem is that this return to the dynamic ground, this re-establishing the primacy of the Spirit, is experienced as a kind of death. It feels at first like a sacrifice of our autonomy and our independence (and it is!), like going back to the womb, going back to dependence. But this is exactly the sacrifice, the death that we have to undergo––the sacrifice of our autonomy. And this is where the vocabulary of Christian spirituality and the icon of Christ are so eloquent, the kenosis of Christ, the self-emptying of Jesus. And the image of Jesus in the desert for forty days especially is a perfect icon of this, putting himself in the place of total dependency. And, for us, this is what Baptism and our baptismal life is about, living in such a way that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, dying with the Lord so as to live, enduring with the Lord so as to reign with the Lord.

What is this first sin, this primal flaw, the tragic mistake of Adam and Eve in this story? Maybe it is only that they grasped at wisdom and life, they grabbed at it and were no longer content to receive it as a gift. So maybe the original sin is something like grabbing for power. A little later in the Book of Genesis we hear the story of the Tower of Babel and it is almost the same dynamic, trying to build a ladder to climb to heaven, trying to storm the castle rather than be invited. I’m reminded again of Merton’s wonderful essay on Prometheus in Raids on the Unspeakable. Moderns and post-moderns have been so captivated by the image of Prometheus stealing the fire from heaven, using that as an image of our grabbing our destiny away from any kind of hierarchy and demagoguery. But Merton says that Christianity’s response to that is that we believe that our God actually wants to give us the fire! And how I wish it were already burning, Jesus says. We’re trying to steal the fire from heaven but God wants to give it to us in Christ. And so we look already toward Pentecost, 90 days away, the culmination of the Easter season.

But the gift is not like the transgression, St. Paul says. If the transgression––stealing the fire from heaven, eating of the forbidden tree––was in the jealous grasping, whereas the gift is freely given. It can’t be stolen and it can’t be earned. And so we are back for the umpteenth time to the great kenosis hymn in the Letter to the Philippians. Jesus does the opposite of Eve and Adam: he does not grab! Though his state was that of God yet he did not deem equality with God something that he should cling to, something that he should grab at. Rather he emptied himself. He went back into his dependency on God and the Spirit, and therefore God raised him on high and gave him the name above all other names. The gift is not like the offense. If the offense was grabbing and clinging and claiming, the gift is in Jesus’ emptying, trusting, receiving.

As we hear in the entrance antiphon this week from Ps. 91, the signature psalm of the season of Lent, which is also quoted in the gospel (even the devil can quote scripture, you know!), it is those who live in the shelter of the Most High, those who abide in the shadow of the Almighty; those who say to the Lord, ‘My rock, my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’ Those who love me, God says through the psalmist, I will deliver; those who know my name I will protect. When you call me I shall answer you.


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