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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Three Levels of Temptation

Robert Barron - Three Levels of Temptation

Robert Barron - Three Levels of Temptation
TOPICS: Temptation

Peace be with you. Friends, we come to this great and holy season of Lent, a time to get back to spiritual basics, a time when the Church looks at some of its most fundamental and spiritually significant texts. We begin this First Sunday of Lent with Luke's account of the temptation of Jesus, the beginning of his public life. A basic biblical principle is: The best way to disempower evil is to look at it and to see it. Think of the bronze serpent in the desert, so those who looked at it were cured. So here's Jesus at the beginning of his public life looking at three things that might deviate him from the path. Three temptations. And of course, to say that Jesus is fully divine is not to deny for a minute that in his human nature he felt temptation.

Well, we can learn from this too. Can we look honestly and directly at those things that will cause us to deviate from the path the Lord has for us? The place for the temptation, of course, is the desert. And that's very important too, spiritually, isn't it? Blaise Pascal, the great Catholic philosopher and writer, said that we spend most of our lives with "divertissements". That means diversions. We divert ourselves from the great questions of who we are, where we're going, what's the purpose of life, what is eternal life, who is God, the great questions. Well, they're too much to bear, and so we divert ourselves. We distract ourselves. What's the desert but the place where the divertissements, the diversions and distractions, are set aside so I can come to terms with the great issues, the great questions? So that's the setting for this wonderful account.

Now, what Jesus faces in the desert would be three classical substitutes for God. And by this I mean three things that will come to reign in one's soul as the ultimate good. You want the basic biblical message? There's only one God. "Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is Lord alone". There's only one supreme good, and that's God. If you make anything other than God into the supreme good, you will always have, spiritually speaking, trouble. So look at this story now of the temptations as three levels of temptations, three types of diversions from the ultimate good. And the topography's important. We begin on the desert floor. Then we move to a higher place, and then to a still higher place. So we're looking at three grades, if you want, of temptation. So let's begin on the desert floor. "The devil said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into bread.'"

So now, if you've been to that part of the world, to the Judean Desert, you'll see it's to this day littered with stones that look for all the world like little loaves of bread. I can see how someone who's been fasting for days and days looking out at that scene would imagine those stones as loaves of bread. And so the devil begins by saying, "Look, you're the Son of God. Turn those stones into bread. Satisfy your physical hunger". Well, here's the first great temptation: to make the satisfaction of sensual desire the highest good in my life. Are there lots of us who fall into this trap? You bet. And sometimes, everybody, the most sophisticated people, people that seem, "wow, that person really is accomplished. They've really attained the highest..."

But see, all they're interested in, finally, is the satisfaction of their desires for sex and for food and for drink and the pleasures of the body. Think of someone whose life is all about money. Billionaires. My whole life's about getting money. Well, what do you use money for? You use money to buy the physical things of the world that satisfy my basic, sensual desires. It's not just a house, but a gorgeous house. Not just a car, but the best possible car. Not just food, but the best possible food and drink. Well, all I'm doing with all this money is basically satisfying this desire. Turn these stones into bread. Make the satisfaction of sensual desire the central good of your life.

Now, during Lent, everybody, we are meant to take a good, hard, long look at this tendency in ourselves. Have I made this low-level pleasure the highest good in my life? If I have, I got trouble. I think here of Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer, who said the sensual desires are like little kids. If a parent is dealing with little kids, and they want what they want when they want it. "Give me. Now, now, now. Give me something to eat. I want that ice cream cone. Give it now, now, now", well you don't satisfy every single desire of your kids every minute. You'd make them sick. Well, in a similar way, Merton says these desires for sensual pleasure are like that. They're insistent. They want what they want when they want it. But if we give into them, listen now, we never open ourselves to deeper and higher goods. Think of the good simply of friendship, the good of knowledge, the good of science, the good of searching out spiritual truth, the good of God.

See, I never find those things if I'm preoccupied all the time with the desert floor, which is why now, in response to the devil, what does Jesus say? "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God". He's not denying for a moment that we do indeed live by bread. We're embodied people. We need sensual pleasure and so on, but that's not the whole story. We don't live by bread, sensual satisfaction, alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. And so we got to move higher and not get stuck at the desert floor.

So now, let's move in the topography of the story to a higher level, because we're going to face a more sophisticated or refined type of temptation. Listen. "The devil took him higher and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant". Oh, I'll give you all of this if you but bow down and worship me. Okay, it's a more refined temptation. But power. Good? Sure. It's a worldly good. Nothing wrong with it. Power is the capacity to effect change. And thank God there are people with power in various positions who can effect change in a positive way. Nothing wrong with that.

In fact, God is described as powerful, so power can't be in itself a negative. But it's just not the highest good. And when I make it the highest good, then my spiritual life falls apart and I tend to use that power for nefarious purposes. I mean, how often in the literature of the world have we heard that story told? How often in the annals of history do we see people obsessed with power giving rise to terrible injustice? I mean, just think of it. Figures from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Caesar Augustus, Marcus Aurelius, Charlemagne, the Medicis, Charles V, Henry VIII, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Nixon and Kissinger, all the way up to Vladimir Putin. People who are preoccupied with worldly power.

And again, in itself not a bad thing. But if it becomes the central or dominating concern of your life, you will misuse that power in very bad ways. You know an interesting thing to me? Think of someone at the desert floor level. They're preoccupied with sensual pleasure. People that are really focused on power, they can often be very ascetic. They've moved beyond those low-level desires. They can deprive themselves of a lot of those things in order to reach this higher end of power. Okay, okay. But still, power is not God. Notice something, too, I think really interesting in these stories. I don't know anywhere in the literature of the world a more thorough-going critique of human power than this story. Why? Because the devil says to Jesus, "All these I will give you". Implication? He owns them all. Implication? They belong to him.

And so, again, not to strictly demonize power, that's not right, but let's face it: For so many people, and so often in human history, when worldly power becomes a dominant concern, it does indeed become a plaything of the devil. It belongs to the devil. What's Jesus' response now to this second, this higher temptation? Scripture has it, "You shall do homage to the Lord, your God. Him alone you shall adore". What's he saying? I'm not going to adore the devil. I'm not going to adore the power that he uses often for his purposes. No, no. Notice, please, my "adoration". That means my orientation to the "summum bonum," the highest good, is not directed toward power but toward God. Okay?

So we've done the desert floor. We've gone to a higher point of vantage. And now to the highest: the third temptation. "Then the devil led him to Jerusalem, set him on the parapet of the temple, and said, 'If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here... He'll bid his angels to watch over you.'" Now, what is this? Low level is sensual pleasure. The second level is worldly power. What's this one? I'd refer to it as glory, honor. The temple in Jesus' time, that was the most important building you could imagine. It was at the heart of the capital city of Jerusalem. It was a political and religious and cultural center. It was the focal point of Israelite life. It was seen, in fact, as the dwelling place of God on earth. Everybody went up to the temple.

So you're standing on the parapet of the temple. That means I'm at the center of this whole society. Everybody sees me. Everybody notices me. In fact, even God has to notice me because if I throw myself down, he's obliged to send his angels to make sure I don't hurt myself. So sensual pleasure, that's one thing, but some people, they can eschew that because they're interested in power. But still, others can eschew both sensual pleasure and worldly power because what they want is this. They want fame and honor and glory, to be noticed, admired. "Look at me". It's the great narcissistic temptation. Look, is honor a bad thing in itself? No. I always love Thomas Aquinas' definition of honor as the "flag of virtue".

So if we see something virtuous and good and we say, "Hey, hey. Look at that. Try to imitate that. I put a flag on it," well that's honor. That's why we honor people with degrees and with awards and so on. Okay. Look, in themselves, you get an award and "Oh, that's nice," and you put it on a shelf somewhere. It's not the award that matters so much. It's just a flag of virtue to, let's say, students at a university or people in the wider society. Okay, nothing in itself wrong with that. The trouble is when people get addicted to honor and glory and "Hey, look at me at the top of the temple". No, no. That leads to nothing but trouble.

So Jesus says, "Scripture also says, 'Do not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'" In other words, who do you think you are standing up on the parapet of the temple and throwing yourself down, fully expecting the people to go, "Oh, no," and for God to act? Come on. Get over yourself. That's what he's saying. Get over this inflation of the ego which has gone totally out of control and will lead to nothing but trouble. Set aside a preoccupation with sensual pleasure. That's why we fast, by the way, during Lent.

Set aside an infatuation with worldly power. That becomes a plaything of the devil. Set aside this bloated self-importance of the ego. That just leads to trouble. And keep yourself focused on God, what God wants for you, what God desires for you. Make yourself available to his grace. And the trick is, everybody... look, fellow sinners, we all are tempted by these three things. We give into them; unlike Jesus, we give into all three of them. But when we surrender to God, make God the summum bonum, it redounds to our great spiritual benefit. And God bless you.
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