In the Gospel according to Luke (4:1-13), we have the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in three ways. With each attempt, the devil tries to get Jesus to be Messiah in a way that looks promising but ultimately betrays both his revelation of God’s nature and his fulfillment of human nature. By looking at the responses of Jesus to them, we may discern how we might witness more clearly to his lordship.
The devil first tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread (4:1-4). In Luke’s story, Jesus answers by saying that humans live not by food alone. In Matthew’s version (4:4), Jesus adds that the word of God comes first. So the devil first tempts Jesus to understand being Messiah in terms of making people happy. To be clear, we may think of happiness as the contentment that comes from comfort and convenience. The devil first tempts Jesus to establish his credibility in these terms.
Jesus creatively responds by stating that hearing and obeying the word of God is more important than being happy and, by implication, even having enough food to eat.
By responding to the devil in this way, Jesus does not justify depriving people of food or ignoring those who do not have enough to eat. Elsewhere he emphasizes his identification with society’s most marginal members (Matthew 25:31-46).
At the same time, Jesus does not make being happy a sin nor suffering a virtue. We cannot reduce the Good News of Jesus Christ to a moral code by saying: God’s will is always the harder way. Jesus, for example, supplies new wine at a wedding in Cana to spare the host any embarrassment and provide gracious hospitality to the guests. He also feeds 5,000 men rather than send them away hungry.
But walking with Jesus is more important than being happy and often involves suffering we otherwise might easily avoid. Jesus mentions plainly he has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58). A rich man (Luke 18:18-30), wanting to continue enjoying his wealth, rejects Christ’s invitation to companionship. Jesus goes so far as to warn us who would follow him that we too will have to pick up a cross (Luke 9:23). May the failure of the disciples themselves to remain with Jesus in Gethsemane continue to remind us today to take Christ’s warning seriously.
Still, being radiant witnesses to Jesus doesn’t mean walking around with a long face while indulging in self-pity. To clarify why, let us contrast happiness with joy. Happiness is contentment through comfortable and convenient circumstances. Joy is contentment through Jesus regardless of circumstances.
The world, flesh, and devil continue to tempt us to walk with them on the wildly popular highway of happiness based on comfort and convenience. May we hear and obey, each day, Christ’s call to remain with him on the difficult path of freedom that alone leads to fulness of life.
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