The temptations of Christ in the wilderness mentioned by St Mark and described in the gospels of Luke and Mathew is an arresting part of the Christian message. It must of course have formed part of the early oral tradition of the Church if only because Luke and Mathew give the give the various temptations to which Jesus was subjected in different orders. It must either go back to what Jesus himself told his apostles, or be the result of some deep reflection by someone in the early church as he meditated on the internal moral challenges and temptations that he found himself subject to as he spread the Christian message.
Either way it is of extraordinary interest, and not just to Christians but to everyone who wants to understand the workings of the human mind, as we try to make sense of some of the horrifying news stories which this summer has been full. Even those who doubt the truth of Christianity should surely not ignore the fact that within the Christian tradition there is a huge body of wisdom about the difficulties that we face as human beings.
The first and most obvious point that emerges from the material in Luke and Mathew about the temptations of Christ is its realistic understanding of human nature. The gospels see human life as being a series of struggles against the forces of evil. Humanity is beset on all sides. The misdirection of the human will is all pervasive. Here then is no optimistic enlightenment vision in which men will flourish if freed from external oppression. The structures may not help. Jesus was no uncritical admirer of the Roman Empire or the Jewish authorities. Far from it. But the real challenges are experienced within the human personality itself. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews ( almost certainly not St. Paul ) tells us that Jesus was tempted “in all points like we are yet without sin” ( Hebrews, iv, 15 ) There is then no exemption from temptation. We are all, even the best of us, whether we are liberals or conservatives, Jewish or Muslims, Shintoists or Sikhs, are faced with the possibility of getting it wrong. This, indeed, is a possibility that is inherent in our freedom. Error is the price we pay for choice.
The great merit of the account of the temptation in the wilderness is that it provides us with a map of the sort of temptation we are likely to face. It is a kind of summary of some of the ways in which it is possible to crash out as a human being. We are all equally threatened with disaster. Of course we face many kinds temptations. There is nothing exhaustive about what is said here. But the passages concerned focus on three particular forms which temptation can take. There is the temptation to materialism. There is the temptation to misuse our religion. And there is the temptation to believe that we have the right to organize the lives of others. The temptation that is to act as if we are we alone are indispensable.
This last seems to have been the temptation to which Alan Hawe ( the teacher in Cavan who recently murdered his wife and their three children and then killed himself ) succumbed. In one of the notes he left behind “explaining” ( if that is really the word) the atrocity, he wrote that his family would not be able to survive without him.
Of course this was utter nonsense. The bereaved do live on. But nonsense or not it was revealing nonsense. Somewhere within his mind was an appalling overestimate of his own importance. He was the centre of their lives. They enjoyed no authentic existence without him. How can a decent man, and in some ways he seems to have been an exemplary human being, have come to believe this? Perhaps because his very sense of responsibility as a husband and a father had become in some strange, but all to human way, been corrupted.
Of course the rest of us will be able to congratulate ourselves with the comforting notion that we would never do anything so stupid and so evil. We would rather have died than do what he did…etc..But after we have patted ourselves on the back perhaps we should pause. How often have we made ourselves the centre of our world, and convinced ourselves that we are too are more important and wiser than is really the case? Perhaps we should all remember the words of my late friend Maura Toler Aylward ( a very wise woman ) who pointed out that “ the grave yards of Ireland are full of indispensable people.” Is there not perhaps a little of Alan Hawe within us all?