At Gala last week I had a conversation about Lent with several of those in attendance. All of us had stories about past lenten penances that didn’t work out according to plan. Each of us had the experience of choosing a very virtuous, ambitious penance, only to have it backfire on us. There is little value in choosing a lenten penance if it makes you irritable, quick-tempered or self-righteous. This Sunday we have the opportunity to see how Jesus dealt with penance and temptation.
Prior to beginning his preaching and healing ministry Jesus went out into the desert. In Jewish tradition, the desert was a place of ambiguity. The desert was place where the Israelites were taught and led by God (Exodus 34:10), but it was also the place of temptation and idolatry. (Exodus 32:4) Jesus’ desert experience, at least in theory, held the possibility of either faithfulness or sin. Naturally, we are quick to assume that Jesus would be able to overcome any temptation. We are equally inclined to assume that his ability to avoid temptation was the result of his divinity.
There ought, however, to be some lesson or encouragement for us in the story of his temptation in the desert. There ought, also, to be some involvement of his humanity in his resistance to temptation. If there is no encouragement for us in the story, and if Jesus’ humanity was not also involved in his refusal to succumb to temptation, then there is little point in the Gospel relating this story to us.
I’d like to offer a theory, perhaps a suggestion, about what made Jesus so strong in the face of severe temptation. I’d like you to consider the possibility, even the likelihood, that Jesus was able to resist temptation based on a very human virtue, a virtue that is possible for all of us. I’d like you to consider the possibility that Jesus easily turned away the devil’s temptations because of gratitude to God.
A central aspect of Jewish spirituality is a type of prayer called “berakah,” or “thanksgiving.” There are many of these prayers, each is addressed to a particular situation. Jesus would have recited thanksgiving prayers at the beginning of each day, before eating and at the beginning of formal worship. His Last Supper contained a thanksgiving prayer that we call the “words of Institution of the Eucharist.” The word “Eucharist,” in fact means “thanksgiving”; “eucharist” is the word used in the Christian Scriptures to translate the Hebrew word “berakah.”
Gratitude to God, and thanksgiving to God for God’s blessings, were the foundation of Jesus’ prayer life and spirituality. Luke’s Gospel contains an example of spontaneous prayer by Jesus, in which he expresses gratitude to God for the good news he preached. (Luke 10:21) Gratitude is a virtue that any person can practice, regardless of age, station in life or the vagaries of the day. I suggest to you that gratitude is also a virtue that provides sufficient strength to overcome temptation. To be truly grateful to God is to focus intently on God’s goodness, and focusing intently on God’s goodness leaves little room in our hearts and minds for temptation to enter.
It’s easy enough to test my theory. There are plenty of temptations that surround us daily. Why should we be generous toward those in need when it would be easier to worry only about ourselves and our own families? Why get involved in parish activities and ministries when it would be much easier to remain uncommitted on the margins? Why be forbearing with difficult people when it would be easier to disregard those who annoy us?
If everything you have, and everything you are, is the result of your own efforts and talent, there is no reason to be generous or responsible or compassionate. If, on the other hand, everything you have and are is the result of some else’s gift to you, there is every reason to be grateful. Where did you get your talents and abilities, your successes, your education, your employment, your love relationships? None of those were produced solely by your efforts. Your life, personality and capabilities were given to you by genetics, nurture and random chance. Your successes and accomplishments are the product of your interactions with the society in which you live. Your love relationships are the result of someone else loving you. Everything we have and are was given to us by someone else: by our parents, by our society, by our loving God. Regardless of what else might happen today, we have every reason to be grateful.
Gratitude is a powerful antidote to the resentments and worries that result from the disappointments that everyone faces in a normal life. Gratitude is also a powerful ally against temptation. Most of all, gratitude is a compelling reminder of God’s many blessings in our lives. I suggest that you face your temptations this Lent with a heart full of gratitude to God. I have one more suggestion: if you want a lenten penance that is fully possible as well as virtuous and ambitious: choose to be grateful.