Today’s readings are about identity theft. It may not seem like that on the surface, but this is what is happening in both the reading from Genesis and from Matthew. We often frame these as stories of temptation; however, temptation is the means by which our identity can be stolen.
In the reading from Genesis, we hear about the temptation of Eve by the serpent. He questions her about what she is allowed to eat. She tells him that they can eat of any tree, but not the one in the middle of the garden because if they eat of that tree they will die. Eve’s identity at this point is based on her relationship with God as a trusting child of God. The serpent sets about at stealing her identity – through a temptation to break this trusting relationship with God and “go it alone” by eating of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not only does this thievery work, it fundamentally changes Eve and Adam’s relationship with God. This story is our story – of how we distrust God and are constantly tempted to “go it alone.”
In contrast, Matthew tells of how Satan attempts to steal Jesus’ identity. This is a day when the Church Year readings take a chronological twist. We are now back to the baptism of Jesus … which we celebrated in January. When Jesus was baptized, a voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” This was the same voice we heard last week in the reading from the Transfiguration and it is Jesus’ core identity: God’s Son, the Beloved with whom God is well pleased (or some translations say, “in whom I take great delight”). This is the truth and it is a truth spoken not just in Jesus’ baptism, but at ours. Our core identity is as beloved sons and daughters of God.
But, we hear that right after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness – and here his core identity is at risk of being stolen. Satan appears and makes three attempts to get Jesus to break relationship with God and us – and to lose his core identity. The first temptation is “I need.” Satan attacks Jesus’ very real need to eat: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I want you to know that Satan is not questioning the identity of Jesus with this statement – he is attempting to steal it. His statement “If you are the Son of God” is not a challenge to his identity – it is an assertion of it. The “if” used in the Greek is the “if of certainty” not the one of uncertainty; which means we can translate this as “Since you are the Son of God.” Satan never questions Jesus’ identity as Son of God. Jesus could have at that point given in. If he had, not only would he have broken his dependence on God in an attempt to “go it alone,” he also would have broken his solidarity with us who hunger, both literally and figuratively. Jesus responds by quoting scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He thwarts the attempt at identity theft through the temptation of “I need.”
But Satan isn’t done with him yet. If Jesus can quote scripture, so can the devil (remember that!). Satan takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple and gives him the temptation of “I can”: “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Satan is quoting Psalm 91. Yes, Jesus could have done this … he could have succumbed to the temptation of “I can.” But if he had, he again would have broken his dependence on God and would have become invulnerable – and in so doing, would have broken relationship with us as vulnerable human beings. Jesus resists this attempt to steal his identity with another quote from scripture: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Satan’s final attempt at stealing Jesus’ identity comes with the temptation of “I want” by showing him all the kingdoms of the world and promising that to Jesus if only he would bow down and worship him … in essence worshiping as God that which is not … committing idolatry. Had he given in, his core self as God incarnate would have shattered and he would have lost any power to save this broken humanity. Jesus tells Satan to be gone and with one final word of scripture tells him: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Each of these temptations – “I need,” “I can,” and “I want” – are our temptations too. Each represents the opportunity for us to break relationships with each other and with God. Each of them is an attempt to steal our core identity and get us to distrust God’s promise in our baptism that we really are beloved sons, beloved daughters. When our core identity is stolen, we forget who we are and Whose we are and the results can be devastating.
Think for a moment over this past week. Where was your core identity as beloved put at risk by the Identity Thief? Where did “I need,” “I can,” or “I want” trip you up? How did it make you feel in the moment? As you see it in this light, how does it make you feel now? Has it made you doubt your beloved status? Now hear the words of St. Paul:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is your promise beloved in Christ. Regardless of our failings, which are merely opportunities to turn and return to God, absolutely nothing can steal your baptismal identity away.