Once a famous rabbi wished to have a glimpse of peoples’ hearts and test their opinions of themselves. He called three passers-by into his house. Turning to the first man he said, “Suppose you found a purse full of gold coins, what would you do with it?”
“I would give it to the owner right away provided, of course, I knew who the owner was,” the man replied.
“Fool!” the rabbi exclaimed. Then he put the same question to the second man.
“I wouldn’t give it back to the owner. I’d put it in my pocket. I am not so stupid as to let a windfall like that slip through my hands,” the man replied.
“Scoundrel!” exclaimed the rabbi. Then he put the question to the third man.
“How can I possibly know, rabbi, what I would do in a case like that?” the man replied. “Would I be able to conquer the evil inclination? Or would the evil urge overcome me and make me take what belongs to another? I do not know. But if the Holy One, blessed be He, strengthened me against the evil inclination, I would give back the money to its owner.”
“Your words are beautiful,” the rabbi exclaimed. “You are wise indeed.” The rabbi called the first man a fool. Why? Because he was completely lacking in self-knowledge. He presumed he would be strong enough to resist the temptation to keep the money. No one is so secure that he can’t fall. People don’t fall because they are weak; they fall because they think they are strong.
The rabbi called the second man a scoundrel. Because, without the slightest qualm of conscience, he was prepared to keep what didn’t belong to him. For a man like this, temptation is an opportunity to enrich himself at someone else’s expense.
The rabbi praised the third man. He was a good man, and also a wise man. What made him wise was the fact that he knew he was weak like everybody else. He hoped that when faced with the temptation to keep the money he would be strong to do the right thing. But he knew that to do so he needed help from God, and was prepared to seek that help.
All of us are weak and prone to evil. This may be a disturbing truth, but it is one we ignore at our own peril. The great problem of our time is our failure to know ourselves, to recognize evil and deal with it within ourselves. Yet there is a kind of comfort and freedom in knowing and accepting this humbling truth.
We have to struggle against the evil that is in others, and in society. But our hardest struggle is against the evil that originates inside us. We are born with conflicting impulses, so that doing good is always possible but never easy. The hardest victory of all is over oneself.
Jesus’ temptation was no play-acting. It was real. The temptations of Jesus are the temptations of Christians in all ages: to live for material things alone; to seek one’s own glory rather than God’s glory; and to abandon the worship of God for the worship of worldly power and fame.
Jesus’ victory over Satan was no once-and-for all victory. He had won a battle, not the war. There would be other attacks which would need to be repelled. The same is true for us. Some people think that they should reach a stage when they will be beyond temptation. Jesus never reached that stage. Nor did the saints.
God is with us in our struggles, helping us to overcome them.
It is through temptation that we come to know ourselves. We cannot win our crown unless we overcome, and we cannot overcome unless we enter the contest, and there is no contest unless we have an enemy and the temptations he brings.Saint Augustine