Have you ever watched or heard about this movie, “Focus”? I happened to watch it a while ago. The movie was not really impressive to me, but I still remember one scene. In the movie, Nicky, played by Will Smith, is an extremely accomplished con man. He is basically a professional impostor who designs a big fraud to steal others’ money. The scene is about him teaching his apprentice, Jess, how to deceive people to get something from them. The key point of his teaching is to redirect people’s focus of attention. To show her an example, he actually steals her belongings, while she loses her focus by his trick. After that, he says to her, “It’s about distraction. It’s about focus. The brain is slow and it can’t multitask. Tap him here, take from there.” “If you get that focus, you can take whatever you want.”
What I get from this movie is…when we lose focus, we become vulnerable and lose something… something important. What does the movie poster say? “Never Lose Focus.” Yes, never lose focus. I think this lesson is helpful for us to reflect further upon today’s lectionary readings.
In today’s Hebrew Bible and the Gospel readings, we find the two most famous temptation stories of all time: the temptation of Eve by the serpent and the temptation of Jesus Christ by the devil. Here, let me ask you a question: what is the nature of temptation? From both stories, we can understand that temptation distracts us to lose our focus on God, on God’s purpose of our lives, and on our relationship with God. At the same time, temptation redirects our focus into ourselves, to our needs, and to our desires. And the story of Adam and Eve especially tells us…when temptation shifts our focus of life away from God, we become susceptible to sin and fail in maintaining sound relationship with God.
Looking into the stories, we find that the tempters—the serpent and the devil—try to deceive the eyes of Eve and Jesus. The tempters surely know that it’s all about focus. They try so hard to disturb Eve and Jesus’ focus. The serpent redirects the focus of Eve and seduces her to take a good look at the forbidden tree. Then, what happens? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). Eve sees the tree, finds delight to her eyes, and discovers her human desire. Then, finally, her eyes zoom in and get fixed just on the fruit. She totally loses her focus on God’s will for her.
The devil tries so hard to entice Jesus to detach his focus from God too. In the first attempt, the devil lures Jesus to move his focus to human need, and satisfy it by using his divine power. After fasting 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus must have desperately wanted something to eat. But he renounces the temptation, saying, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:3-4). In the second trial, the devil attracts Jesus to pursue his desire by using God’s power. If Jesus jumped off the pinnacle of the temple and got rescued by angels, he could draw everyone’s attention, attract many followers, and easily become their messiah. But Jesus keeps his eyes on God’s way to be the true savior. This way is not a way of exercising power, but rather, this is a way of emptying power on the cross. In the last temptation, the devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” The devil finally targets on Jesus’ eyes. But Jesus does not lose his vision on the kingdom of God. And he knows that the kingdom does not come at once through the devil’s shortcut, but comes with Jesus himself and with his followers’ patient practices of self-giving love.
Never lose focus. Like Jesus who renounces all the temptations by centering himself only on God, we should keep our focus on God’s way. But this simple message today is so difficult to keep in our actual life. Once upon a time, there was an abbot in an abbey who had one disciple.
He was so impressed by the spiritual progress of his young disciple that he let the disciple live in his own hut down by the river to make more progress in private. Each night the disciple should wash his only robe and put it out to dry. One morning he was so upset to find that rats tore his robe apart. He begged for another robe from a nearby village, but rats tore that one again this time. So he got a cat. But now he had to beg for milk for the cat. To get around that, he somehow got a cow. But now he should feed the cow. He got the hay from the fields. The cow grew well so the disciple could have some calves. He sold calves and got workers to help him. Soon, he became the wealthiest man in the area. Several years later, the abbot came back and found a mansion in place of the hut. So he asked the disciple, “What is the meaning of all this?” Then, the disciple answered, “Oh holy abbot, there was no other way to keep my robe.”
I find us in the story. Like the disciple, there is no particular evil intention behind our daily struggle to live on. But at some point along the road, we lose our focus, begin to go too far away in a wrong direction, and can’t stop it. And later on, we can’t even tell from when we lost our focus. In our daily lives, there are numerous things distracting us and getting us away from God. Temptations come in one after another. If we follow our needs and desires without thinking what Jesus wants us to do, we would end up finding ourselves in a totally different place and losing the purpose of our lives. Then, we make excuses like the disciple, because of the rats, because of the cat, because I needed milk, because of the cow, and so on.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, yes, we are helpless and defenseless humans. We stumble and fail by many tempters of this age. We are tempted and lose our focus on God at any given moment. But for the believers, there still is the good news. God’s grace is always for us. Grace is at work to help us regain our faith and refocus our eyes and hearts on Jesus. In today’s Epistle reading, Paul tells us, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18). In Christ, we always have hope. What we need to do is clear. We must focus on the way of Jesus and abide in him through prayer, through the Word, through our self-reflection and repentance, through our works of mercy and piety, through our small practices of kindness, love, and hospitality. Yes, let us focus on Jesus and his cross in this Season of Lent. Let our spiritual eyes see God and seek the Holy Spirit in us who urges us to say no to temptations, nudges us to turn to God again, and inspires us to remain faithful. Keep the faithful focus. And never lose it. Amen.