Scripture Readings: Book of Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 12-19; Gospel According to Saint Matthew 4:1-11
Each year the Church gives us this season of Lent to renew our intention of living more completely for Christ. Lent is a word in English that is related to “length” or “lengthen,” and fittingly, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, Lent coincides with the lengthening of days we are now experiencing, and so becomes an apt image of our desire to grow closer to God and one another.
Desiring to share in our human condition, Jesus was tempted, but overcame all temptations by the power and grace bestowed by the heavenly Father. “Jesus is divine,” we might reply, but as St Paul says, he humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, to more fully partake of our condition and then raise our fallen nature to share in God’s life, forever.
The Evangelists tell us that Jesus was “led by the Holy Spirit” into the wilderness, to spend forty days and nights in prayer and fasting. The Spirit did not lead Jesus into temptation, though, but was the sustaining power with Jesus during temptation.
Like God’s other servants, such as Abraham and Moses, the Israelites as a whole and Elijah the Prophet, Jesus is no exception to those who are “put in the test,” not in order to trip them up, but to demonstrate that it is God who is in control, who can overcome evil and prove victorious, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Jesus, of course, is the supreme model of this lesson, whose obedience to the Father’s will meant overthrowing the Evil One who held us captive to sin and fear of death (Hebrews 2:14). Jesus’ obedience in embracing the cross reversed the curse of Adam’s disobedience. The victory of Christ over sin and death likewise won for the human race not only pardon for sin, but also adoption as God’s sons and daughters.
Let us now look at each of the temptations Christ endured in the desert. Satan himself starts from the fact of Jesus’ Messianic mission. The devil never doubts this fact, but proposes ways and means for Christ’s mission that are contrary to the course preordained by God.
Satan begins, in the first temptation, when Jesus is physically hungry after prayer and fasting, by suggesting to Jesus that he should be “human” and “normal,” that is, fulfill his craving for food by turning stones into bread. “Use your miraculous powers and satisfy your hunger,” Satan is saying.
Jesus replies with a text from the Book of Deuteronomy (8.3), which includes the notion that God fed his children in the wilderness with manna, something new and strange, desiring that the people understand that “it is not on bread alone that man lives, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And doesn’t Jesus say elsewhere: “I myself am the bread which came down from heaven” (John 6.41; also v. 35)?
Satan tries to lead Jesus astray, away from the narrow path, the difficult course, that God has planned for his mission. But Jesus is not moved by the devil to do other than the Father’s will, even if that means suffering an ignominious death.
Satan turns this defeat into a means of attack in the second temptation. If Jesus trusted that the Father would not let him starve, why should Jesus not show ever greater trust by jumping from the top of the Temple, be upheld by angels, and give everyone assurance that he is the Messiah?
Jesus answers this temptation with another quote from Deuteronomy (6.16), “You must not put the Lord your God to the test.” The verses that follow this are also to be taken into account. “Keep the commands of the Lord…his decrees and statutes which he has enjoined on you. You shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that you may prosper and enter into and occupy the land which the Lord promised by oath to your fathers, driving all your enemies out of your way” (vv. 17-19).
Jesus’ reply to Satan again emphasizes the need of obeying God, and never turning trust into presumption. Satan desires that Jesus seek prestige as the way to fulfill his mission. Jesus says, that is the easy way out, and not the way of God.
Having failed to lead the Messiah astray by an easy life or simple success, Satan’s last attack is to make Jesus change his allegiance and worship the Evil One. Satan hopes the fascination of worldly ambition will lure Jesus to forsake God’s service. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course!
Jesus answers with a third quotation from Deuteronomy (6.13): “You shall fear the
Lord your God; him you shall serve…You shall not run after alien gods.”
Jesus declines earthly honors and power, since his life is dedicated to the exclusive service of the one God. This is Jesus’ daily bread, the only rule of his life.
Thus defeated, the devil leaves Jesus until a new opportunity would arise, most particularly in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross.
“Begone, Satan,” are the dismissive words of Jesus, the only words on the lips of our Lord in today’s Gospel episode that are not a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures. The attempts to lead Christ astray from the course of perfect adherence to God’s will, the hard way of Messiahship, deserve a reply that well up from Jesus’ own indignation.
Representing and standing in place of the whole human race, Christ defeated Satan in rejecting comfort, prestige, success and power, and becoming the Suffering Servant really and truly. In so doing, Jesus won for us the ability to share in his divine life.
What Jesus shows us in the desert is the ideal of every Christian life: complete service of God, living the Gospel without compromise. That is certainly what the monastic state requires as a charism in the Church.
In Christ we gain the victory over Satan, we become co-heirs of Christ’s resurrected life, which cannot be taken away, unless we so choose by our carelessness.
May we be vigilant and reject all that is contrary to the Gospel, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB