At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
This first Sunday of Lent features the story of Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. His hair is still wet from his baptism by John. The words from the Father must have been ringing in His ears: “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then bang, the really hard times begin. As soon as Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alights on his head and then leads him into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
This time in the wilderness was meant to toughen Jesus, much as it toughened the children of Israel as they wandered for 40 years before crossing the Jordon into the Promised Land. It is really important to note that although Satan did the actual tempting of Jesus, it was the Spirit of God who led him into the desert. God himself does not tempt, but he will put us in positions in which we are tested to try our mettle and to strengthen us. The difference between Satan’s tempting and God’s testing is not always clear to us, but the motivations are polar opposites: Satan wants to destroy us and God wants to build us up, not only for our own sakes, but to toughen us so that we can be useful for the kingdom. Let’s look at this passage from the fourth chapter of St. Matthew more closely.
Note in the first verse it says: At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.
This is a gross understatement. Forty days and forty nights without food and water makes one more than hungry; it would kill regular folks. This was a kind of cosmic boot camp. It was a time of toughening to make Jesus better able to withstand all the subsequent attacks of the enemy as he drew near to the time of crucifixion.
For example, think about the flies. One of the titles of Satan is “Beelzebul,” which is literally “Lord of the Flies.” From what I understand, the flies in that part of the world are unbelievable. Put yourself in Jesus’ sandals: you’re striving to be faithful and you have been completely deprived of fluids and nourishment for 40 days and nights; your defenses are trashed, your resistance is at rock bottom, and then you are bombarded by all the flies of hell, circling your head, buzzing in your ears, trying to crawl up your nose, landing on your eyes. I think flies are special tools of the enemy.
And then there are the Holy Land’s equivalent of chiggers and mosquitoes, the biting and itching would be enough to drive one crazy. And then there were the incredible changes in temperature, often 70 degrees or more in a 24 hour period.
It was a brutal time, and then Jesus was really attacked. Matthew tells us that Satan hit him with 3 specific temptations: 1) There was the temptation to turn rocks into bread; 2) there was the temptation to jump off the top of the Temple to show that the Father would send angels to protect him and to keep him from harm, no matter the situation or circumstances and 3) there was the temptation to be more wealthy and powerful than anyone in history, the only requirement was for Jesus to shift his allegiance from the Father to Satan.
We need to take a couple of things into account: First, these temptations for Jesus were real. As a fully human being, He could have succumbed to any and all of them; second, these and other temptations make him very empathetic and supportive of us when we are tempted and it makes him very forgiving when we succumb to those temptations. He knows how strong they are. In Hebrews 4:15 we are told that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” That means he knows the tug of every lure of sin imaginable, without actually committing the sin. Without exception, the nasty and the petty, the brutal and the cruel, the thoughtless and the apathetic, the selfish and the spiteful, the downright mean and blasphemous, the self-indulgent and immoral, these and many, many more temptations have tugged strongly at Jesus, but he never succumbed to any of them.
Let’s now look at these three specific temptations that are in today’s Gospel lesson.
The first temptation about turning stones to bread speaks of the temptations of appetite. Satan takes normal and good desires and twists them. For example, hungering for food can make one a glutton, and in our self-preoccupation we then can easily ignore the hungry. But appetites deal with so many other issues as well: sex, money, power, prestige, all kinds of drugs. Each of us knows the tug of wanting something more than we need or that we ought to have.
We know what it’s like to become irrational, even foolish and destructive in our desires. Sometimes we are able to curb these temptations; often we are not. Sometimes we are bold in succumbing to the temptations of appetite, sometimes we are sneaky. The temptations of appetite often are tools of the devil.
Jesus reminds us that we don’t live on the fulfillment of appetite, but on the message of love and kindness and faithfulness and self-sacrifice that God calls us to observe.
The second temptation is what I like to call the temptation of vertigo, in this specific case the anxiety about falling from a great height, of being off balance, of being fearful. I’m particularly sensitive to this one. I’m subject to vertigo and I know full well the irrational component of it.
When looking down from a great height, I tend to grab hold of things and hang on tightly as my knees buckle and my hands sweat; my breathing gets short, my heart pounds. Jesus was placed on the temple and it was a dizzying height and I think that he suffered from vertigo. Vertigo, and other fears are not sins in themselves, but the intense fear can lead us to be obsessed with control because we are in the grips of fear, sometimes irrational fear. And consequently our perceived need to be safe, to be in control, often trumps everything else. And when we have inordinate control issues, it is very difficult to be faithful, and it can quickly lead us to sin. We are much more concerned about ourselves and our own agendas than we are in serving and loving God and those who are in need.
More subtly, for mature Christians who have control issues, we tend to be especially susceptible to sins of omission, of not doing things we ought to do. Sometimes, especially when we are tired, we want to passively control things by being unavailable. We may not actively resist, but we will disappear. When we opt not to do something that God wants us to do, it is serious sin; it is the sin of omission. We want to stay safe, or we want to avoid hassle or we just want to do something other than what God wants us to do.
There’s another temptation here regarding the desire to be in control; it’s the temptation to do something foolish and see what God will do to take care of us. I often think of it in terms of driving; it’s summed up in famous last words “buckle up, I want to try something” or “this car can stop on a dime” or “bet I can beat that train to the crossing.”
It’s used other ways as well. We can be in the middle of some serious sin, perhaps with another person and we’ll think: “What we’re doing is no one else’s business” a phrase that is often used when committing sins of appetite. It’s all about being in control and actively or passively refuting God’s desires and requirements for our lives.
The third temptation that is common to all of us is the temptation to idolatry. Satan showed Jesus all the nations of the world and said that they would be his if he, Jesus, would bow down and worship him, Satan. There are many interesting nuances here. For example the term worship comes from the Middle English word “worth ship” which means that we are assigning “ultimate worth” to someone or something. It is establishing what is most worthwhile in our lives. Often we do this with subtleness and perhaps even unconsciously.
I’ve found the best indicator of what we consider to be most worthwhile in our lives and therefore what we are most inclined to worship can be determined by our checkbooks and our daybooks. Where and how do we spend our time and on what do we spend our money? Who or what do we shortchange? All too often it’s the specific things of God.
We can be so tied up with the affairs of the world that we seem always to be running late and running short. We have trouble trying to change our lives or our values or priorities. To address this we often take short cuts. Doing the Holy Things of God will often take a back seat to other obligations and desires.
That was part of the subtle temptation Satan placed before our Lord. You see that Jesus, as Lord of everything, would one day have all the nations of the world—and consequently all the power and wealth of the world would be His. So Satan tempted him to obtain them before it was time. You can hear the implied temptation: “Jesus, you don’t have to go through all the pain and turmoil of being mocked and scorned, of taking on all the sins of the world, of being crucified. The Father wants you to go through unbelievable pain. You can skip all that. I’ll give you incredible pleasure and power right now. All you have to do is worship me instead of him. Let me set the agenda for your life. God’s ways are too demanding, too rigorous.”
How often do we want to take short cuts or try to shortchange God? We want quick fixes. We want the power and the glory, or at least we want to avoid the pain and the hassle. These are temptations for us all. We are tempted to put our ultimate worth on something that we want, not necessarily something that God wants. In so doing, we are very subtly worshipping something other than God. We are all tempted to do that.
I closing, I want to remind you that these temptations are common to us all. We are tempted by our appetites; we are tempted with vertigo and the power of fear and the need to be in control, we are tempted to worship things other than God, to find other things more worthy in our eyes than Christ and his Church.
On this First Sunday of Lent we are presented with these temptations which can easily lead us to sin. They are worthy of our reflection, to see how they affect our lives, and then we ought to pray to discern how we can thwart them. We do live in a permissive age. Folks tend to be headstrong and especially inclined to sin. May this Lent be a season of deep repentance for us all and may we look with great anticipation to the Paschal Mysteries and the Glorious Resurrection.