First Sunday of Lent 2013
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. (Lk. 4:1)
The temptations of Our Savior at the beginning of his public life are a most fascinating subject for Christian prayer and reflection at the beginning of Lent. What an incredible thing that the devil should dare to approach the Holy One with such awful suggestions. How could this happen to our Divine Savior? What is this event in his life meant to teach us about our life in Christ?
Surely we can begin with this point, that the temptations of Jesus demonstrate absolutely how truly hidden his divinity is from any creature’s intellect devoid of faith. There is a very sound tradition that supports the thesis that Satan has the most powerful created intellect, but this fallen creature had absolutely no light of supernatural faith. Consequently, so marvelously hidden is the divine personhood of Jesus in his humanity, that Satan can only see in Jesus a member of the human family, no matter how holy he might be, but nonetheless, just a very holy man. This fact alone is most interesting, because it shows how absolutely superior is the gift of faith, in the order of understanding, to reason or any form of natural intelligence. Do we often reflect just how marvelous it is that the simplest believer has an understanding of God, of Jesus, and ultimately, therefore, of the creation in its full dimensions – which includes the supernatural dimensions – that is superior to that of Satan. And this superiority is due solely to the virtue of the light of faith which Satan does not possess at all.
Nonetheless, it is still mysterious that Satan should try to tempt someone whom he can know by his intelligence alone is a very extraordinary and holy man, a man without sin. But then we must remember that the first Adam and Eve were also very intelligent and holy human beings, as they were created by God, and yet that did not stop Satan from trying to destroy them. He looked at Christ as he had first looked upon Adam & Eve, and he hated Jesus’ goodness and holiness and was determined to thwart any plan that God might have in store for this extraordinary human being, especially the plan to undo the results of Satan’s triumph over our first parents.
Once again this fact has something important to teach us who are now trying to live a new life in Christ but still undergo temptations. We learn from Jesus’ temptations that temptation is quite different from sin. For it is certain that Christ’s holy humanity was not in the least corrupted by these temptations in the desert, as it definitely would have been by sin. Moreover, we learn that temptation is not only for the weak, but is especially aimed at those who are stronger and holier.
Satan is always more determined to tempt someone in proportion to that person’s stature and holiness, and his temptations will be all the more profound and severe in accord with the stature and holiness of the one he tempts. The evil one absolutely hates goodness, and he is determined to use his powers to try to destroy that goodness through temptations and thus also wreak moral havoc on those who could be influenced by the target of his malice. Surely, when Satan tempted our first parents, he was also aiming at their offspring, and the same is true with his attack on Jesus.
Does not Church History teach us that the saints undergo the worst temptations? So surely the holiest of all, Jesus, had to undergo the most severe attack of the devil. From this we should learn that being tempted does not mean that we are evil persons; indeed it may be a sign of holiness, for it is this holiness that the enemy of God and man always wants to destroy. But we see in Jesus that human nature is not doomed to defeat, so long as we cling to the source of our strength, and that source is the grace of God.
The specific temptations of Jesus are certainly somewhat difficult for us to fully comprehend, and the account in no way is attempting to fully display the inner drama of these temptations of Jesus. However, they all do nseem to have to do with his mission, and how it is to be accomplished. The devil tempts Jesus to use his miraculous powers and choose bread over truth, and Jesus responds that it is not by bread alone that man lives, as a man, but far more importantly by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God – God’s Word is Truth. Thus Jesus will not turn rocks into bread to curb his hunger and by that miracle disobey the Father who alone limits His power. Indeed, Jesus is never seen performing miracles for his own sake, to cut corners, to escape the normal obstacles of human life. His miracles are always for others, to help others, to foretell the Kingdom and to point man to Truth, but he will never use his power to establish his Kingdom of God.
The second temptation confirms this rejection of power when we see Jesus refusing to seek or use political power in order to succeed in his mission, as kings and other rulers of this world accomplish their will to rule. Pope Benedict on Ash Wednesday, 2013, deftly referred to this in his homily:
“In the second, the devil offers Jesus the path of power: he leads him up on high and gives him dominion over the world, but this is not the path of God: Jesus clearly understands that it is not earthly power that saves the world, but the power of the Cross, humility…”
Jesus knows perfectly that using political power in this fallen world even for earthly purposes – let alone for His sacred mission – carries with it a powerful vulnerability of the political ruler in relation to the true “ruler of this world,” [Jn. 12:31]. In John’s Gospel, this is a most interesting way in which Jesus refers to Satan himself, and especially interesting since we see here in the desert that Satan claims to hold this very power, and Jesus seems to confirm it by referring to him as the “ruler of this world.” But how many earthly rulers have found themselves prostrate to Satan after having succumbed to Satan’s temptation to use power in an evil way to gain or strengthen their rule? Jesus will have none of this. He will be true to the will of the Father and seek his kingdom not through earthly power but through weakness, as Benedict said, by the “power of the Cross and humility.” What a lesson every Christian should learn from this, especially every Catholic and Christian politician!
Finally, Jesus refuses to give into the temptation to force his Father’s hand by jumping from the temple in order to force the Father to openly display his Fatherhood of Jesus, His own standing behind the mission of Jesus. Again this is the way the devil often tempts religious leaders, to try to use something sensational to get them to try to force God’s hand, to accelerate the pace of history and bring about the final resolution of good and evil. Jesus, on the other hand, will await the will of the Father – “my hour is not yet come,” as he will tell his own mother later on. He will not succumb to the temptation “to hurry things up,” the temptation that is presented again later in the Gospel when John seems impatient with Jesus and sends his disciples to prod him into action to bring about the judgment and the final kingdom. Jesus has but one goal in His earthly life, to obey the Father’s word, to worship the Father as the only power that demands our absolute obedience, to await the Father’s will, to act only when the Father wills it, where the Father wills it, and how the Father wills it. Again, Pope Benedict again summarizes this temptation and the others as well so beautifully:
“What is the core of the three temptations that Jesus is subjected to? It is the proposal to exploit God, to use Him for his own interests, for his own glory and success.”
So what can we all finally learn from this encounter of Jesus with Satan in the desert? What is the lasting lesson we learn from all this? We must learn that the key to overcoming all temptations in this life is to do exactly as Jesus did in his temptations; to keep a single-minded fidelity to the will of God, to refuse short cuts in this life that run contrary to God’s will, to refuse to use political power, or other earthly power like technology (modern miracles) to accomplish our purpose in life, or what we consider to be God’s intentions. So often using these earthly means, even for good ends, will involve us in a contradiction of the will of God.
There are so many examples of such temptations today. For instance we may judge it a necessary thing to limit our families, but is the way the world encourages us to do so in accord with the divine will? Or we may want to have a child when nature does not cooperate, but does this mean we can morally use technology to produce babies, when the Church of God says this is directly contrary to the will of God? We may desire a political office, or a position in the business world, but what if the price is something evil, something contrary to God’s law? We may want to stop abortion, to force the issue to a conclusion, to short cut the peaceful path to victory, but what if the means we choose are evil in the eyes of God?
These are temptations in a modern setting, but not all that dissimilar to the type of temptations in general we saw in the life of Christ. And the key to resisting is always to imitate Jesus’ absolute devotion to the will of His father, our Father, even when it seems to frustrate a good end that we may have in mind. But that absolute devotion to God’s will and steadfast love and fidelity requires of us an ongoing deep inner conversion that is the core meaning of the Lenten discipline. Jesus showed us this by his own fast before His temptations. I conclude, then, with these profound words of our departing beloved Pope on that Ash Wednesday concerning our true need for this interior conversion:
“Overcoming the temptation to place God in submission to oneself and one’s own interests or to put Him in a corner and converting oneself to the proper order of priorities, giving God the first place, is a journey that every Christian must undergo. “Conversion”, an invitation that we will hear many times in Lent, means following Jesus so that his Gospel becomes a real life guide, it means allowing God to transform us, no longer thinking that we are the only protagonists of our existence, recognizing that we are creatures who depend on God, His love, and that only by “losing” our life in Him can we truly possess it. This means making our choices in the light of the Word of God.
Today we can no longer be Christians as a simple consequence of the fact that we live in a society that has Christian roots: even those born to a Christian family and formed in the faith must, each and every day, renew the choice to be a Christian, to give God first place, before the temptations continuously suggested by a secularized culture, before the criticism of many of our contemporaries.”