Genesis 2:7-9,16-18,25;3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
THE GOSPEL of today’s Mass always features the temptations of Jesus in the desert. It clearly links with the Lenten themes of fasting, penance and reconciliation with God and with our brothers and sisters.
There is a striking contrast between Jesus in the Gospel and our First Parents in the Garden of Eden (First Reading), while the Second Reading connects the two events: it was the sin of our First Parents which brought about the coming of Jesus to restore our relationship with God. “Oh happy fault!” (O felix culpa!) as the liturgy of the Easter Vigil says of that first sin. The weakness of our First Parents brought about the coming of Jesus and all that he means to us for our lives. It is an example of how even behind unpleasant and, in fact, evil happenings God’s love can be found at work.
It is not necessary for us to understand either the Garden of Eden story or Jesus’s experience with Satan as being strictly historical. These stories are primarily vehicles to communicate important truths to us.
Led by the Spirit
Today’s Gospel story follows immediately on Jesus’ baptism and endorsement by his Father as his “Beloved Son” to whom we are to listen.
Note that Jesus is led into the desert by the Spirit of God. The purpose clearly is not to lead him to do evil but as a testing of his fitness for his coming mission. Will he fail like our First Parents or like the Israelites of old? Or will be prove himself worthy of the mission he has been given?
The testing will be done not by God directly but by the Evil One, the Tempter. It is pictured as taking place in a barren region between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
Jesus, like Moses before him, had fasted for 40 days. He is alone in the wilderness without food.
He is hungry, weak and vulnerable. Now is the time for the Tempter to move in.
Who is Jesus?
Each of the three temptations touches on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, which had been revealed during his baptism. “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
The Tempter then begins, “If you are the Son of God, why not use your divine powers to turn these large, flat stones at your feet into bread?” God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert. Surely he will feed his own Son? Why have powers and not use them? Why not take this opportunity to prove that you really are the Son of God?
It is important to realise that all temptations – and these tests are no exception – come to us under the guise of some kind of goodness. No sane person chooses the purely evil unless some positive benefit is seen to come from it. In each of the three tests today, Jesus is being led on to do something which would seem to enhance his mission as Lord and Saviour.
In responding to the Tempter, Jesus will not just use his own words but each time quote a saying from the Hebrew Testament. In this first test Jesus rejects the offer by saying, that “it is not on bread alone that we live”. True happiness does not consist in satisfying material wants, in having many things, but in identifying ourselves fully with the vision of life which God gives us through Jesus.
Further, for Jesus to have changed the stones into bread would have been to show a lack of trust in the providential care of his Father who will see that he has all he needs for his life and mission.
Satan’s next approach is to bring Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is God’s very dwelling place. Surely here he will take care of his Son. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Jesus has just shown his trust in God by not changing the stones into bread. Now here is a chance really to prove that trust.
Two things will happen:
a. God will not allow Jesus to be hurt. Now it is the Tempter himself who cleverly quotes Scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” God promises his providential care in the normal course of our lives but he never promises supernatural intervention, when we do something unreasonable. “God takes care of those who take care of themselves.” St Ignatius of Loyola is said to have advised: “Do things as if everything depended on God and nothing on oneself and, at the same time, as if everything depended on oneself and nothing on God.”
b. If Jesus jumps and is miraculously saved, everyone will know his divine origin and will believe in him! Jesus quotes the Scripture back again, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” As Scripture scholar William Barclay says, real faith is total trust; it is not “doubt looking for proof”.
After the failure of the first two attempts, Satan now drops all pretence. He brings Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. All this can be Jesus’, if he falls down and worships the Tempter. Is not this what Jesus wants: to bring all the kingdoms of the world into his own Kingdom? Is that not the purpose of his whole life?
It is, of course, an impossible bargain. It would make no sense for the whole world to submit itself to Jesus as Lord and then for Jesus himself to submit to the Evil One. Yet, it is a bargain we constantly try to make: to belong to God and to go to any lengths to get the things we want: material wealth, success, a recognised standing in the eyes of others…
Jesus will put it differently later on: What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their real life? What can one give in exchange for the deep relationship with God for which we were born?
Jesus absolutely rejects the offer: “Away from me, Satan!” It reminds one of the words said to Peter who tried to deflect Jesus from the way he had to go and was told: “Get behind me, Satan!”
Symbols of real tests
In fact, these three tests are really symbols of real tests that we find in the life of Jesus.
Jesus did produce large quantities of bread on two occasions but not for himself but rather to feed the hungry.
He rejected calls from his opponents to prove who he was by performing some striking signs. He said the only sign would be his own death and resurrection.
After one of the feedings (as told in John’s gospel), he had the crowd at his feet and they wanted to make him king. Instead, he fled to the mountains to pray to his Father and packed his ambitious disciples off in a boat and into a storm which gave them something else to think about – survival.
Jesus passes all three tests and will continue to do so all during his life right up to the moment of his death. In the garden of Gethsemane, he will beg to be spared the horrors of his Passion but will then put aside his own fears of suffering and death and accept his Father’s way. On the cross he will make the despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and soon after, in total submission, say: “Into your hands I surrender my life.”
The way of the Father is the only way that will lead him – and us – to the life that never ends and when all tears will be wiped away.