Temptation in one form or another is an unavoidable part of life. If we honestly examine our daily experience, we can find many aspects of temptation: impulses or tendencies counter to the right way of doing things. To rationalise away these temptations, so that they become socially acceptable and politically correct — is itself an insidious temptation. We want to dictate for ourselves what is right and wrong, to draw for ourselves the boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour, unencumbered by any notional commandments of God. This is rather like Adam demanding to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Our real growth to Christian maturity comes by acknowledging and accepting the vocation of struggling against temptation, to achieve the kind of behaviour and attitudes Jesus expects. We must submit our behaviour to his gospel. Only a God could be so human as to endure temptation. Mark’s gospel depicts Jesus as divine but also deeply human. He enters the wilderness for one purpose only: to find God, to seek God and to belong to him totally. Only then does he come into Galilee and proclaim good news.
Why was Jesus tempted by the devil? Wasn’t he the Son of God, of the same substance with the Father, God from God, light from light? Why did Jesus have to struggle with the wiles of the evil one? The answer is – Jesus was tempted by the devil for the same reason that he was baptized by John: because he was a human being.
When Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized in the Jordan by John, it was in order to associate himself with the religious currents of his time. He didn’t need the remission of sin as the others did who came to John for Baptism. Jesus was sinless, but he was human, and he wanted to be seen and known as sharing the human experiences of ordinary men and women. Insofar as it was possible for him, Jesus wanted to be just like everybody else. That’s why he shared in the Baptism of John.
And that’s why Jesus allowed himself to be tempted by Satan. Every human being has experienced the lure of evil. Every human being has been invited to turn his or her back to God and walk the path of self – indulgence and arrogance that Adam and Eve opened up for their descendants.
The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is always the gospel reading of the temptation of Jesus. Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus is the shortest by far. We are given no dialogue between Jesus and Satan; the temptations are not spelled out in any way. Instead we have that enigmatic statement that Jesus ‘was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him’.
Every human being has experienced the lure of evil. Every human being has been invited to turn his or her back to God and walk the path of self – indulgence and arrogance that Adam and Eve opened up for their descendants.
One would not really be human if one had any contact whatsoever with the attractiveness of sin. That’s why Jesus went off to the desert: to give the devil his chance, to experience the appeal of evil that infects every human being.
The Gospel of Matthew and that of Luke tell us about Jesus temptations in greater detail than does the Gospel of Mark. The devil tempts Jesus with comfort, inviting him to provide bread for himself from the stones. The devil tempts Jesus with easy success, urging him to throw himself down from the temple and everybody would admire him. The devil tempts Jesus with power. He offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus would give himself over to the devil. And Jesus resists them all. It was a time of danger and threat for him, in the midst of the wilderness of the beasts, Yet, as the text says, ‘the angels ministered to him.” They protected him and guided him in the desert just as the Israelites in the exodus had been protected and guided in the desert by the Lord.
The angels, in contrast, are servants of God, supporting Jesus in his time of struggle, giving him the strength to stand firm in the test, to withstand the onslaught. There is some parallel between where Jesus found himself in that wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry and our own lives. We too can find ourselves caught between wild beast and angels. We too can find our best convictions, our deepest values, being put to the test. The values of the gospel are not always at home in the world in which we live. The pressure to compromise with those values can be very strong. We can find ourselves in something of a moral and spiritual wilderness where there is very little appreciation for or understanding of the gospel message. Indeed, we can feel very alone as Jesus must have felt very alone in the wilderness.
At such times we have to remind ourselves that we are not alone, no more than Jesus was really alone in the wilderness. The angels are ministering to us. The Lord’s ministering, empowering and comforting presence is always at hand. That was the opening message of Jesus as soon as he stepped out of the wilderness, ‘the time has come; the kingdom of God is close at hand’. Jesus had come up against the kingdom of Satan during his forty days in the wilderness. However he emerged from that testing time knowing that the kingdom of God was stronger than the kingdom of Satan, proclaiming that the reign of God was present for all. In his letter to the Romans Saint Paul would put that conviction in a very succinct fashion, ‘where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’. That is why Paul could say to the members of the church in Corinth, ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it’. There may indeed be wild beast out there, forces that seek to undermine our faith in the Lord and the way of life that flows from that. However, today’s gospel reading assures us that there is an even more fundamental reality, and that is the reality of the Lord’s empowering presence. The angels will minister to us; the Lord will stand by us. He has given us and will continue to give us an abundance of resources. God is constantly at work among us and within us. Like Saint Paul we can say, ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’.
One way of understanding Lent is to see it as the time when we try to give in to the many ways that God may be trying to touch our lives. We often think of Lent as a time when we try to give up things. There can be a real value in that. However, more fundamentally and more positively we might think of Lent as a time when we give in to the Lord who is always present to us and calling out to us.
Why does the Church give us the narrative of the temptation of Jesus every year on the First Sunday of Lent?
One would think that there might be some other aspect of Jesus’ life that would be more appropriate for the beginning of the penitential season – perhaps Jesus’ baptism, or his teaching about the need for loving our neighbor? No, what the Church is teaching us here is that, during Lent, we are supposed to do the same thing Jesus did; that is, we are supposed to go apart from ordinary life and face up to the evil that threatens us. We are supposed to acknowledge that the devil is after us and that we need to respond and react to the devil’s overtures.
The temptations that threatens us don’t come in the same lurid forms in which Matthew and Luke show us the temptations of Jesus, but Jesus’ temptations and ours are basically the same. We are all tempted to comfort, not the ordinary comfort that God means us to have, but the comfort that we achieve through selfishness and indulgence. We are all tempted to success, to be somebody, no matter what the cost. We are all tempted to power: to run people, to be in charge. These are basic human desires, desires that we are inclined to answer at any cost, no matter what it takes. These are inclinations that we need to be aware of, inclinations that we need to confront.
Lent is supposed to be a kind of desert that we enter each year, a place where we face up to the evil that afflicts us from inside. Unlike Jesus, we are sinners. We have given in, in great things or small, to the self destructive attractions that the evil presented to Jesus.
We need to acknowledge that and we need to do something about it. Dealing with our sinfulness is not something we taken on gladly; it’s not something we do with enthusiasm. To admit that there is evil in our lives is already distasteful. To try to eradicate it is harder still. Yet unless we are realistic about our condition, we will remain detached from the life that the Lord intends us to live; we will remain weakened in our sharing in the life of Christ.
We are all among the wild beasts like Jesus was in the wilderness. During Lent the Church invites us to live with Jesus in his desert experience, to undergo trial with him and to come out of the desert at the end, ready to share a time of fulfillment with him in the kingdom of God.
God Bless. Have a blessed day.