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The Temptation

1st Sunday Lent 2019 (readings)

Today’s gospel speaks of a mysterious event, just after Jesus’ baptism, in which he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. From my own experience, I know I’ve always had questions about this passage of scripture. Like, how could Jesus–the All-Holy Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity–be tempted? It seemingly makes no sense.

However, the Greek word used in the Gospel for temptation does not indicate that Jesus had the disordered desire that we refer to in English as temptation. Instead, a better translation might be “to try,” or “to attempt.” So in the Gospel the devil is trying to get Jesus to sin–and failing. So then, it’s not a temptation in the same way that you and I are tempted.

We also might ask why the Devil was trying to get Jesus to sin. Well, for starters, the Devil wasn’t entirely aware of the fact that Jesus was himself God, the second person of the trinity. He may have suspected, and so this was his attempt at both ascertaining Jesus’ divinity, and if nothing else, an opportunity to turn away one of the prophets of God.

The next question we might ask is, why tempt Jesus with these specific trials?

Well, the first trial is about forbidden food, and is occasioned by the fact that Jesus has been fasting for forty days, and so he is hungry. The devil invites him to violate the fast by using his powers as the Son of God to turn a stone into bread. This echoes Adam eating the forbidden fruit in the garden.

Jesus’ second trial is about false worship. Here the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he will worship him. This reflects the influence that the devil had in the world order of the time, but which he would lose through Jesus’ actions (Rev. 11:15). It asks Jesus to play into the false, political understanding of the Messiah’s role that was popular at the time, that of a renowned king, or military general, but which Jesus himself rejected (John 18:36). It also echoes the temptation to false worship that the Israelites had in the desert, at the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:4).

Now, Jesus’ third trial concerns testing God. Here the devil tries to get Jesus to put God to the test. Since Jesus has been rebuffing him by quoting Scripture, the devil now quotes a statement from the Psalms (Ps. 91:11-12) as the basis for the trial. In doing so, he inverts the meaning of the Psalm, which says that those who trust in God will receive his protection. It does not say that people should take reckless risks or insist on miracles on demand to test whether God will keep his word. That is an attitude of dis-trust, a complete reversal of what the Psalm means.

Now, Many people wanted a Messiah who would seize political power and usher in an age of prosperity. But Jesus voluntarily undergoes hunger and refuses political power, because he’s a very different kind of Messiah!

Pope Benedict explains that, at the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.

Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion—that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms [Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 28].

My brother and sisters, Pope Benedict tells us that, Lent is like a long “retreat” in which to re-enter oneself and listen to God’s voice in order to overcome the temptations of the Evil One and to find the truth of our existence.

It is a time, we may say, of spiritual “training” in order to live alongside Jesus not with pride and presumption but rather by using the weapons of faith: namely prayer, listening to the Word of God, and penance.

In this way we shall succeed in celebrating Easter in truth, ready to renew our baptismal promises.

Adapted from an article by Jimmy Akin:

Published inScriptural Reflections