It is said that the three temptations Jesus experienced during his forty days in the desert correspond to three common categories of temptation that every human being faces. So, looking at the first temptation: bread, I get that. I like bread. It can be very tempting, especially when I’m hungry. Power and glory, yes I understand that one too. Also very tempting. “Throw yourself off a parapet.” No thanks, I’m not tempted by that. So perhaps there’s more to that temptation than at first meets the eye, and we ought to take a closer look at it.
But first, let’s take a look at the scene in which we find Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist, and the Holy Spirit had descended upon him. This was the moment in Jesus’ human life when his Heavenly Father essentially invested him with his mission of preaching the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness and of redeeming humanity through his suffering, death, and resurrection. And immediately following this in Luke’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit impels Jesus to go into the desert for forty days.
Forty days – a period of time which recalls, among other things, the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert after fleeing slavery in Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. Forty is a symbolic number which represents a time of trial, testing, and purification. The Israelites were tried and tested in those forty long years wandering in the desert, being purified by the Lord to prepare them for the day when they would enter into and take possession of the Promised Land, the land that the Lord was giving them.
And the forty days of Lent recalls Jesus’ forty days in the desert – that period of time when Jesus was tried and tested in the desert, not to be purified, for Jesus was not in need of any kind of purification, but in preparation for his public ministry. So Lent is intended to be a period of time during which we commit ourselves to extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in order that the Lord might purify us. What are we being prepared for? For one, we are in constant need of purification in order to live out the mission the Lord has given us in this life of being Christian witnesses to the world. And secondly, the Lord wants to purify us to prepare us for eternal life.
So Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray for forty days, and there he was tempted by the devil. And in Luke’s account, the devil first tempted Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Satan wanted to get Jesus off track, to make him abandon his prayer and fasting, and ultimately, to get him to abandon his mission. By becoming man, Jesus fully entered into the human condition to experience everything we experience, including temptation. So, like us, he was tempted to turn away from his Heavenly Father, especially at the very beginning of his public ministry. Jesus chose to experience temptation and to suffer as we suffer purely out of love for us. When we commit to follow the Lord, not just with words but with our hearts so that the very way we live our life changes, the devil is not pleased and wants to get us off track. He wants to distract us and make us abandon this new way of life we have chosen. So he tempts us with created or material things and all the pleasures they bring. As such, the bread with which Jesus was tempted represents all material things, which can be a huge distraction and even obstacle to following the Lord.
Let’s say you give up something, or try to make a significant change in your life, like developing a new, good habit: you want to stop eating processed food and sugar, you want to start exercising, you want to stop looking at your phone hundreds of times a day. Especially at the beginning, you will often feel strong temptations to return to those things: you crave the junk food; you groan at the start of your exercise and look longingly at the couch; you compulsively reach for your phone perhaps without even realizing what you’re doing. Making positive changes in our lives is rarely easy. But if we persevere, we will be the better for it. It’s the same with following Christ – it’s not easy, especially but not only at the beginning, but we will be the better for it. Following Christ doesn’t make for an easy life, but it does make for a better life.
Then Satan tempts Jesus by somehow showing him all the kingdoms of the world, and promising to give them all to him. He is tempting him with power and glory. But there’s a catch – with the devil, there’s always a catch: “All this will be yours, if you worship me,” the devil says. Jesus doesn’t need the power and the glory that Satan offers him, for they already belong to him. And the power and glory of this world are nothing compared to the eternal and infinite power and glory that Jesus possesses. But as a human being, Jesus has been stripped of his heavenly glory, and so Satan tries to tempt Jesus with those things.
The devil likes to tempt us too with thoughts of power and glory. This is the temptation to pride: to think ourselves better than others, of more value than others, to be the center of the universe around whom everyone and everything else revolves. Of course, this is an illusion. The devil is a liar; he will take, but he will not give what he promises. He is not giving up his dominion of this world. And the power and the glory of this world are worthless in comparison to the eternal glory that God so desires to share with us. And yet we are still tempted by them.
Finally there is the third temptation, that very untempting idea of throwing oneself off the parapet. But there is more to it than that. What is the real temptation here? Pope Benedict XVI explains in his book Jesus of Nazareth that the answer to that question can be found in Jesus’ response to Satan: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the Israelites were wandering all those years in the desert, they frequently doubted that God would take care of them. They would loudly complain to Moses and say things like, “It would be better if we had never left Egypt. Who cares if we were slaves, at least we weren’t hungry and thirsty!” Even after the Lord had provided for them again and again, giving them manna, giving them quail, they still doubted the Lord. They constantly tested the Lord. They constantly demanded signs they believed would prove that God would take care of them, that God was still with them. They wanted to set the criteria by which God would prove himself to them. How often do we do the same? I am sure that God has provided for each one of us again and again in our lives, and yet we often still doubt him. We still doubt that he loves us; we still doubt his presence. We impose our expectations upon Him; we expect Him to prove himself to us according to our demands, and if he doesn’t, then we feel justified in our doubts.
But that is not how it works. God cannot be controlled by our demands, our criteria. He knows better than us what we truly need. What he desires for us is infinitely greater than what we can even desire for ourselves. So the proper response to this temptation to doubt God, to put him to the test, is to renew our faith in Him, to renew our trust in Him. If your faith is weak, or you have a hard time trusting God, then pray for an increase in faith and in trust. And pray with confidence that the Lord hears us, that He always hears us, that He is always with us.
When we have begun to follow the Lord, it is easy to look back. It is easy to long for the very things we have given up. We long for an easy, comfortable life. We look at the lives of people who aren’t following God, and sometimes their lives look so happy and pleasant. Don’t be distracted by these temptations, these false promises. Persevere in following the Lord through the desert of this life on the way to the Promised Land of heaven. Jesus knows what we are going through, for he himself experienced all of it out of love for us. He is always with us. He will not abandon us; if we call upon him, He will come to us and give us the strength to resist temptation and continue our journey with Him.