The Temptation of Christ in the Desert

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus faced three temptations — turning stones into bread, leaping off the Temple roof and gaining worldly dominion through worshipping the Evil One.

“The Temptations of Christ,” St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice
“The Temptations of Christ,” St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is always the Temptations of Christ in the desert, taken consecutively each year during the three year cycle of readings (Lectionary) from each of the three Synoptic Gospels, i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This year, it’s Luke’s turn.

The three Synoptic Gospels also speak of a similar progression of events at the beginning of Jesus’ three years of public ministry: He is heralded by John the Baptist, to whom he comes to be baptized, and then “is lead by the Spirit into the desert” for 40 days of fasting and to be tempted.

Tradition holds that Jesus was tempted on Mount Quarantania, which stands about 1,200 feet high, about 3 miles away from the ancient West Bank city of Jericho, in the desert and wasteland region of the Dead Sea. It is somewhat in the vicinity of the traditional site of John’s baptism.

Mark’s account (1:12-13), read last year, is very terse: it simply says he was tempted, with no detail about the content of those temptations. Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke today fill in those details.

Both Matthew and Luke speak of three temptations: turning stones into bread, leaping off the Temple roof, and gaining worldly dominion through worshipping evil, specifically, the Evil One. In their Gospels, Luke and Matthew swap the order of the second and third temptations.

Jesus had been fasting for 40 days (reminiscent of Israel’s journey in Sinai for 40 years). Luke (4:2) modestly understates the reality: at the end of that period, “he was hungry.”

Fasting is a penitential discipline in both Judaism and Christianity. Why do we fast? We “give up” food not because it is bad but because it is good: we freely choose to forego something legitimate. (That is why “giving up” our bad habits in Lent is not a penance but something we should be doing anyway, because no one has a right to do wrong). When we fast from food or drink (or practice periodic continence sexually) we address the two most powerful sensory, biologically-rooted drives of our existence as human beings: food and sex. (We’ll deal with sex and its consequences on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, when we consider the woman caught in adultery).

Man is a hybrid: he has one foot in the material world, one in the spiritual. It was that hybrid nature that made man repugnant to Satan who, even though he was an angelic, was quite the misanthrope. Because we are material and because the material world touches us through our senses, the easiest way to tempt us is via the senses. They have the most immediate impact on us. It takes a lot more refinement in evil to want to injure another out of pride than to harm him by stealing his bread or fornicating with her. That’s what Pope Francis meant when he said that pride is a more serious sin than sins of the flesh, which does not mean the latter are not serious. As we see in the Gospel, they are the usual vectors of our downfall. People generally don’t exert themselves when they can gain the same effect through less effort. Neither do devils.

So, recognizing that the sensory has the most direct impact on us, fasting and abstinence seek to keep the senses under the rule of reason: we should rule our senses, not be ruled by them. Our feelings, our passions, should be governed by right reason, lest we become slaves of our passions. Fasting and abstinence allows us also to “clear the mind,” to get beyond the insistent image of that devil’s food chocolate cake with whipped cream and a cherry that haunts us when we begin a diet. Eventually, we discover we can live without that 1,500 calorie bomb. We even begin to feel better and lighter, to think about organizing our lives around things other than food. We begin to clear our heads and assess our priorities. 

So, in the first temptation is, in some sense, the most human. And it’s one that Jesus quickly repels: “Man does not live on bread alone.” Man eats to live. He doesn’t live to eat.

Clearly, this One is a tough nut to crack.

Okay, he didn’t succumb to the senses. How about power? Wouldn’t it be nice to be the boss, to rule thing, to have others obey, out of fear or in the name of your “rule of law” and “legitimate power?” Wouldn’t you like that? In truly Faustian tones, just sign on the dotted line and “all this power and glory” is yours.

Jesus’ reply is the first response we’ll be asked to give at the Easter Vigil when we renew our Baptismal Promises: “Do you renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises?” I like the old translation: “and all his pomps?” Today Jesus answers in the way you should some six weeks from now. Jesus answers with the Word of God from the Old Testament (the background of Luke 4:8 is Deuteronomy 6:13), but he is also already anticipating his own: what would it profit a man to gain the whole world at the price of his soul (Mark 8:36)?

Lastly, the third temptation strikes at religion itself: presumption. Tempt God. Make him save you. Jump off the top of the Temple. If you have any doubts, see Psalm 91:11. (The Devil doth quote Scripture).

We, too, presume on God, perhaps not by leaping off Temples but by presuming that, if things in our lives do not work out as we think God should have arranged them, God is at fault. How many people abandon their faith because they decide to judge God and find him wanting? 

There are two other features of Luke’s Temptation Gospel I want to point out. 

One is his use of the conditional. Father George Rutler once observed that the Devil likes to speak in the subjunctive. 

“If” is a big word for two letters, but the Devil uses it three times in today’s Gospel. “If you are the Son of God,” turn stones to bread. “If you worship me,” you can have the world. “If you re the Son of God,” prove it by doing something dumb and rash. Doubt has always been Satan’s modus operandi, even in the Garden. “Did God really say” don’t eat that fruit? (Genesis 3:1)

The other feature worth noting is a detail unique to Luke, pointed out by one commentator (I think Leopold Sabourin): the remark that closes Luke’s temptation account, the Devil “left him until an opportune time” (4:13). That “opportune time,” the next time the Devil will appear in Luke’s Gospel, is 22:3, when “Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.”

The artistic depiction of today’s Gospel comes from the vault of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy. It is a mosaic from the 1100s.

Venice lies near the crossroads of East and West, so there are strong Byzantine influences on Venetian art, as we can see in this work. The three temptations are depicted (in Matthew’s order) from left to right. On the far left, the Devil approaches Jesus on Mount Quarantania with a basket of rocks that looks a lot like bread. Next, Jesus is situated on top of a baldacchino, a canopy that typically marks a sacred place — think Bernini’s baldacchino over the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica or, here, the Temple. Lastly, Jesus is on a mountain top, presumably being tempted with the world’s power.

In each instance, the Devil’s hands indicate the temptation: the basket he bears, the Temple roof from which he suggests a “leap of faith,” the appealing mountain and everything behind it “that can be yours today for the modest price of ...” In each instance, Jesus’ right hand — the hand of his power — repels the temptation, while his left hand bears a scroll, symbolizing the Word of God on which he relies. On the far right, the Devil flees, having failed in his temptations. Since this mosaic follows the Matthean order of temptations, it also concludes on the right with “the angels who came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11).

As is typical of both medieval and Byzantine art, the depiction is not chronological but theological: all the essential elements are here, all visually present in one glance. The spatial arrangement across the mosaic reflects the chronological progression “from beginning to end,” not in a sequential, temporal order but set against eternity, as one sacred event. And, as a sacred event, it all occurs against the backdrop of heavenly gold.

(For those interested in the question of how an impeccable Jesus, i.e., a Jesus who could not sin, could be tempted, here’s a useful blog post.)