First Sunday of Lent: The Temptation in the Desert

SCRIPTURES & ART: We start Lent with the Temptation in the Desert because we start from our broken condition as sinners.

John Ritto Penniman, Christ Tempted by the Devil, 1818
John Ritto Penniman, Christ Tempted by the Devil, 1818 (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent every year is always the Temptation of Jesus, taken in turn from Matthew (this year), Mark and Luke. All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) showcase the beginnings of Jesus’ public ministry the same way. Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan, then is “lead by the Holy Spirit” into the desert to be tempted for 40 days.

Forty days, of course, reminds us of the 40 days of Lent. They should also remind us of the 40 years Israel spent in the Sinai desert during its wanderings on the way to the Promised Land. “Wanderings” is my deliberate choice. God had freed Israel from Egyptian slavery and led them to Mount Sinai to make a covenant with them: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” But Israel wandered away from God, even at the foot of Sinai: while Moses went to receive the Ten Commandments, Israel started worshipping a golden calf. The generation that still longed for the comforts of Egypt was not material to forge a people dedicated to God. They had to die out. So Israel’s wanderings in the desert were a punishment. But they were also a preparation, a period of training to ready them to be God’s Holy People.

That is what our Lent is for, too.

Mark is sparing in discussing the temptations in the Desert. Matthew and Luke are more detailed, though they invert the order of the second and third temptations.

We start Lent with the Temptation in the Desert because we start from our broken condition as sinners. Our “normal” condition is not normal. We are not how God intended human beings to be.

Jesus, who is “true God and true man,” is also how human beings should be. And Jesus is like us “in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). That is why Pope St. John Paul II never tired of repeating the teaching of Vatican II that Jesus Christ fully reveals man to himself. You want to know what being truly human should look like? See Jesus.

Indeed, Jesus as Son of God and Son of Man, could not sin. He was impeccable. But temptation — although it leads us to sin — is not in itself sin. That is why “he was tempted in every way, but without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

Matthew, like Luke, gives specifics of three temptations Jesus faced. They both agree that the first temptation was to change stones into bread.

And Jesus had fasted. He was hungry. He was in the middle of the Judean desert on Mount Quruntul, a barren area bereft of vegetation.

Two comments:

First, notice that the Devil says “if.” It’s both a lack of knowledge and a dare. Is this sniveling guy from some one-mule town in Galilee really the Son of God? And, if he is, let him prove it by some demonstration of power.

After all, the Devil is all about power: the power of pride that led to his downfall. And, as has been pointed out, the subjunctive is the language of hell: “If you are the Son of God” (“if” appears in today’s Gospel three times); “If the King of the Universe were a friend ...” (Dante, Inferno, Canto V). “If” is the language of hell because it is the language of failure, of chances lost forever, of uncertainty about the order of the universe because the Truth is not “my truth,” i.e., hell’s truth. If only evil were really good and good really evil — and not just what demons want to label it.

Second, the first temptation is physical. Like us, the Devil doesn’t want to work harder than he has to. He pursues the most direct route to most human beings — the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Man is a physical and spiritual creature: today’s First Reading from Genesis makes that clear. The physical has a direct and immediate impact on us, and that’s normal: knowledge comes to us through our senses. Most people are more quickly moved by the smell of hot pizza than hot incense.

That’s not to say the physical is in any way inferior. That is a gnostic and a Cartesian viewpoint (which is why moderns have such contempt for their embodiment they think they can change their sex by thinking differently), not a Christian perspective.

So, having shot his first arrow and missed, the Devil recognizes “too weak is the temptation//For one whose soul aspires to nobler things aspires//than sensual desires” (Longfellow, Christus: A Mystery,” II, 2).

His second temptation is to take Jesus to the top of the Temple and suggest he jump off. Normal people would, of course, recognize such behavior as reckless, injurious, even suicidal. But the Devil recasts it as another dare: prove that God will protect you!

Both the first and second temptations rely upon presuming upon God. They seek for Jesus to get a certain outcome by forcing God’s hand. They seek to compel God to do things out of the ordinary in order for him to prove his loving care for his Son. This is not faith; this is presumption.

Failing a second time, the Devil’s third temptation mirrors the temptation to which the Devil himself succumbed: worship me! The Devil fell because he worshipped himself instead of God. In his pride, the universe was not big enough for the two of us! And, because the Devil never learns, he deploys that temptation against Jesus: I will give you all sorts of power and dominion if you worship me! If you change your allegiance from the one I wanted you to force to make bread out of stones or deploy angelic rescue nets to me!

And, of course, it is that ultimate idolatry that results in Jesus commanding him, “Begone, Satan!”

That should also be our Lenten rallying cry!

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the early American artist John Ritto Penniman (1782-1841). “Christ Tempted by the Devil” dates from 1818 and is held by the Smithsonian.

Jesus is the central figure in the painting, which capture the moment just after Matthew’s third temptation, a promise of all the world’s kingdoms if Jesus would just worship Satan. Jesus on barren Mount Quruntul is in the foreground; the kingdoms of the world are in a paling light behind Jesus. Jesus drives off the Devil — “Begone, Satan!” — who is already crushed to the ground (a forefiguring of Genesis 3:15?). On the upper left of the painting (Jesus’ right) a band of angels is on its way; they “came and ministered to him.” Yes, God sends his angels to bear you up and yes, God cares for our needs — in his way and his time, not our way or our time. The essence of that temptation is worth remembering when we despair, “where is God?” The only light in this otherwise dark painting is radiated by Jesus, whose clothing — a pure white robe and a red cloak (symbolic of his blood) introduces light color, and by the four angels who push away the clouds on their way to Jesus.

I chose this painting for two reasons. One is to illustrate that religious themes sometimes played a role in early American art, which more often focused on portraiture and landscapes of a vast country whose Western exploration was just underway.

Another is to introduce Pettiman, an American artist with his own temptation problems. Born in Massachusetts, he was a successful painter and ornamental artist, who had the talent, the network (he was a friend of Gilbert Stuart, the great American artist of his day) and the clientele base to make a go of things. But Pettiman also had his temptations — temptations to which he gave in. They weren’t about food but drink — his penchant for alcohol destroyed his career, left him indebted and often in trouble with the law. He ended his days in Baltimore, where his son lived.

Temptations are not sins. What matters is what we do with them. Overcome, they make us stronger in our following of Christ. Succumbed to, they make us slaves worshipping the Devil, whose “works and empty promises” we are called to renounce — at baptism and during this Lenten season. Christ shows us we are not alone.