By ecclesiastical tradition, the Gospel theme of the first two Sundays of Lent is fixed: the First Sunday focuses on Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the Second on his Transfiguration.
We hear the Gospel on Sundays, but it is worth reflecting on it throughout our week. Here are a few random thoughts on last week’s Gospel.
The First Sunday of Lent always focuses on Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the specific text drawn annually from each of the three Synoptics. Putting the texts alongside each other, we notice certain similarities: all follow Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John, and all precede the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry and the call of the apostles. We also note differences. Mark (1:12-13) is very curt and succinct, saying Jesus was tempted without providing any details of the specific temptations. Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13, this year’s Gospel) each detail three temptations, although the order of the second and third is inverted.
Luke chooses to end with Jesus on the parapet of the Temple in Jerusalem, tempted by the Devil to jump off. At first glance, Jesus and the Devil seem to act like dueling fundamentalist preachers, each plucking a biblical proof text to make his point.
But digging deeper into this phenomenon should teach us something. As Fr. Steven Oetjen commented, the Devil rips texts out-of-context, stopping where the quotation no longer serves his advantage. Thus, in tempting Jesus to leap off the Temple, he plucks Psalm 91:11-12, where the Psalmist assures that God’s angels will “bear up” the just man “lest he cast his foot against a stone,” while conveniently stopping at verse 13, where God also assures him he “will tread upon the lion and the viper; the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”
The beasts being tread upon are all symbols of evil. First Peter 5:8 warns against the Devil who, like a “roaring lion” prowls in search of “someone to devour.” The serpent is the tempter who brings Adam and Eve to sin and thus condemned to crawl on the earth until the “fruit of the woman” will trample his head (Genesis 3:1-15) and who is out to hurt man (Acts 28:3). Jesus calls the unrepentant Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33), echoing John the Baptist’s same appellation for them when they hung around the River Jordan (Matthew 3:7).
So what is this third Lucan temptation? It is not reliance upon God, which we should do. It is wanting to force God’s hand, not according to the Father’s plan, but our own.
Jesus knows He is assured of His Father’s protection: against Peter’s display of swordsmanship, Jesus refers (Matthew 26:53) to twelve legions of angels who could protect Him. They could; but that is not the Father’s Plan, He whose Will Jesus had just prayed “be done.” Jesus does not force His Father’s hand, either in Gethsemane or in the desert. Filled with faith in what God assures Him, He relies on God’s Providence, rather than trying to redesign God’s plans on His terms.
The third Lucan temptation finds its echo in the cross, when Jesus feels abandoned. It finds its echo, as Fr. Oetjen notes, in the jeering remarks of the Pharisees that “if you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!” (Matthew 27:40), i.e., be a Messiah on the terms we expect. Again, the temptation is one of faith in God’s assurance, even if the plan seems incomprehensible and accomplishable in an “easier” way, versus demanding that God conform His designs to my preferred way of how they should play out.
How often is this same temptation played out in our own lives? We pray “Thy will be done.” We often mean “my will be done.”
Jesus experiences everything human. “… [W]e have a high priest … who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He does not experience sin, which should tell us that sin is not part of the human condition as intended by God but an injury wrought by man himself. It should also reassure the sensitive conscience, the scrupulous, that temptation is not sin (unless we yield to it) and so, no matter how much temptation we experience, it is not sin unless we say ‘yes.’
Luke (vv. 1-2, like Matthew, v. 1) also makes clear that it is the Holy Spirit who “led” Jesus into the desert to be tempted. As Fr. Oetjen remarked, since temptation is not sin, Jesus experiences the same effects of sin (even though He is sinless) like we all do, so that He truly is our High Priest. God does not tempt us, but God allows us to be tempted, both as a consequence of sin as well as to harden our spiritual mettle, to make us understanding of the challenges we all face. I underscore this fact in light of the efforts afoot in some national bishops’ conferences – misdirected, in my view – to tamper with the petition of the “Our Father” ne nos inducas in tentationem – “and lead us not into temptation.” God lets us be tempted, as He allowed His own Son, not so that we fall, but that we don’t.
A parent can ensure that a child will never fall by tying him to a bed but, instead of protecting the child, he will only handicap him. That does not mean the parent wants the child to fall. I recall a passage from Charles Péguy’s poem, “Liberty,” in which the author, speaking in the voice of God the Father, compares Himself to a father teaching a child to swim:
Just like a father teaching his son how to swim// In the current of the river// And who is divided between two ways of thinking//. For on the one hand, if he holds him up all the time and if he holds him too much, // The child will depend on this and will never learn how to swim.// But if he doesn't hold him up just at the right moment That child is bound to swallow more water than is healthy for him.// .. if I hold them up too often, They will never learn how to swim by themselves// But if I don't hold them up just at the right moment, Perhaps those poor children will swallow more water than is healthy for them. // … they must work out their salvation for themselves. That is the rule. It allows of no exception. //Otherwise it would not be interesting. They would not be men//. Now I want them to be manly, to be men, and to win by themselves Their spurs of knighthood. // On the other hand, they must not swallow more water than is healthy for them// Having made a dive into the ingratitude of sin.
Like Jesus, let us leave it to the Father’s Providence to perform that balancing act, rather than presuming we, not Father, know best.
The Polish-Jewish poet, Roman Brandstaetter, opens his poem “The Temptation in the Desert,” with the observation that
Man goes out every day into the desert
And does not know the boundaries of that desert.
And he is tempted every day,
Not knowing the boundaries of those temptations.
And every day he struggles with evil
And does not know the boundaries of that evil.
Man may not know the temptations he will face, and perhaps they are not the temptations he would prefer to face. But he does know one boundary—a vital boundary—of temptation: God will never let him be tempted beyond his ability to say “no.”
The Devil is real. He is not a “symbol” of evil, some “personification” of some force. He is presented here with the attributes of a person: reason and will. He tempts. He seeks to ape God, even willing to trade in selective Scriptural quotes to get his way, i.e., acknowledgement of his dominion. As St. Paul VI noted (to the derision of his contemporaries), the Devil is real and wins half his battle in convincing people he is not.
There is one remark in Sunday’s Gospel that is often overlooked. I owe this insight to Fr. Leopold Sabourin’s Christology: Basic Texts in Focus. After the third temptation, Luke (4:13) that, having completed his temptations of Jesus, the Devil left Him to return “another time.” The Revised Standard Version puts it this way: at “an opportune time.” When does the Devil reappear in Luke? What is that “opportune moment?” Your Scripture assignment: read Luke 22:3.