The Temptation of Jesus
When Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’”Matthew 4:1-11
This passage from Matthew and more particularly the lead in from Mark, are so easy to just read like a story. Jesus experiences the validation of his divinity and son-ship as he is baptized in the Jordan by John. I simply cannot image a more emotionally, spiritually, and physically reinforcing experience. This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Validation. Love. Kinship. Approval. Wow.
And then, from high to low. Matthew says Jesus was led into the desert. However, Mark (written earlier) says he was immediately driven into the desert by the Spirit. Mark says “at once.” Whether led or driven, Jesus often went off by himself to pray as was his custom (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). Alone.
Jesus finds himself alone in a dry, arid, inhospitable area. James Martin, S.J., in Jesus a Pilgrimage observes the stark contrast between Jesus’ desert and the deserts of the American southwest. I was raised in Arizona and love the American desert, but this picture shows the hostility of this environment.
My Jesus, you find yourself in the desert. Dry. Hot. Alone. The Holy Spirit may have drawn you here, but staying here is your decision. You felt as if there was a reason you were here. You have to work through your thoughts and feelings. You pray. You have just heard the voice of your Father and seen his glory. Such a contrast between the cooling, embracing waters of the Jordan and this dry arid land. You have been called to both.
As the sun sets on the first day, you are cold. You find a rock to huddle next to or perhaps a cave. The desert is hostile, even at night. The temperature drops sharply. The creatures who sleep during the heat of the day begin to stir. You have been here before, but this is different. You have been called to this. You pray. What do you pray for? Understanding? Strength? Wisdom? Assurance?
Now thoughts of hunger and thirst intrude. Praying is becoming more difficult. The sun comes up and the temperature starts its inexorable climb. Do you walk around? Yes. You are used to being active. You are a craftsman. You are strong. I wonder if you were restless? Probably. You pray. You ask. You seek. You try to set aside the discomfort, hunger, thirst, uncertainty.
You develop a routine, a routine of activity linked to this hostile context and the cycles of nature. I recognize this from my time as a soldier and during other times of hardship. We are routine-seeking, routine-establishing people. The routine becomes a hold on sanity and function. It is in our human nature. You settle into a routine of prayer, movement, sleep, rest, and more prayer.
You know that you are also getting weaker. Why don’t’ you leave? No, whatever you have been called to do in this place remains undone. You would not have been brought here just to be hungry and thirsty. Day after day. Weaker and weaker. Hurting.
The 40-days period strikes me as more about symbolic number than reality. The length of time doesn’t matter, the process of being led, of being alone, of praying, of seeking does. And then, Satan appears. You may have thought, oh so this is why. You are physically weak and vulnerable. Satan comes and the temptation begins.
Turn these stones into bread. Did you already know that you could have done that? Maybe not. If you are really the son of God, eat. As I write this I sense two temptations here. First is the obvious relief of hunger. The second is the temptation to see if you are capable of performing a miracle. Just what are the powers of the Son of God? I have always felt as I’ve read the Gospels that your own sense of what it means to be God’s son evolved and emerged over time as you grew in wisdom and understanding. It would have been very tempting to just see if you could really turn rocks into bread. But not now and not here. Also, not at the bidding of the Evil One.
The devil takes you to the Temple parapet and again tries to tempt you. Again, it is the challenge to prove to yourself that you are really the Son of God. The Father has already told you this when you were baptized in the Jordan. However, there is also another temptation here. Prove to yourself and others that you are the one described in the Psalms (91). You prayed the Psalms, you would have been familiar with the passage Satan quoted. You have been called to redeem God’s people and what better way to establish your credibility to be clearly linked to the fulfillment of a common prayer? However, you sense that this is not the way. As a devote Jew, you know the commands. You will not put God to the test.
Finally, the ever persistent Satan takes you to a “high mountain.” This can be all yours, just prostrate yourself and worship me. This strikes me as being the least tempting of all of the three. You have no reason to think that this “reward” is the devil’s to give. Be gone Satan. Enough! Go!
This period of physical hardship and spiritual temptation is over. It is done. The Father sends his angels to take care of his Son. The Son in whom he is well pleased. Done. Go home (for now).