Temptation in the Desert

You are my beloved child: in you I am well pleased

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  March 5, 2017

Lent begins – as it does each year – with the familiar story of the temptations of Jesus.  It’s a story we’ve heard many times before.  We know how it ends.  How can we allow these words of Jesus to challenge us, to speak to us in the circumstances and challenges of our daily lives?  As we embark on our Lenten journey – a particularly painful one for this parish community this year – how can Jesus’ message comfort us and challenge us, give us peace and shake us up, help us to embrace the call to grow through the fear, the rage, the confusion, whatever else we may be experiencing at this time?

In year A, it is Matthew’s Gospel of the temptations of Jesus that we hear.  Temptation is something we’re all familiar with, I assume.   Unfortunately, we often confuse temptation with sin: as if giving into it, sooner or later, is the necessary and eventual outcome.  The Irish wit Oscar Wilde famously remarked: “I can resist everything … except temptation.”   In any event, we all struggle with temptation.  Jesus, fully human like us in all things but sin, was no exception to this rule.  And he thought it sufficiently significant that the one prayer we know he taught to his disciples includes the phrase, “lead us not into temptation.”  Yet time and time again, that’s exactly where we find ourselves. Temptation, it would seem, is a universal experience. 

Now, you may well be asking: Why? Why does God allow us to be tempted?  I’m not exactly sure, and someday, I intend to ask God that very question. Maybe it’s because temptations test our boundaries, reveal our strengths and weaknesses.  They help us to recognize our moral capacities, and force us to acknowledge our moral limits.  God allows these moments of temptation not out of some warped desire to push us to the extreme, but because they are part of our slow, arduous path to self-knowledge.  Moreover, how we deal with the “small” temptations forms the patterns which will shape the larger, more momentous decisions of our lives.   

This reality is illustrated in today’s first reading, the Genesis account of the so-called “Fall” of humanity. Again, the story is familiar: Adam and Eve encounter a crafty serpent in a garden.  All hell breaks loose! (As a friend of mine rightly pointed out: the trouble in the Garden of Eden wasn’t the apple in the tree: it was the pair on the ground!)

This story is sometimes used as an opening to a presentation on original sin and the fundamentally corrupt nature of humanity. Yet that approach is incomplete, for it forgets that God’s original plan is for blessing: “behold, God saw all that he had created, and indeed it was good” … a qualification raised to “very good” in respect to God’s creation of humanity, male and female, God’s own image and likeness. So, what exactly went wrong?  How did original blessing turn into original sin?

Perhaps it has something to do with our universal tendency to be reluctant to accept any kind of limits on our freedom.  All was permitted to Adam and Eve, except one thing.  Yet it was the first thing they went for once given the chance.  Why?  Why are we so attracted to what is forbidden?  Is it sheer perversity, a rebellious spirit?  Perhaps, as some suggest, it is a form of moral courage: overthrowing the social taboos, the authorities that seek to control us and rule our consciences, tell us what is right and wrong? 

Perhaps it is a subtle form of pride: not the kind that leads to boast about my achievements, but that drives me to instant gratification, to want to have it my way, to be right, to have it all, all the time.  Ultimately, it is the voice inside me that tells me: “You don’t really need God … or faith … or anyone else, for that matter.  You are entirely self-sufficient.  Independent.  Autonomous.  You deserve the best.  You need more.” 

In that respect, we are not so different from Adam and Eve.  We also would like to be “like God,” sole arbiters of what is right or wrong.  This is a special temptation for those in positions of authority – be they politicians, CEOs, and yes, priests.  Yet when we try to assert that control, sooner or later, things begin to fall apart.  No matter how much we accumulate, it’s never quite enough.  The bounty of creation is not shared fairly with all, but leads to polarizations between rich and poor, the overfull and the undernourished, the work-stressed and the under-employed.  Our independence sours into isolation, a crushing loneliness.  Always needing to have the upper hand in relationship, to be in control, leads our marriages, families, friendships, communities to break down.  Living life in the fast lane, taking crazy risks – leads to tragedies that can affect us and those around us for generations. 

The irony is that deep down, we know that we don’t want to live in that way.  We know that there is a better way – another path to happiness, to genuine satisfaction, to a balanced and healthy life, to real freedom.  As St. Paul assures us in today’s second reading, there is an antidote to this vicious circle, this unhealthy pattern that we so easily slip into.  It undoes the disorder unleashed by human rebellion and pride, but it promises infinitely more: an abundance of grace, an outpouring of love, the promise of a salvation that begins right here and right now, leading us into the promise of eternal happiness.  It is the way of Christ, in whom perfect freedom and perfect obedience co-existed. 

We see this so clearly in today’s Gospel.  In the desert, Jesus confronts the same temptations we do when we feel lonely, deprived, or vulnerable.  How tempting it is to fill our inner void, our spiritual hunger, our deepest desires, with that which does not satisfy: material possessions, food and drink, TV and Internet, Facebook and Twitter, mindless distractions! To live mostly as if God does not exist, putting Him regularly to the test – and then expecting a “command performance” the moment we find ourselves in need.  To worship the idols of worldly power and prestige, seeking our identity in these, rather than trust in the living God who says to me what he said to Jesus: “You are my beloved child: in you I am well pleased.” 

Through it all, Jesus remembers who He is.  When hungry, or in danger, or tempted by worldly power, he remains secure in his identity.  Rooted in the word of God, Jesus the Incarnate Word knows the difference between the junk food offered by the Tempter – the desire to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful – and the simpler but far more substantial nourishment coming from God’s word, from his identity as Beloved Son.  Unfortunately, in our human weakness, our struggle with temptation does not always conclude so heroically or successfully.  But Jesus opens up for us – as individuals, as families, as parish community, our broken and sinful church, our world hungering for justice and freedom – the hope of hearing a voice even stronger than those of the many temptations that surround us.  With his help, we will pass this test, we will complete this race, we will move beyond our restless pursuit of pleasure and security, to receive the gift of Easter joy which is his promise and his pledge.

Where is the Spirit leading us as a community, in the time of Lent?  What personal wilderness do I need to face?  Which of the temptations Jesus faced speaks most directly to my experience at this point in my life?  Is it fame?  Power?  Fortune – or the lack thereof?  Vulnerability?  Doubts?  Revenge?  Sexual struggles?  Addiction?  Self-esteem?  Difficult family relationships?  A broken, betrayed relationship with my church community?  Whatever it is – and we all have our demons to face, every single one of us – none of us likes to feel hungry, vulnerable, or alone. 

But we are not alone.  We walk this Lenten journey together.  We have one another.  We have our God.  We count on the friendship and prayers of our fellow travelers to sustain us. 

We all have people who inspire us on the journey of faith.  This week, we as a diocese have had the joy of welcoming Fr. Philip Chircop, who preached a Lenten retreat at my parish of St. Monica on Saturday morning. He challenged us to expand our vision of God beyond the toxic, life-denying vision we may have grown up with, and to replace them with the positive, healing, life-affirming God whom Jesus came to reveal to us.  He is also preaching an evening mission at St. Luke’s where we are being challenged to embrace the task of being God’s church, of building it, of healing our wounds and living as Easter people. 

Let me conclude by sharing with you a Lenten prayer from Fr. Henri Nouwen, who knew from deep personal experience what it means to face our own brokenness so we can grow into the identity Christ desires for us:

A Lenten Prayer: The Lenten season begins. It is a time to be with you, Lord, in a special way, a time to pray, to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to the Cross, to the final victory over death.  I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires, heed the voices that draw me to pursue prestige, success, pleasure, power, and influence. Help me to tune out these voices and become more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the road that leads to life.

I know that Lent is going to be hard for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life. I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions.  All times and places have choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.  Please, Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life that you have prepared for me. Amen.

On Temptation

VATICAN CITY, March 09, 2014 (Zenit.org) - Here is the Holy Father's address before and after the recitation of the Angelus to the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square today.

Dear brothers and sisters, hello!

The Gospel of the first Sunday of Lent presents us every year with an episode about the temptations of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him and, after the baptism in the Jordan, drove him to confront Satan openly in the desert for 40 days before beginning his public mission.

The tempter tries to lead Jesus away from the Father’s plan, that is, from the path of sacrifice, of the love that offers itself in expiation. He wants to lead Jesus down an easy road, a road of success and power. In their duel Jesus and Satan fire rounds of Scripture at each other. In fact, Satan, to steer Jesus away from the cross, presents him with false messianic hopes: economic well-being, indicated by the possibility of transforming bread into stones; the spectacular and miraclistic (“miracolistico”) style, with the idea of throwing himself down from the highest point of the temple of Jerusalem and being saved by the angels; and finally the shortcut of power and dominion in exchange for worshipping Satan. These are the 3 groups of temptations. We too know them well!

Jesus decisively rejects all of these temptations and reaffirms his unwavering will to follow the path set by the Father, without any compromise with sin or the world’s logic. Note well how Jesus replies. He does not dialogue with Satan, as Eve did in the earthly paradise. Jesus knows well that you cannot dialogue with Satan. Satan is quite astute. For this reason Jesus, instead of dialoguing with Satan like Eve did, chooses to take refuge in the Word of God and answers with the force of this Word. Let us remember this: in the moment of temptation, in our temptations, we should not argue with Satan, but always defend ourselves with the Word of God! And this will save us.

In his replies to Satan, the Lord, using the Word of God, reminds us above all that “not by bread alone does man live but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3); and this gives us strength, it sustains us in the struggle against the worldly mentality that lowers man to the level of basic needs, causing him to lose the hunger for what is true, good and beautiful, the hunger for God and his love. Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that “it is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7), because the road of faith also passes through darkness and is helped by patience and persevering expectation. Jesus finally points out that “it is written: ‘The Lord your God you will adore: him alone will you pay worship’” (4:10). In other words, we must detach ourselves from idols, from vain things, and build our life on what is essential.

These words of Jesus will then be concretely validated by his actions. His absolute fidelity to the Father’s plan of love will lead him after 3 years to the final settling of accounts with the “prince of this world” (John 16:11), in the hour of the passion of the cross, and there Jesus will win his definitive victory, the victory of love!

Dear brothers, the time of Lent is the propitious occasion for all of us to take the journey of conversion, taking this page of the Gospel seriously. Let us renew our baptismal promises: let us renounce Satan and all of his works and seductions – because he himself is a seducer – to walk the paths of the Lord and “arrive at Easter in the joy of the Spirit” (Collect of the first Sunday of Lent, Year A).

Fr. James Martin, SJ

Evening meditation: Jesus's Temptations and Ours.

A reflection on today's Gospel, and an excerpt from "Jesus: A Pilgrimage." Jesus's "testing" or "temptation" in the desert is not too different from our own. Perhaps tonight you can ask yourself: How can Jesus's decisions in the desert help me in my own life?

After the incident at the Jordan [the baptism], Jesus is described by the Synoptic Gospels as being “led” into the desert. The Gospels differ slightly on the precise wording but the overall sense is that Jesus is irresistibly moved by the Holy Spirit to do this. Mark’s Gospel uses the strong word "ekballei," the same word that will later be used for Jesus’s “driving out” of demons. He is “driven,” “thrust forth” or in one translation “hurled” into the desert.

The Gospels also depict Jesus fasting for forty days and forty nights, which is probably not to be taken literally but is instead an ancient way of expressing “a long time.” Ellis Winward and Michael Soule write in "The Limits of Mortality" that a human being could survive at most thirty days without food and water and be conscious for no more than twenty-five.

Clearly Jesus was tested during his time in the desert, though interpretations of what happened vary. Traditional representations—in the fine arts, literature and film—often depict Satan appearing physically. Others surmise that Jesus experienced these tests, or temptations, within himself.

Essentially, in the desert Jesus is tempted to assume a life of power, security, and status, in contrast to the humble and austere life of service he will choose. Mark’s Gospel simply states he was tested: “He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan…” In Matthew and Luke we read the familiar incidents of Satan tempting him in three ways: to turn stones into bread (to feed himself); to throw himself from the highest tower of the Temple (to prove God’s love); and worship Satan (in return for power and wealth).

While understandings vary of what Jesus time in the desert involved, it is not an episode we can dismiss as irrelevant. The Scripture scholar William Barclay suggests that Jesus told the story of this episode to his disciples (how else would they know of it?), so it should be taken seriously.

Biblical narratives of this chapter in Jesus’s life are complicated and obscured for the modern person by centuries of paintings that depict miniature demons and hellish animals tempting him. (In Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Jesus is tempted by, in order, a snake, a lion, and a flame.) So it may seem an exotic chapter in his life. Yet this incident may not be so difficult to understand; this aspect of Jesus’s life is more accessible to us than we might initially imagine. Ready to begin his divine mission, Jesus was subject to some very human temptations.

The first temptation, in which the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” is a physical one, but it is for more than food. It is the temptation saying, “Sacrifice everything for your physical needs, not just for food but for anything you crave—because you deserve it. Your body, your comfort, your physical well-being come before anything else.” Jesus does not denigrate or disparage his body, but he knows that it cannot always come first.

As the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr often says in his lectures, this temptation reminds us that our “false selves” usually press for the satisfaction of our immediate wants. Yet those wants are seldom what we really need.

It is also a temptation for Jesus to do a miracle for himself, which he never does in the New Testament.

The second temptation, to throw himself from a high perch of the Temple and let God save him, is saying, “Show everyone how great you are. Show people that God loves you the best. You’re on top.” It is the opposite of what Jesus wants for himself—and for his followers. Not a community of superiors and subordinates, but a community of equals.

Finally, the third temptation, of Jesus being shown what he could rule—“all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor”—if he would bow down to Satan, is a temptation for power at any cost. “Do anything to acquire and hold onto power—power at work, at home, over all others. Grab it and be willing to sacrifice compassion and charity to keep it.”

But Jesus decisively rejects this temptation as well. His power will come in humility; his leadership in service.

In the desert Jesus is tempted to give in to selfish desires. These are the same types of temptations that we face regularly, even if the circumstances are not so dramatic.

Notice that in each of these three temptations there is an element of good. It’s always harder to be tempted by pure evil, which is easier to spot and reject; the true temptation is the seemingly good one. For example, it is a good thing to feed oneself and care for one’s body.

It’s easy for us to listen to the voices that do not come from God; those voices can sound appealing. Likewise, sometimes it feels more natural to dwell in the darkness than to turn toward the light. We hear voices that tell us we are unworthy of God’s love, that nothing will change, that all is hopeless. We hear the voice of, as one of my spiritual directors called it, the Hinderer. We tend to turn more toward our inner “demons,” who tell false stories about us and subvert our identities, rather than turning toward God, who knows our true story, our real identity.

Jesus realizes the need to turn away from those dark voices, and he does so with the help of his Father. Jesus is driven into the desert, much as we are driven to reflect on our lives in times of testing and struggle. But he is not alone; and neither are we. The same power that helped Jesus in his desert helps us in ours.

In the end, Jesus rejected these temptations and returned to Nazareth to commence his ministry. Though sinless, he was not free from temptations. Once again, Jesus fully participates in our humanity, aligns himself with us, and, as he did at the baptism, completely immerses himself in the human condition.

From: "Jesus: A Pilgrimage," which will be available online and in bookstores on Tuesday.