The Letter to the Hebrews - which is not part of our readings today – tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet He never sinned. It seems, from today’s Gospel, that He was also tempted in some ways that we are not. He is tempted to turn stones into bread, tempted to fall down and worship the devil, tempted to throw himself off the parapet of the temple and be caught by angels.
Now I have been tempted, many times and in many different ways, but never have I ever had the slightest temptation to turn stones into bread, nor to fall down and worship the devil, nor even to jump off the tower of our church. This makes it kind of hard to identify with this Gospel passage. Would it not have been more instructive for St. Luke to show us Jesus being tempted to gossip, or to anger, or to lust, or just to plain old laziness? What if the Devil said to Jesus, ‘You’ve been pushing yourself pretty hard. Why don’t you knock off for a couple of days and go fishing with the guys? There will be plenty of time to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Relax. Take it easy.”
You know the temptations, the kind of things we face every day. And then see how Jesus deals with it. That would be more instructive for us. But turning stones into bread? What is going on here?
Well, first of all, the scene of the temptation is a highly stylized theological account. Much prayerful reflection has gone into the way St. Luke presents this material. This is not a newspaper report of just the facts, but a very deep spiritual reflection , and should be read in that light.
The passage begins, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan. “ What was Jesus doing at the Jordan? Fishing?
NO, He was getting Baptized. And at His Baptism “the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."
This must have been a truly wonderful experience for Jesus. I mean, imagine if you heard a voice come from heaven declaring, “you are my beloved son/daughter, with you I am well pleased.” Wouldn’t it be easy for you to think, ‘hey, I am pretty hot stuff? Somebody up there really likes me!’ It would not be hard to feel proud and pretty soon start getting puffed up. “Hey, did ya hear what heaven said? I’m the beloved. The BIG guy is pretty pleased with me too.”
It would be pretty easy for this to go to anybody’s head, and that is true also for Jesus. The temptation would be to stay in that special, elite, proud feeling of being the Beloved Son.
The problem with that is that it keeps Jesus from entering fully into our human condition. If He emphasizes being the Beloved Son, the tendency will be to pull back from true solidarity with sinful and fallen human kind like you and like me.
And that is what I believe these temptations are all about. The temptation to turn stones into bread is a temptation for Jesus to rely on His power as Son of God, and not truly enter into the weakness and vulnerability of being authentically human. Jesus is tempted to escape human pain and physical hunger, including all the hungers of the heart, and just pretend to be truly human. Jesus would look human, but still rely on His divine power to protect himself and satisfy His needs. It would be only a charade.
The devil has more to offer Jesus. Having shown Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world" the devil makes an offer many humans have, to one degree or another, accepted: Jesus can gain power and influence by worshiping at the altar of power, compromise and shady deals.
We are already being bombarded with continuous news stories about Presidential candidates for November. We hope that the candidates don’t secretly prostrate themselves before "the powers that be" to get the dollars and votes that will enable them to seek the presidency, which, as the most powerful position in the world, gives a person "power and glory" over "the kingdoms of the world." But we know and fear than money and power is what politics is really all about.
In rejecting this temptation, Jesus chooses to live an ordinary life, to undergo the subjection endured by his neighbors in an occupied land. He will walk the path of the oppressed. Those without name recognition will see in him one who is totally faithful in his choice to be human.
The devil goes on: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command the angels concerning you, to guard you..." It is tempting to think that a proof of God’s love for us is a comfortable and pain free life. Who would not want to be protected by a circle of angels??? Certainly this notion of a protected life, of expecting to be spared of all pain and disappointment as God’s beloved, would be a temptation throughout Jesus’ entire life. Remember Peter tempting Jesus against rejection and crucifixion, and Jesus telling him, “get behind me satan.” And it is also a temptation for us.
Where is God when we are suffering? We say to ourselves: “I thought God loved me. If God really loved me I wouldn’t be in this pain... this confusion ...failed at this project....been betrayed by those I trusted...etc.”
But there is not an escape clause written into Jesus’ being one of us. He didn’t get out in just the nick of time; and so His followers must resist the temptation to opt out when the path of discipleship brings suffering. Standing in a protective circle of angels is not what it means to be human, and so that’s not what it will mean for Jesus as he fulfills His word to truly and completely be one with us.
Through all the temptations, Jesus remained faithful to His mission, and faithful to His Father. He also remained faithful to us, sharing fully in our situation, truly being one of us, so that we could be one with Him.
Like Jesus are tempted to break faith, to not be true to God our Father or to ourselves. In these forty days of Lent, by our Lenten practices of penance, and by God’s grace, we seek to uncover these temptations, and all the compromises we have made with evil, the little concessions we make with the devil, and then to cut them out and return to the path of faithfulness.
Jesus is our model. He is our source of strength. In Him, we can do it. Blessed Lent!