Adam’s Sin and Christ’s Temptations: The Overcoming of Greed, Vainglory and Avarice in the Desert

Adam’s Sin and Christ’s Temptations: The Overcoming of Greed, Vainglory and Avarice in the Desert March 22, 2011

Saint Anthony of Padua tells us that Jesus, in the temptation of the desert, fought against and beat the temptations which first wrecked humanity, trapping it in sin. “The Sin of Adam was the destruction and the weakening of the human race. It consists in three things: greed, vainglory and avarice.”[1] Jesus accomplished in the desert what Adam had failed to do in the garden, reversing the damage done by Adam. “The Son of God came at the acceptable time, and being obedient to God the Father he restored what was lost, curing opposites by opposites. Adam was placed in Paradise, and there, seeking pleasure, he fell. Jesus was led into the desert, and there, by constant fasting, he overcame the devil.”[2]

Greed, represented by the desire for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was overcome, not only by fasting, but by understanding our need for spiritual food.  We are not to live by bread alone; we are not to be attached to material things as if they will perpetually sustain us. Adam, however, became attached to the food before him, thinking it alone would suffice; this turned humanity’s vision downward, from a holistic approach which saw heaven and earth together, to the earth alone. Material goods alone do not satisfy; attaching ourselves to them, we keep trying to get more and more; we find ourselves in a cycle of never-ending want. Only when we open ourselves up to the spiritual side can we be truly satisfied;  fasting is the means by which we detach ourselves from mere bread, and open ourselves to the spiritual reality which will give us our heavenly bread, that which can truly will nourish us and satisfy us.

Adam’s vainglory was in the assumption that he could become a God unto himself, that he, turning himself into the material world, can keep perpetual control over it as if he were its God.  “Adam too tempted the Lord God, when he disobeyed the command of his Lord and God, and too easily believed the false promise, You will be as gods. [3] He was led to believe he would be like God, to be God over the world; and as a God, he would need nothing more ever again. Satan showed Jesus the temple and said, prove yourself to be a God, throw yourself down, and prove yourself invincible: as a God, you will be protected, as a God, you will control the angels and they will keep you safe. Jesus’ reply is that God should not be tested. There is no need for Jesus to prove himself, to take on worldly glory, to show off; he came to be a humble, loving servant, such humility was to be the proof of his Godhood. God loves, and love seeks to raise the beloved, not the self; vainglory only leads to further condemnation, to being further away from that which it claims to possess. “What vainglory to think one could become God! What a wretched man! Because of your stupidity in setting yourself above your proper state, you fell blow it in miserable ruin. This is why you should not tempt the Lord your God!”[4]

Jesus was tempted, thirdly, by avarice: Satan showed Jesus the wealth and glory of the nations of the world. They could be his. He just needs to follow the path of Satan, to take them and possess them as Satan offered them to Adam. He could enjoy the world and its luxuries through such wealth. But he must accept the rightness of that path, bowing, therefore, to the will of Satan. Jesus knew it was against God’s will; one only serves God, and worships God alone. He knew he couldn’t fall for the idolatry of wealth. “All those who love money or worldly glory are bowing down to worship the devil.”[5] For wealth, while it promises much, like all false gods, fails to give those boons it promises to its followers, those who sacrifice either themselves or others for its glory.

A purely materialistic outlook, which separates matter from the spirit, and sees that all that is good and needed is found in matter must be rejected. We must free matter from the corruption of sin, from its being closed off to the spirit; we must let matter be penetrated by the spirit and thrive in that spirit. It is time for us to follow the example of Christ. Let this lesson remind us of our life, that it is, in a way, one long lent. Will we go through the desert of life, and find ourselves in the holy land? Only if we follow the example given to us, and put on Christ. “For our sakes, Jesus entered the womb of the Virgin and bore the shame of the Cross.  Taught by his example, let us go into the desert of penitence. With his help let us resist the wind of vainglory and the fire of avarice.”[6] Let us overcome, with Christ, the temptations which destroyed humanity, so that with Christ, we can be lifted up, and hear “Well done, my beloved son” or “Well done, my beloved daughter.”

[1] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume I. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 72.

[2] Ibid., 73.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 74.

[5] Ibid., 75.

[6] Ibid., 75.

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  • Thank you, Henry, for sharing St. Anthony’s thoughts and your own. I want to comment on the ways my 21st century experience and perspective are different from St. Anthony’s pre-Enlightenment and pre-Aquinas perspective.

    Jesus accomplished in the desert what Adam had failed to do in the garden, reversing the damage done by Adam.

    Doesn’t this statement ignore that other humans have left their home or homeland, and entered a desert where they resisted these temptations? It wouldn’t be fair to expect Anthony to be aware of scripture in other world traditions, but it is reasonable to expect that serious modern seekers would have that awareness. Surely we must realize that what Jesus “accomplished” is not the first or only historical instance of a man rising above his own greed, vainglory and avarice.

    In some measure, to describe the 40 days as an “accomplishment” seems to miss something about who Jesus is, and how my relationship to him might transform who I am. I have to say that, though I would not hold it against Anthony in any measure, my modern (post-modern?) sensibility takes offense at calling Jesus’ response to the temptations an “accomplishment.” I’m inclined to say that the Infinite God never “accomplishes” anything in the way that human exertion might appear to produce a desired result. “Accomplishment” is about assessing my limited means and using those to best result.

    “Accomplishment,” at least in my world, is all too often burdened with some expectation of a response from someone: “Well done, my beloved son.” In my reading of Matthew 25:19-30, which I think that sentence paraphrases, the good servants aren’t “good” just because they doubled the master’s money, but because they acted as the master would have acted. Though the good servants understood the boundary between themselves and their master, they didn’t let that stop them from seeing the boundary for what it was. The “evil and wicked” servant stayed fearful, shrunken and contracted on “his side” of the master/servant boundary.

    Let us indeed overcome, as Christ, these temptations which are a natural consequence of today’s state of human evolution. And let us do this for no reason at all, because there’s nothing to accomplish, and everything to become.

    • Frank

      First, you are welcome — I suggested people read Anthony for Lent, and I am doing so. As I do so, I want to (at least once a week, if I can) put up some reflections of my work.

      Second, I am sure Anthony knew people could do it in the way you mean it; but he is looking at the communal relationship of humanity, not the individual, and Jesus is seen (and not just here) as making it possible for humanity to overcome original sin and all that led to it. Many get close to overcoming these, some do, but Anthony would say that (even if they did so before Jesus) it is in and through the incarnation and Jesus’ universal work that the particular is possible.

  • Ronald King

    Henry, Who originally interpreted the disposition of Adam? He did not exhibit greed. He was not disobedient. He did not exhibit vanity. These are fallen man’s interpretations and prejudices based on thousands of generations of transgenerational self-loathing that has crept into theology. The clue that brings me to this conclusion is the lack of a compassionate interpretation of Genesis in the garden thus leading to a mistaken understanding of the development of human identity. We tend to see in the story what we are conditioned to see and to the extent that we exhibit a compassionate understanding of ourselves and others.
    I am in physical pain right now so I can’t go into detail. The pain is related to injuring my back while attempting to gain strength. I broke a vertebrae and had to endure an hour in one of Frank’s projects-the MRI scan. Frank, can you put a muffler on that thing:)