Still late, but I am determined to see this through. This reflection was actually very useful for me as I thought about a reading I essentially hear every year but somehow stopped listening to. And, once I got rolling, it turned out longer than I was expecting. Belatedly, a very blessed and Spirit filled Lent to all the readers of Vox Nova.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and with it we begin our our journey to Easter. The forty days of Lent are symbolic of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. This number, in turn, was intended to symbolize the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt: a time of waiting before God brought them to the promised land.
The reading today, from Luke, occurs just after the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and before the beginning of his public ministry, which this year we marked by reading the story of the wedding feast at Cana. With this period of prayer and fasting, Jesus prepares himself for his public ministry. Strengthened by it, he is able to go into his home town Nazareth and proclaim the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”
Central to today’s readings, however, is the temptation of Jesus by the devil. Three times, the devil tempts him, saying: “If you are the Son of God….” We are all familiar with these temptations: turn stones into bread and relieve your hunger; worship me and receive dominion over all the kingdoms of the world; cast yourself down from the roof of the temple and be rescued by angels. And we know that each time Jesus rebukes the devil with scripture.
To fully understand this passage, however, we need to explore the last sentence: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke adds that the devil left Jesus “for a time.” He would return. Though the devil is not explicitly mentioned, Jesus faced temptation repeatedly throughout his public ministry, up to the last painful hours hanging on the cross. And these temptations are variations on those Luke shows the devil using in the desert.
“If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Here the temptation is to use his divine power for his own benefit, or the immediate benefit of others. As Jesus preached in Galilee and Judea, wandering from town to town, he lived a life of precarity, if not poverty: “the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was dependent on the generosity of others. Sometimes he was a dinner guest at the homes of wealthy followers; other times he was supported by donations from Mary Magdalene and the other women who followed him. But how often did he and his disciples go hungry? He would have been tempted to ease their hunger with a miracle, to use his power for worldly comfort. And then, at the end, hanging from the cross in the hot desert sun, he could have satisfied his own thirst, with cool water, or turned the vinegar he was offered into sweet wine.
“Worship me and I will give you dominion over all the kingdoms of the world.” Jesus proclaimed himself the messiah: he knew he was the promised king who would restore Israel. He also knew that in the fullness of time all the kingdoms of the world would be put beneath his feet. He would have been tempted to act on this knowledge. This temptation came from both his supporters as well as his detractors. The mother of James and John comes to him and asks, “Promise that my sons will sit one at your right hand and the other at your left when you come into your kingdom.” He could have grant this immediately if he became the kind of king his followers imagined. Then, in his final hours, Pilate asks him, “Are you a king?” Tired, abandoned, abused, Jesus could have answered, “Yes, I am a king” and then manifested his royal power, summoning “twelve legions of angels” to his defense.
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, and angels will bear you up.” Jesus would have been repeatedly tempted to use his divine power to get his message across. He could have used his it to create such signs and wonders that all who saw them would be forced to believe. He could have thrown himself off the Temple roof and been wafted to the ground in the sight of thousands. He could have summoned hell fire to destroy the Samaritan village that had rejected him, as he disciples urged him to do. And dying on the cross, he could have answered those who mocked him “come down from the cross so that we may see and believe”: he could have shown them his power and done exactly that.
But throughout his ministry, Jesus was faithful to his calling, accepting the cross, true to the words of the prophet Isaiah. “He did not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he did not break, and a smoldering wick he did not snuff out.” His power was not for his comfort, or his glory, but for our salvation.
During our Lenten journey, as disciples of Christ, we are called to follow him, to accept our cross. And we are called to acknowledge that we are tempted, just as Jesus was. Since the day of our baptism, the devil has sought for ways to turn us away from our calling to die to ourselves and live in Christ. There are many temptations, but this Lenten season we should consider those particular traps which are laid for followers of Christ. The devil will not say to us “if you are the Son of God”: we are not divine, we cannot turn stone into bread, or throw ourselves from tall buildings. Rather, he will say to us, “If you are a Christian….”
“If you are a Christian, then you do not need to worry about your salvation.” We go to church on Sundays, send our children to catechism, throw a few bucks into the collection plate—that is enough. Remember the warning that John the Baptist gave to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” In the same way, we cannot say to ourselves, we have Jesus, we have the saints, we have the Church.
“If you are a Christian, then you must be perfect in every way.” Here the temptation is two-fold: that we will become prideful, arrogantly praising ourselves as we pray: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” We turn from praising God to praising ourselves. Or we can despair because we are not perfect, that we are sinners. The devil can convince us that we are forsaken, that God will not forgive us. Like the disciples on Good Friday, we see the cross, but can no longer see the resurrection.
This Lenten season, put these temptations of the devil behind you. He has no power over you if you do not give it to him. Remember daily that to be a Christian is to die to ourselves and to live in Christ. We are called to believe, and to live out that belief. To acknowledge our sins but to accept that God’s love is greater than our failings. To know, as St. Paul reminded us, “that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”