According to Scripture, Jesus went off into the desert for 40 days to be tempted. These temptations challenged Jesus on the deepest level of his being and self-understanding. Satan did not stand out on the periphery, but sought to enter into Jesus’ most vulnerable space–his desires. Satan cleverly devised temptations that were by no means trivial or haphazard; they were calculated to attack Jesus where his passions burned most intensely in pure white heat. Jesus’ unique and intimate relationship with his Abba and the mission entrusted to him were challenged at their roots. In the process of this purification, Jesus would come to understand more deeply who he was and out of that understanding, he would be empowered to move confidently on the path of his mission.
The First Temptation: Conquer Your Hunger by Turning Stones into Bread.
The basic question for Jesus here was, “Is this about me or about others?” Satan would like Jesus to focus on his own needs and desires. Jesus had to choose. He had to discern not just once, but over and over again when his powers would be used. The most paradoxical scene from the Gospels occurs when Jesus, who is all powerful, is hanging helplessly from the cross only to hear onlookers sneer, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” (Mt. 27:42)
Jesus had set his course here in the desert: his miraculous powers would be used not for himself, but for others. The Jesus who would multiply loaves and fishes for the starving crowd would himself become food for the hungry in Eucharist. Jesus’ identity as the Bread of Life is already prefigured here, along with the necessity of his being broken in order to be shared. Jesus’ fundamental standpoint, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), finds its roots here in the desert.
The Second Temptation: Defy death by throwing yourself off the parapet so that the Angels will rescue you.
This temptation attacked Jesus’ identity as the Life of the World who cannot die. Jesus was tempted to prove this identity through a spectacular show of power, a death-defying feat. Satan offered him a painless way to prove his divinity based on trust in himself, not in his Father. This temptation was real for Jesus because it struck at the very heart of his mission–to lay down his life and take it up again. Jesus refused, recognizing it for what it was–a self-serving trap.
Jesus did not come to prove his own immortality, but to die and rise so that we might share in his life. He chose to suffer rather than avoid pain, not because suffering is a good in itself, but because the cross would be the consequence of remaining faithful to his mission. As his ministry developed, the reality of his rejection became at times overwhelming and the prospect of a horrific death caused Jesus great distress. This offer by the devil had to have affected Jesus very deeply. His mission to give his life in ransom for the many would in reality be death defying. He would die and rise. Satan offered Jesus a painless way of doing it and one can only imagine that Jesus had to be thinking about this offer again as he sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane over the thought of his impending death.
The Third Temptation: Worship the Devil and Inherit the Kingdom
Jesus came to establish a Kingdom. It was his greatest desire–the fulfillment of his Father’s will–the ultimate purpose of his mission. Satan tested this desire with a quick fix. He offered Jesus a kingdom based on a lie, hearkening back to that ancient lie in Genesis, “You will not die …. listen to me and you will be as gods.” In the process, Jesus would have to deny his identity as the Beloved, the Son, the Incarnate Word of the Father. Satan sought to seduce Jesus into discarding his intimate relationship with the Father in exchange for a kingdom. But he was not willing to deny his Father in order to receive the kingdom. Outside his Father’s love, the kingdom made no sense.
Jesus realized that he would establish the kingdom by conquering sin and death, not by escaping it. He knew there was no easy way. The kingdom would have to be established over time, through suffering, much misunderstanding and ultimately through his own death. In Jesus’ response to Satan, he already sets his course for Calvary.
The Church suggests that we use Lent and periods of extended retreat as times to go out to the desert to reflect on who we are, who our God is and to confront our demons. God always calls us to the more–not necessarily to do more, but to be more. The desert challenges us to go deeper, to enter into solitude that we might listen. At times we may be afraid to go into the desert for fear of what we might hear–temptations, self-doubt, confusion, past sins, regrets, God’s gentle urgings–and so we avoid the desert. But for those who are serious about the spiritual life, the desert cannot be avoided. Even should we try to evade it, sometimes the Spirit will drive us there anyway, very often through life experiences. A death of a loved one, loneliness, a life-transition, illness, all these can literally drive us involuntarily into the desert.
Once there, each of us will encounter God, the devil and ourselves with our inner demons and our deepest desires. We are challenged to look deeply at who we are and on what foundation we have built the house of our life. Jesus lived out of the conviction that he was the Beloved of the Father. Nothing could sway him from that truth. All testing plunges us to our foundations where we can say again, “In Jesus I am the beloved in whom my Father is well pleased.” This is the gift of baptism, what it means to be saved. This is the very truth that set Jesus free on his mission and it is the very same truth that will free us to move forward in response to God’s call. Can we accept it?
Sr. Kathleen Burns
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