Grace: To have heartfelt knowledge of Jesus who was tempted in the desert, so that I may love him more fervently and follow him more closely.
Reflection: Jesus passed around thirty years at home in Nazareth. Evidently there came a time when he felt called, or perhaps moved, to leave. Why? Where? Throughout those thirty years in Nazareth he had been maturing and perhaps discerning a number of plans. Jesus did not live in a bubble—he lived amid the great expectation of his people for their messianic liberation (Lk 3:15). We can tell that he wanted to do something to change this situation in which he grew up. He knew the alternatives presented to the Kingdom of his Father: the Essenes (who emphasized a life of prayer and penance in hopeful expectation of the Lord’s Messiah), the Pharisees (whose stress on ritual purity and observance of the Law eclipsed everything else), the Sadducees (who allied themselves with power and shared in the stolen wealth of their own people), and the Zealots (who waged violent guerrilla war against their Roman occupiers). We can imagine that among the various alternatives Jesus hears the message of the Baptist, perceives the mark of the Spirit, and discerns and chooses the way of being holy proposed by John the Baptist. So he decides to join a radical prophetic movement and begins the journey to the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Jesus, although he did not need it, decides to receive John’s baptism. Here is where his mission and identity first start to reveal themselves—he is taking the place of the sinner on the road to judgment. After receiving the Baptism, however, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted.
The three temptations all center on the identity and mission of Jesus—what does it mean to be called the Son of God? These temptations were not only present at this time in Jesus’ life, but all throughout, as his identity and mission are constantly being called into question by the powers of the world. The argument stems from the question, “How would you save the world if you were the Messiah?” Most people in Israel expected a worldly king, born from the line of David, to reestablish the glorious kingdom of old because that is how they would save the world.
Jesus, however, is of a different mind about the world’s salvation. The salvation he offers is purgative, perfective, and redemptive. This he must constantly show to everyone who expects him to act otherwise—to call down the legions of angels from heaven to smite the enemies of Israel.
And so what are the three temptations? To feed the hungry, to test God, and to ally himself with the powers of the world. Who wouldn’t want a messianic figure to solve the problem of world hunger by providing endless amounts of food to satisfy all our needs? Jesus does in fact perform a miracle like this on several occasions, but always with an eye to the sacramental—the signs he performs on earth point to heavenly and eternal realities. When the crowd of five thousand eats and is satisfied, we are to look forward to the heavenly banquet where no one goes hungry. Instead, the crowd follows Jesus because of what he can do for them, and not because of who he is.
As for the second temptation, who wouldn’t want a messianic figure that holds God accountable, that reigns God in to meet the demands of the world, like some sort of political reformer who even God is beholden to? And yet this is what we do when we test God—we bring him down to our limited vision of the world and its needs. Just as we critique the behavior and decisions of our own elected officials, we critique the behavior and decisions of God.
And finally, who wouldn’t want a messiah to command and rule over the world, uniting it under one flag, under one government made by the people and for the people, where peace and prosperity are promised to all and punishment and banishment for all those opposed? Is this not the direction our world hopes to head in? Is not Democracy the gospel of the day and the salvation of the world?
Perhaps, if we are honest with ourselves, we feel a bit divided on these temptations. Perhaps there is a part of us who agrees with the tempter and doesn’t understand what Jesus is doing or who he really is. Let today’s prayer be one of opening ourselves up to the ways of God, which are not our ways. Let us learn from the Christ himself, and allow no one else to be our teacher and guide. He is the only answer that satisfies.
Questions: What kinds of emotions arise when I think about the temptations? Is there any particular temptation that calls my attention? Why? What is my identity and mission? Is it linked to that of Christ? It is modeled after Christ’s identity as Son and mission as redeemer? What gets in the way? What can I learn from Christ’s responses to these perennial temptations?