First Sunday of Lent (C)
(Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Saint Luke’s Gospel 4:1-13)
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.
Surely, we have here the source of those words recommended later by Our Lord for our own most intimate and personal prayer with His heavenly Father: ‘Lead us not into temptation’. Lack of understanding, whether on the part of episcopal bodies or individuals, cannot justify tampering with Our Lord’s very-own-teaching-words, words He uniquely recommended us to use when praying to His Father, words handed down to us by tradition given us to continue His uniquely saving purpose for men of all time.
Setting aside misunderstanding or controversy, let us now try to develop our own appreciation of today’s Gospel reading and the Lenten season we are entering upon.
Jesus, I believe, had longed to begin His mission for perhaps some 25 years, for had not John the Baptist heard from his father Zachary (Luke 1:76s.):
And you, child, will be called prophet of God the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation?
John the Baptist knew, therefore, from early childhood of his calling and destiny; surely Jesus was, from His earliest years, secretly orientated by His heavenly Father towards His own future public mission, the very reason for which His Father had sent Him among men. And here is the first point I want you to notice carefully, People of God: Jesus, the Son of God, longed for His earthly destiny to open up before Him and aspired to its fulfilment but … He waited long years for His Father’s call.
Now at last – so to speak – His waiting is ended and His longing fulfilled, for we have just heard in the Gospel:
He was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted
St. Mark tells us, THE SPIRIT IMMEDIATELY DROVE HIM OUT INTO THE DESERT; whilst St. Matthew writes that JESUS ... WAS LED BY THE SPIRIT INTO THE DESERT.
Such words and such unanimity among the evangelists indicate a most compelling, imperious, call which, nevertheless, left Jesus perfectly free; and there we should again learn from Him, dear People of God, lest we ever allow ourselves to be tempted by thoughts of ‘holiness achieved quickly’’ for Christian holiness is a gift before it can ever be said to have been achieved. We should, indeed, long to be holy and pray to love God without any reserve; but, with Our Lord, let us wait for, and never lose hope in, Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, working in us for the fulfilment of God the Father’s saving purpose. Let us humble ourselves as weak and sinful persons, whilst constantly praying to be strong and holy; for, as the Psalmist (2:3) tells us, the just man IS LIKE A TREE PLANTED BY THE STREAMS OF WATER, THAT YIELDS ITS FRUIT IN ITS SEASON.
Jesus’ season had finally come and He was ready to undertake, and succeed in, the contest opening out before Him; we, His disciples, must -- throughout our lives – be on the watch, waiting and praying, that we might be found ready, like Him, to embrace our season and bring forth fruit expected of us by God.
The first Adam, a man of earth, had originally been tested and found wanting; Jesus, the Second Adam, the heavenly man, likewise submitted to a testing; and here, the Gospel warns us modern Catholics and Christians that we who have been baptized into Christ must also be prepared to endure temptation with Him. We are tempted from without by the Evil One, and from within by our own concupiscence. Jesus, like the first Adam, could only be tempted from without. Adam could and did sin, whereas Jesus not only did not, but could not, sin. Jesus was both perfectly free and, at the same time, infallibly holy. It is impossible for us to understand fully how temptation affected the Son of God, but we do know, with the certainty of faith, that it could not have touched Him at all had He not been also, and no less truly, Son of Man. He consented to be tempted so that, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us:
He might be able to sympathize with our weaknesses, (as) One Who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. (4:15)
This temptation implies two things: first, that Jesus knew Himself be the Messiah whom the Jews were expecting; and secondly, that He was also well aware that He possessed extraordinary powers. The time had now come for Him to make use of these powers, and behold, the devil was immediately at hand in the hope of leading Him to misuse them from the very beginning.
He ate nothing for forty days and when they were over, He was hungry. The devil said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God command this stone to become bread’.
Self-preservation is the most fundamental of all our instincts, and after such a prolonged and rigorous fast it must have been clamouring at the portals of Jesus’ will for satisfaction. The devil tried to make use of it. In the case of Adam and Eve he had not sought any such help from the legitimate needs of an oppressed nature, for, with but little effort, he had sown the seeds of distrust of God into Eve’s heart, and Adam lamely followed her. It would not be so easy with Jesus ... the devil guessed that much from the beginning. But perhaps the clamouring needs of nature might serve to blind Jesus as to Satan’s real purpose, for he desired to accomplish in Jesus that of which St. Paul was to accuse the Galatians (3:1-3):
O foolish Galatians! Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
The Spirit of God had brought Jesus, Son of Man, into this wilderness ... would He not take care of Him there? Indeed, He would. The devil, however, invited Jesus to doubt this, by suggesting that He make use of the power which was His for the salvation of men and the glory of God, to satisfy a purely natural need.
But Jesus answered, ‘It is written, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”’.
Jesus did not deny the fact that man needed bread for his body, but affirmed that he also had need of God’s word for his soul, and He implied that spiritual considerations transcend, and sometimes can over-ride, the needs of nature. This is why the apparently excessive fasting and mortification of some of the saints was not sinful, even though it may have ruined their health and notably shortened their lives.
Notice also, dear friends, that Our Lord simply quoted Sacred Scripture. How we should reverence the Bible, for the very Son of God chose to cite its words rather than formulate His own reply!!
Another point also imposes itself for our consideration here. We read very frequently in the Old Testament of the anger of God, Whose wrathful presence is manifested in upheavals of nature ... the mountains are shaken, the sun, moon and stars fall from their courses, lightning flashes are His arrows, the thunder His voice, and the storm clouds His chariot. Those figures of speech give most eloquent expression to the inspired author’s realization of the utter and absolute incompatibility between the all-holy God and sin.
Look now, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, at Jesus, God made Man: for our sake He patiently, humbly, endured being tempted by one He found supremely loathsome and absolutely disgusting! Will we not, for His sake, try harder to support patiently others when we find them trying?
The devil made a further bid.
He took Jesus up (Luke does not say where), and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant, and said ‘I shall give You all this power and glory for it has been handed over to me. All this will be Yours, if You worship me.’
In Psalm 2 we read of the Messiah: (THE LORD) SAID TO ME, ‘YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU. ASK OF ME, AND I WILL MAKE THE NATIONS YOUR HERITAGE, AND THE ENDS OF THE EARTH YOUR POSSESSION.’ Notice well, dear People of God, how the devil tries to usurp the place of God by offering to fulfil God’s faithful promise in his own duplicitous way.
Was Jesus’ Kingdom to be a kingdom of this world? Was it to surpass, by its universal embrace, the magnificence of all the empires ever seen upon earth? Was the kingdom indeed thus to be restored to Israel in the way the Jews wanted, was Jerusalem thus to become in a new sense the CITY OF THE GREAT KING?
Jesus answered him:
It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve.’
Notice, once again, Jesus quoted Scripture to the devil. The drama continued:
Then the devil led Him to Jerusalem, and made Him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to Him, ‘if You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, “He will command His angels concerning You, to guard You” and “with their hands they will support You, lest you dash Your foot against a stone.”’
There is (sic!) no lack of heights in the Judean desert from which Our Lord might have been tempted to cast Himself down; but the desert could not provide an admiring, stupefied, crowd to behold the spectacle, and that is why the devil, Satan, took Jesus to Jerusalem.
Jesus had been sent as Man to make us -- in Himself -- adopted children of God, His own brothers and sisters. Could the bonds which would thus bind us to Him and to the Father in heaven ever be formed out of curious amazement and superstitious awe? No! They would have to be unbreakable bonds of love, indeed of bonds of shared divine charity, able to endow us with heart-willed, mindful and humble, obedience. Love cannot be exacted by force but must be gradually won; it cannot be foisted upon men, but has to be gently instilled into their hearts. Jesus did not will to prove to men that He was the Messiah ... He preferred, He willed, to lead them to spontaneously recognize Him as such. All this, however, could only come-to-be in the Father’s good time; and here, yet again, Jesus refused any attempt to precipitate events.
Jesus said to him In reply, ‘It also says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Jesus would not become a political figure.
The devil departed from Him for a time.
The desert had ever been, in the tradition of the Bible, the place of temptation, the domain of the devil. Now Jesus had indeed, as St. Mark tells us (3:27) ENTERED A STRONG MAN’S HOUSE ... (AND) BOUND THE STRONG MAN; and St. Matthew tells us the same thing by having Jesus reveal the devil’s personal and intimate name as Satan. Because He had thus defeated the devil in a deep personal encounter, Jesus was, and is henceforth, able TO DELIVER US FROM THE HAND OF OUR ENEMIES ... TO GIVE LIGHT TO THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH. (Luke 1:73-79)
Never again did the devil (Satan) dare to enter into personal combat with Our Lord.
But the battle went on, nevertheless, to the end of Jesus’ life, for the devil stirs up men to fight his battle for him. To the end Our Blessed Saviour continued as He had first set out, as to His disciples, concerned about Him having had nothing to eat, He said, MY FOOD IS TO DO THE WILL OF HIM WHO SENT ME (John 4:34); so, when the Jews asked for a sign made to suit them He said, AN EVIL AND ADULTEROUS GENERATION SEEKS FOR A SIGN; BUT NO SIGN SHALL BE GIVEN TO IT EXCEPT THE SIGN OF THE PROPHET JONAH (Mathew 12:39); and when the crowds wanted to seize Him and make Him king JESUS WITHDREW AGAIN TO THE HILLS BY HIMSELF (John 6:15).
However, when the final drama of Calvary was to be played, the devil once again tempted Jesus with the same three suggestions he had made in the desert, THE RULERS SCOFFED AT HIM, SAYING, ‘HE SAVED OTHERS; LET HIS SAVE HIMSELF, IF HE IS THE CHRIST OF GOD, HIS CHOSEN ONE! (Luke 23:35). SO ALSO, THE CHIEF PRIESTS MOCKED HIM ... SAYING ... LET THE CHRIST, THE KING OF ISRAEL, COME DOWN NOW FROM THE CROSS, THAT WE MAY SEE AND BELIEVE.’ (Mark 15:31-32). But Jesus would give neither relief to His tortured body nor a sign to those ill-disposed Jews. To Pilate, indeed, He did give an answer, PILATE SAID TO HIM, ‘ARE YOU THE KING OF THE JEWS? .... YOUR OWN NATION AND THE CHIEF PRIESTS HAVE HANDED YOU OVER TO ME; WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?’ Jesus answered, ‘MY KINGSHIP IS NOT OF THIS WORLD ... FOR THIS WAS I BORN, AND FOR THIS I HAVE COME INTO THE WORLD, TO BEAR WITNESS TO THE TRUTH.’ (John 18:33-37)
Dear People of God, let us now look at the world around us in the light of Jesus’ truth.
Secular society today wants to be rid of the very idea of sin because it hates above all the idea of a God of Salvation, a God becoming Man, living, suffering and dying as a man for love of, and the-saving-of, us human beings. But men of the world today hate above all the very thought of One having both the right and authority to interfere in their lives. That, People of God, is the very ESSENCE of sin: there is no one who has any right or authority to interfere in MY life. Ultimately sin is not a matter of doing wrong things … much that is good is being done in our present-day secular society, but sin has never been more deeply rooted in society because most of its citizens are now disbelievers, against the very thought of any divine power, because each and every one of them wants to be free to commit their very own choice of (pet) sin when it seems necessary to them. They do not often want to be always doing wrong things, bad things, in fact they want to think of themselves as GOOD; but, good-without-God. A ‘free-goodness’, isn’t that the best sort of goodness … no, because only One was free before the face of, in the presence of, the Devil, being devilish, that is TEMPTING. And only because that One, Jesus Christ, has bestowed His most Holy Spirit on those who believe in and obey Him, can any human person do ‘free-goodness’. All disbelievers, rationalists, or whatever God-less people may be called or call themselves, want, theoretically, and will, actually, commit their own choice of sin when they feel the need to do that personal something God would prohibit.