This from Fr Dempsey about this week’s gospel:
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Then the devil left him, and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
The three temptations posed to Jesus represent three basic areas of temptation that test every person…temptation to satisfy one’s physical hungers and desires, temptation to acquire possessions and power, and temptation to be acclaimed and admired by others.
What does it mean to say that Jesus was tempted? When we are tempted, we feel an attraction toward something…in this context, toward something not of God’s will. Jesus shared our human nature, but did he actually experience an attraction away from the will of God?
Consider a couple dimensions of temptation. We might call the first the “invitation” of the temptation being placed before us. That is certainly present with the offers Satan presents Jesus. The second dimension is, as mentioned, a certain attraction to what is offered. Being human, Jesus did experience an attraction to satisfying hunger and to avoid suffering, but this does not necessarily translate into temptation to go against the will of God the Father. As with his mother Mary, blessed through her immaculate conception with no attraction away from God’s will, Jesus felt no attraction to go against the will of the Father. The Church teaches us that Jesus had both a human will and a divine will, the human being submissive to the divine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 475). Jesus had additional strength in his human will as a result of the discipline and dedication he lived each day and, in particular, through extended times of prayer such as the 40-day retreat he had just completed. Our resistance to temptation is stronger when we dedicate ourselves to God and immerse ourselves in prayer.
Temptations are not always toward something morally wrong. We generally think of temptation in such a context, but we could also speak of being “tempted” to do a good deed, to give money to someone in need, to take a job that brings less income but makes a greater impact on society. Bottom line…temptation is a test in which we must choose between options. We pray that God not lead us into tests we are incapable of passing, but tests become opportunities to choose and do God’s will, to prove the strength of our convictions.
In that sense of temptation being a test, note that Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit specifically to be tempted by the devil, to be put to the test. Back in the 1950’s boxing was a very popular sport with fights broadcast on national TV a couple evenings every week. The boxer was always led into the ring by his trainer and manager who had set up the fight and prepared their boxer for the contest with a certain confidence that he could be successful. That’s the image I have as I think of the Spirit leading Jesus into the desert. The temptation was not to be avoided. It was a contest for which the Spirit had prepared Jesus. It is inevitable that we will face temptations in our lives. All too often we walk into the contest all too willingly on our own, contests set up by the devil, not the Spirit of God. Entering into such temptation without the Holy Spirit leading us, it is little wonder we have such a low rate of success in such confrontations. “Lead us not into temptation” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, meaning “don’t lead us into a conflict greater than our ability to emerge victorious”…“but deliver us from evil” meaning “be our protection and give us supernatural assistance when the contest gets heated”.
We can have more success and become stronger more disciplined Christians in the face of temptation if we dedicate ourselves to God during these forty days of Lent as Jesus did. Jesus responded to each of the three temptations with quotes from scripture (Deuteronomy 8:3, Deuteronomy 6:16, and Deuteronomy 6:13). Becoming more familiar with God’s word can strengthen us as well. Scriptural reading can be an important element of our Lenten discipline.