Summary: The triple temptation of Christ speaks to the triple temptation of every human person, and the triple call of the Church to fast, pray and give alms.
First Sunday of Lent 2013
The haunting strains of Psalm 91 fill the Word of God we sing and hear today: they are singing of Jesus Christ, the victor over Satan’s temptations, but they are also singing out in hope of you and me. We are living in a world that bombards us with temptations minute by minute–the temptation to cheat for a quick buck, to lust through use of pornography, to gluttony by overeating, or eating and drinking things that hurt us. Jesus–the Word of God says–Jesus was tempted by the three Great Temptations, and because he was driven to fast and pray by the Holy Spirit, because he first listened to the call of the Holy Spirit, he fended off the advances of the fallen angels, and so was ministered to by the faithful angels. He took the Father as his refuge, and so did not back down in the face of seemingly irresistible evil.
There are three Great Temptations, according to St. John’s letter. They are the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. We could call them the will to be entertained, the will to be revered, and the will to power. The tempter offered all these to Jesus, and he turned them all down, because they were just the opposite of his mission. The mission of Jesus, he said so often, was not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a redemption for many. (Mt 20:28) And that’s not all. His least popular teaching, and perhaps the most important, is that the same mission is ours–not to be served, but to serve, and to take up our cross daily and follow him.
The First Temptation
What a great line: “he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry.” If dinner is forty minutes late, I’m hungry. We can’t imagine a forty-day black fast, really. So the tempter comes after him with a double temptation–kind of like when you shop in a food store while you are hungry. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread. The temptation is to satisfy Jesus’s own hunger and to grandstand for a crowd–to miraculously turn what cannot be bread into bread.
Politicians know that appealing to the baser instincts of voters can win elections. Long before corrupt Washington leaders found that they could win election after election by expanding the food stamp rolls, Julius Caesar and his successors knew that they could maintain popular support in Rome by keeping the free bread lines and circuses open. Jesus understood that such an approach destroys true human freedom. On the few instances when he took a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and fed thousands, he had to refuse the political popularity that would have made him king. Instead, he drove away a majority of his followers by telling them that to have life, they would have to follow his way of obedience, subordinate their desires to the will of the Father, turn away from self-will and violence, and consummate that discipleship by feeding on his body and blood.
The full response of Jesus to the tempter is worth repeating: “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” It’s a literal quote from Moses in Deuteronomy. We live by doing the will of God as revealed through the Word of God–Jesus Christ.
The Second Temptation
The NT speaks of Satan as the master of this world. It’s not hard to believe that today, when every time you turn around some political hack or bureaucrat somewhere is trying to force us to disobey God’s law. Never since the pagans controlled the Roman Empire has the Church been so counter-cultural. The temptation to power has seduced many. Oh, they run for their first election with the best of intentions. Maybe they want to fix the potholes in their neighborhood streets. But when they get into office they find that many, many people are lying in wait to corrupt them. How is it that so many politicians become wealthy while they are making an elected representatives salary? Having power feels good. Ask any successful manager.
But the most successful managers, the ones who advance their company’s interests without compromising ethics, also know that they are servants first, and that they cannot be serving with the primary goal of advancing their own personal interests. They do for others, they sacrifice to advance the good aims of their office or company or parish. In other words, they refuse to worship evil. They live out the words: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”