Year A: First Sunday of Lent

The Temptation of Jesus

Matthew 4: 1-11

Then 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 by bread alone, but by 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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you experience temptation as an “external force” trying to lure you toward bad behaviors, or as an internal choice to serve for yourself rather than others and God?
  2. Satan tempted Jesus with the three “P’s, prestige, power and possessions. What temptations do you experience in your life and how do you try to overcome them?
  3. In what ways do you see yourself as being obedient or faithful to God? Explain

Biblical Context

Sr Mary M. McGlone CSJ
Matthew 4: 1-11

The account of Jesus’ temptations in the desert can be interpreted from multiple vantage points, all of which converge on his faithfulness as Son of God. In the light of Matthew’s penchant for including the traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures in his Gospel, we can read Jesus’ testing as the redemption of Israel’s desert unfaithfulness to her vocation as people of God. Or, recognizing that the only times Matthew depicts Jesus undergoing temptations like this are in these 40 days and in the garden of Gethsemane, we can understand that these temptations framed his entire ministry.

Using the temptations in the desert as his point of departure, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky offered a stinging critique of Christianity in his poem “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this classic, a representative of the Spanish Inquisition encounters Christ who has returned to earth and tells him why he was wrong to reject the devil’s offers in the desert. The inquisitor cynically explains that people will always follow the one who gives them bread, that Jesus could have cemented his popularity with the people by having angels rescue him from jumping off the temple and that if he had really loved humanity, he would have forced them to be good rather than allow them to wallow in mediocrity and fear of freedom, eventually risking eternal damnation.

Dostoyevsky understood that the question underneath the story of the temptations was how to be a faithful son or daughter of God, a question that was as real for Jesus as for each of his followers. Dostoyevsky knew the strength of the temptations to choose security over all else, to beg for miracles over faith or responsibility, and to use coercive power to structure a society supposedly good for everyone. He might have gained that last insight from Napoleon who reversed the French Revolution’s abolition of the church because he believed that religion with its promise of recompense in eternity was the way to keep peace in a society in which some enjoyed wealth while others starved.

All these interpretations recognize that Jesus’ temptation in the desert was the temptation to pervert his vocation, to avoid being the one “who emptied himself” and “humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

The key concept tying these three readings together is obedience. In this context, obedience is the attitude that initiates right relationships between God and human beings, or we might say obedience is the only way for human beings to relate to God as Father. The story of the Fall in Genesis explains the seeming inevitability of disobedience and the disorder that rebellion creates. When human beings enter into rivalry with God, rivalry and every manner of discord characterize the entire human milieu. Once that has happened, everyone is born into the chaos of a sinful world.

The story of Jesus in the desert presents the alternative. Only because Jesus chose the word of God over bread could he later ask his disciples to go out on mission unarmed and unprovisioned. When Jesus refused to jump off the parapet of the temple he refused to use miracles to prove God’s love for him and to prove himself to the public. By doing that he demonstrated the faith he asked his disciples to share with him. Finally, in refusing to worship the tempter and the military, economic and political control he offered, Jesus affirmed that love is the only power that can build a future. As Paul tells us, one man’s obedience opened the way of life to all.

Testing What is in Your Heart

By: Ted Wolgamot

Temptation. Even the word itself is alluring, glamorous, enticing. And that’s because, if there’s one thing you and I understand about life, it’s the reality of being tempted. Whether it’s our diets or our struggles with greed or vengeance, we’ve all experienced temptation.

This is possibly why the story of Jesus being tempted has always been compelling. At its core, it is essentially a battle story, a contest between the two monumental forces of good versus evil.

To properly understand what’s happening in this Gospel story, we have to step back and remember the account of the Israelites being saved by God from the horrors of slavery.

After escaping the slavery imposed by the Egyptians, Israel’s experience in the wilderness is expressed in terms of a test from God: “And you shall remember … the Lord your God had led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not” [emphasis added].

The whole idea of being tested, of being led by God, of traveling through the “wilderness,” of the symbolic number forty, and even of fasting, all comes from this original account to see if God’s chosen people would be able to love in return thereby testing to know what was in their heart.

On a human level, the same is asked of Jesus. And notice what his test, what his temptations involve: they all have to do with the issue of power, and how it is used or abused.

God the Father is about to hand over to Jesus an enormous amount of power — the power to be God’s face in the world, the power to build a kingdom of love, peace and mercy.

Jesus, then, on a purely human level, must be tested to see if, unlike the ancient Israelites who flunked the test, he can remain utterly faithful to Abba, his father.

This test is essentially the very same one that we all have to pass if we are to assume a position of power in our own lives whether as a husband or wife, a parent, a leader of any kind.

The test given Jesus and to us is threefold:

  • Jesus is asked to deny who he truly is: the Son of God. Will we claim our identity as God’s very own, acknowledging our true identity as human beings who are made in the image of God?
  • Jesus is told he can be the source of great signs and wonders. Will we forsake our desire for fame and adulation, and instead live a life of humility focused on service?
  • Jesus is told he will be given all the power and glory of the world’s kingdoms. Will we be able to resist the power inherent in greed, lust, vengeance and all the glamour the world offers?

Temptations are powerfully seductive and alluring. In the example of Jesus, we are invited to resist them as did Jesus. On this First Sunday of Lent, our Gospel challenges us to do the same. Among the central themes of this season is the recognition that we all have to do battle against temptation — especially the temptation to misuse power.

To assist us in this conversion process, the church asks us to remember and to practice the message found in Deuteronomy: Go into your own wildernessfor forty days. Pray, fast, become contrite, increase our service to others – all of this testing to know what was in your heart, and to remind us once again: “The Lord, your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Dt 8:2).