An ancient proverb says: “Good habits result from resisting temptation.” On Ash Wednesday we heard three fundamental orientations for this season in the rich Scripture readings: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Lent is a season of solidarity, of sharing, of openness to our neighbor, especially towards the most needy. Lent is also the favorable time for personal and community prayer, nourished by the Word of God as proclaimed each day in the liturgy. This year at the beginning of Lent, we are invited to focus our attention on Luke’s account of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. How can we develop some good habits this Lent as we strive to overcome our temptations?
Led by the Spirit into the wilderness
Most of us are very familiar with the three graphic temptations of Jesus as related by Matthew and Luke in their Gospel accounts of Jesus in the desert. As a result of the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism [Luke 3:21-22], that same Spirit leads Jesus into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil. The mention of forty days recalls the forty years of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites during the Exodus [Deut 8:2].
At the outset we must ask ourselves as countless people have asked throughout the ages: how could it be said that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into temptation? If Jesus was God, and God is incapable of being tempted, how could Jesus have been tempted? Such questions arise when we consider the temptations of Christ. How do we reconcile what we know about God, Jesus, and temptation, with what is said to have happened in the gospel accounts regarding Christ’s temptations?
Lukan aspects of the temptations of Christ
Let us consider several important aspects of this Sunday’s Gospel story of Jesus tempted. The Holy Spirit did not lead Jesus into temptation. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. The evil one would utilize the moment of Jesus’ physical weakness and exhaustion in the desert to tempt him. Satan would consider this “an opportune time,” and he would look for other “seasons” as well. The devil did the tempting, not the Holy Spirit!
Neither Matthew [4:1-11] nor Luke claim to represent the chronological sequence of the temptations. Luke may have reflected on the scene from the standpoint of geography, relating the two in the wilderness first, and then the one on the temple’s pinnacle. Matthew records that after the temptation on the high mountain, Jesus said, “Away from me, Satan.” Matthew’s order, therefore, may be the chronological sequence, but there is no contradiction between the two evangelists.
Luke represents the three specific temptations as occurring after the forty days of fasting [4:2-3]. The Lord may have endured many temptations during the forty days, but the three temptations were the culminating, most intense testing, of Jesus’ wilderness solitude. Luke’s temptations conclude on the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem, the city of destiny in the third Gospel. It is in Jerusalem that Jesus will ultimately face his destiny [9:51; 13:33].
In the first temptation in the desert, Jesus responds to the evil one, not by denying human dependence on sustenance (food), but rather by putting human life and the human journey in perspective. Those who follow Jesus cannot become dependent on the things of this world. When we are so dependent on material things, and not on God, we give in to temptation and sin.
The second temptation deals with the adoration of the devil rather than God. Jesus once again reminds the evil one that God is in control. This is so important for us to hear and believe, especially when our own temptations seem to overpower us, when everything around us might indicate shadows, darkness and evil. It is God who is ultimately in charge of our destiny.
In the third temptation, the devil asks for a revelation or manifestation of God's love in favor of Jesus. Jesus answers the evil one by saying that he doesn't have to prove that God loves him.
Luke says that the devil left him when he “had ended every temptation” [4:13]. Are we to understand that the devil never tempted the Lord again? Luke 4:13 indicates that the devil’s temptations ended on that occasion “for a season,” or “until an opportune time.” The devil's opportune time will occur before the passion and death of Jesus [22:3, 31-32, 53]. It was after Jesus endured the desert wilderness that he withstood temptation. Alone and defenseless against the wind and the weather, exposed to both day and night—and even exposed to the seeming absence of God, this experience of desert wilderness is a part of human growth and maturity.
At the very beginning of his campaign for this world and for each one of us, Jesus openly confronted the enemy. He began his fight using the power of Scripture during a night of doubt, confusion, and temptation. It will do us well not to forget Jesus’ example, so that we won’t be seduced by the devil’s deception. We are tempted in the same ways Jesus was - wanting to have power over life and death, wanting to control our economic futures, putting our appetite for food ahead of our appetite for God. But trusting in God, as Jesus did, will make us strong.
Temptation is everything that makes us small, ugly, and mean. Temptation uses the trickiest moves that the evil one can think up. And his power is greater and stronger than our own human power. The more the devil has control of us, the less we want to acknowledge that he is fighting for every millimeter of this earth. Jesus didn’t let him get away with that.
Jesus' desert experience raises important questions for us. What are some of the "desert" experiences I have experienced in my life? What desert experience am I living through right now? When and how do I find moments of contemplation in the midst of a busy life? How have I lived in the midst of my own desert wilderness? Have I been courageous and persistent in fighting with the demons? How have I resisted transforming my own deserts into places of abundant life?
Far from creating a great divide between Jesus Christ and ourselves, our own trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself, thanks to this man of the cross. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us– he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside– by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. For one must have suffered in order to truly feel for others. From Jesus we learn that God is present and sustaining us in the midst of test, temptation and yes, even sinfulness.
As Christians, we are in a constant fight with the desires born of our sinful natures. We are unable to resist temptation without God's grace. We are called to trust the Lord (not ourselves) for strength to resist temptation before it becomes sin. It is not the temptation itself that leads us to sin, but the lack of resistance and trust in the Lord for deliverance.
Christ identifies with our struggles
Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners, knew well that temptation could simply overcome people. Victims of poverty, ignorance, prejudice, oppression, abuse, violence and drugs reveal to us how easily people can be driven beyond endurance. Those who pray with Jesus share his profound sense of ultimate human helplessness and dependence.
Christ was human and He can identify with our struggles. Hebrews 4:14-16 says, "Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."
Lord, lead us not into temptation! Rather, guide us into the pathways of justice, love and peace during these Lenten days. Give us the grace and fidelity to be faithful to our God and Father in heaven. Give us the courage to accept who we really are and where we should be.
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt + Light Catholic Television Network
[The readings for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 26.4-10; Ps 91; Romans 10.8-13; Luke 4.1-13]
Watch Fr. Rosica's Lenten Reflection: The Ways of the Desert HERE.