To read the texts click on the texts: Gn2:7-9; 3:1-7; Rm 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11
Lent is a forty-day period of fast and abstinence before Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday when we celebrate Easter. Sundays are not counted as part of these forty days, since Sundays commemorate the Resurrection of the Lord.
While Lent means the spring season, it translates the Latin term quadragesima, which means “forty-day period is symbolic of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, a detail mentioned by all the synoptic gospels. “By the solemn forty days of Lent, he Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540).
In all three of the synoptic gospels the scene of the temptation of Jesus in the desert follows immediately after the baptism and thus must be seen in connection with it. In Matthew, at the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven speaks in the third person and so reveals Jesus as Servant King to his people.
The temptation scene which follows is therefore about whether Jesus will be faithful to this mission entrusted to him or whether he will cave in and give up. It shows how this Messiah conquers every kind of temptation that comes in the way of being who he is, and so conquers Satan as well. The disobedience of the first human beings is set right through the obedience of Jesus. The temptation of Jesus is fundamentally the same as the temptation of Adam and Eve to become one’s own god. By overcoming the same temptation that the first human beings had, Jesus brought to the fore both the field and the focus of his mission: liberation from sin and its destructive and enslaving effects.
Of the three Synoptic gospels, Mark does not narrate the “three temptations”, only Matthew and Luke do. However, the order of the second and third temptations is different in these Gospels. It seems that Luke has changed the order to have as the third temptation the challenge to Jesus to jump down from the pinnacle of the Temple. This allows Luke to have the climactic scene to occur at the Temple where his Gospel begins and ends.
The temptations in Matthew begin after the forty day period of fasting, and while the presence of the Spirit with him during these days will have strengthened him, the physical fast will have made Jesus hungry.
The first temptation is addressed directly to this aspect, but has deeper overtones. It is about the means that Jesus will use to fulfill his mission. By asking Jesus to turn “stones” (not “this stone” as in Luke) into bread, the temptation is not merely about alleviating Jesus’ hunger, but also about conforming to the popular expectations of the Messiah as one who would provide for the material needs of the people. While Matthew does narrate two feeding miracles (14:15-21; 15:32-38), the response of Jesus here is that true nourishment comes not merely from physical bread that is eaten but from obedience to God’s word.
The second temptation seems to concern sensationalism and probably even a desire to “test” God’ providence. Jesus responds by quoting Deut 6:16 that he will refuse to test divine providence. He will trust completely and needs no proof of God’s providence. He does not need God to give him a sign.
The third temptation is the offer to Jesus of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory”. This is a challenge to accept the ways of the world – to use domination rather than selflessness and to be crowned with gold rather than thorns. Jesus’ response is to reaffirm the mission he received at his baptism and to refuse to follow anything else except the will of his Father.
Oscar Wilde is believed to have said, “The best way to overcome temptation is to yield to it.’ While we might smile at the humour, we also realize that this was exactly what our first parents did. But it was not the way of Jesus. The overcoming of the temptations by Jesus stands in stark contrast to the first human beings capitulating to the guile of Satan as narrated by the first reading. This is the theme of Paul’s hymn to God’s unconditional love and grace. Through his overcoming sin and therefore death, Jesus has attained for all humans for all time the grace of God. He is one who justifies us. No one can now condemn us.
Unlike the first human beings who disobeyed God and in their pride tried to define for themselves what was good and evil, Jesus continued to remain obedient. Because he was confident of his intimate relationship with the Father, he did not need any miraculous sign of that presence. Nor did Jesus have to prove his own status by being a wonder-working, spectacular and dominating King. His kingdom will come through service, selflessness, helplessness and through the cross.