To read the texts click on the texts: Dt26:4-10; 1 Rm 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13
Lent is a forty day period of fast and abstinence before Easter. It begins Ash Wednesday and ends Holy Saturday. Sundays are not counted as part of these forty days because on Sundays, we commemorate the Resurrection of the Lord.
While “Lent” means the spring season, it also translates the Latin term, “quadragesima” which means “forty days” or literally the “fortieth day”. The forty day period is symbolic of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, a period mentioned in all the synoptic gospels. “By the solemn forty days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert." (CCC 540).
By choosing the story of the temptation of Jesus as the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent, the Church gives us an orientation to how each of us must approach Lent and life itself. The three temptations of Jesus have been seen as corresponding to the temptations of Israel. The temptations involved bread, testing the Lord, and idolatry. Matthew followed this order in his narrative of the temptation scene. However, Luke changed the order of the temptations. Luke placed the testing of the Lord at the end of the temptations because, for Luke, testing the Lord on the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple is the climax. The Temple is the place where Luke begins his Gospel and the Temple is the place where Luke’s Gospel will end.
In Luke, unlike in Matthew and Mark, the temptations come after the period of forty days and thus, highlight the fact that Jesus would have been vulnerable. He would have been weakened by hunger. This is why the first temptation arises out of Jesus’ physical need. It is not like, in Matthew, a temptation to turn “stones” into bread. In this temptation, Jesus is challenged to turn “this stone into a loaf of bread”. While this may be understood as a temptation to perform a popular or magical sign, it seems better to understand it as a temptation to use his power for his own benefit. It is a temptation to be selfish and to satisfy one’s own needs. It is also a temptation to concern oneself with the material alone as is evident in the response of Jesus. There is much more that sustains the human than mere physical satisfaction.
The second temptation, to acquire power, authority, and dominion by worshipping Satan, is really a temptation to take the easy way rather than the right way. It is a temptation to compromise. Jesus’ response is that there is only one way to gain authority, power, and dominion and that is by worshipping God, not things or persons.
In the third and final temptation, the devil quotes scripture since Jesus has used scripture to overcome the previous two temptations. This temptation is to put God to the test. Jesus’ response, with words taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, is clear and unambiguous. God is to be worshipped and obeyed and not put to the test. The final verse in Luke, which states that the Devil left him till an opportune time, is Luke’s way of saying that Jesus continued to be tempted throughout his life. This is evident in the numerous requests that continued to be made of him for signs and wonders. It is evident even more, in the Garden at Gethsemane, when he was sorely tempted to opt for a way other than the way of the Cross. Jesus, like he did in the desert, overcame all temptations. The uniqueness of Jesus is not merely that he was without sin, but that, even after being tempted, he continued to remain sinless. Thus, the temptations must be interpreted as the constant struggle or conflict between God’s reign and the reign of Satan.
This struggle continues today, even after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We continue to be lured by numerous temptations. One of these is the temptation to be successful at all costs, even if it means belittling others or riding roughshod over them. Other temptations are to have more, rather than to be more, or to choose the easy way rather than the right way, or to sit on the fence rather than to take a stand, or to take the broad road rather than the road of pain and sacrifice, or even to focus so much on the external that the internal is forgotten.
How are we to overcome these temptations? What must our response be in the face of such temptations? We do not need to look far, or go to manuals on ethics, or even listen to the counsel of the wise. We have an outstanding and practical example of how to overcome temptations in Jesus and in his response. In a word, the temptations are not so much about the temptations themselves, or even about Satan and his attempts to entice, allure, and beguile us. The temptations are about Jesus. They are about his fidelity and constancy to his mission. They are about his focus and his commitment. They are about his pointed dedication to God. We are offered today an example to follow and imitate. To be sure, the story of the temptations does not give us readymade answers to all the allurements and enticements we face everyday but, they do point us to the response of Jesus, which at all times remained a response in which God’s will, rather than his own, took primacy.
As we begin the grace filled season of Lent, we are invited and challenged by Jesus’ response to Satan. We are invited and challenged to make Jesus’ response our own.