To read the texts click on the texts: Gen 2:7-9;3:1-7; Rom 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 go into 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 days” or literally the “fortieth day”. The 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 the 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 the 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 is a lesson on how this revealed 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’s 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 the glory of them”. This is a challenge to accept the ways of the world namely: to use domination rather than service, to accept selfishness 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. Here, however, before Jesus can quote the scripture to disprove Satan, he adds his own words, “Begone, Satan!” (not in Luke) through which Matthew indicates that Satan has indeed been defeated and though Jesus and his disciples will continue to be tempted, Satan will not have the same power.
Someone once said to me tongue in cheek, “The best way to overcome temptation is to give in.” While we might smile at the humour we also realize that while this was what our first parents did, 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's 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 the one who justifies us. No one will now condemn.
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 and because he was confident of his intimate relationship with the Father did not need any miraculous signs 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.