Where Temptation Thrives: The Desert

First Sunday of Lent, Cycle A

Lent is the time when we metaphorically enter our own deserts.  Each year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the Church draws our attention to the temptation narrative. The temptation of Jesus in the desert is found in the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew. Today, the reading of the day is from Matthew’s account.  

 The temptation narrative is a complicated narrative because it is meant to portray a holy life in the center of sinful world.  This narrative is also meant to bring to mind Israel’s sojourn in the desert for forty years. The temptations, the pitfalls, are not only a condition of Israel per se, but moreover of all sinful humanity since the time of the fall.  It is helpful to understand the story of Jesus in the desert with an eye on the Exodus event, when the chosen people wandered meaninglessly for forty years. Along with the two events, a need to keep in mind is our own personal exodus, when we wandered, or are still wandering, aimlessly in our own desolate space.

The twentieth century theologian, Rev. Ronald Knox once wrote: “The temptations of our Lord are also the temptations of his servants individually. But the scale of them naturally is different; the devil is not going to offer you and me all the kingdoms of the world He knows his market; offers, like a good salesman, just as much as he thinks his customer will take. I suppose he thinks, with some justice, that most of us could be had for five thousand a year, and a great many of us for much less. Nor does he, to us propose his conditions so openly; his offer comes to us wrapped up in all sorts of plausible shapes. But if he sees the chance, he is not slow to point out to you and to me how we could get the thing we want if we would be untrue to our better selves.

Knox’s words should be taken seriously because the temptations Jesus experienced are still alive and seducing us daily. The first temptation has to do with the needs of our flesh. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”

Knox remind us that Jesus’ temptations are our temptations and the first to tackle is the need and wants of the flesh. Generally speaking, in civilized societies, the temptation is not about food anymore, but about the many temptations surrounding material possessions. The desire is ignited and exacerbated by being constantly bombarded with advertising. The plethora of announcements leads to the first temptation; the need to fill our emptiness with more things.  

No one can argue advertising is very effective tool enticing the prospective buyer to buy a product. Think about the iPhone 12, you may even own one. The ads tell us it just isn’t good enough, you deserve better. For whatever reason, we have been led to believe we need all the bells and whistles on the new iPhone14 model. When we fall prey to the suggestion, we are even willing to finance the new phone until doomsday. We ask ourselves, what is more basic to modern life than a good mobile phone keeping me connected with my social media accounts?  The materialistic ‘manna’ we purchase only temporarily fills our empty stomachs until the time our stomachs growl again, perhaps this time, desiring something off Amazon site.  No wonder, there are so many Amazon trucks visible on every street. The first temptation everyone will encounter is the pleasures of the flesh.

Now comes the second temptation, “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.” Since the devil was not successful in having Jesus fall in his trap of the desire of the flesh, he uses a more subtle approach by tempting Jesus to denounce the natural order God has established for his creatures. Everyone knows that hurling yourself off a high cliff will result in a substantial injury.  The devil knows most people are not so unwise to think they have the power to fly. The evil one is so cunning and tempts people to reject the natural order established by God, not through obvious means, but by shrouding the lie in a more palatable form.

It starts first with a misguided sense of compassion. Who wants anyone to suffer? No one. Using unconditional compassion as a starting point, the devil uses the fertile soil of misguidedness to trick people into believing they have the ultimate power to create on their own. Compassion, therefore, dictates a person trapped in the wrong body has the right and power to create a new being for himself.  Denying nature is the temptation which promises happiness and the lack of suffering by having a man be a woman and a woman a man, if they only wish. Ignoring the natural order also leads to the misunderstanding of the family; namely as a male husband and female wife and children, is now  no more than an option for some, but not an encompassing mandate from God. Or, by denying the natural order of things can you conclude same-sex marriage is a real marriage.  The second temptation: Deny all the natural laws given by God so as to be free from the perceived burdensome constraints of your nature.

Finally, the most debilitating of all the temptations, and inflicting the most damage is the blasphemous denial of the true God. “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.” Whether it is acknowledged or not, human beings are created to worship. If the true God is ignored, some other god will fill the space. The book of Exodus illustrates the theme well by showing how the people of Israel fell into this trap by worshipping a golden calf.  The majority of society no longer worships a golden calf, or even the devil directly, but that doesn’t mean other things besides God aren’t adored and worshiped.  

When the temptation of rejecting the belief in God is acted upon, the hole left open in a person’s life is filled with some type of deity. There is no such thing as an atheist, either a person believes in the true God, or he believes and worships something else far inferior to God.  Sweeping across the globe is the pagan and idolatrous deity of climate change.  In order to save the planet, the most valuable inhabitants of the planet can be sacrificed to please the god of mother earth. Furthermore, the insistence on the ‘right’ to act in any way imaginable, is sacrosanct to the deity of complete and unfettered self-realization, no matter if the realization causes harm to others. Sounds like worshipping Satan, doesn’t it? The third temptation: Deny God, worship something else or someone, who will not challenge or inform your conscience in ways of holiness.  

The three temptations of Jesus are indeed the temptations we all face.

Now that we have understood the deeper meaning of those classic temptations, let’s conclude with words and learn from St. Catherine of Sienna: “God allows temptation so that our virtues can prove themselves and so increase His grace; not for us to be vanquished but for us to be conquerors through confidence in divine help that makes us say with the meek Apostle Paul: I can do everything in Jesus Crucified who is in me and strengthens me.

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