by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild. For forty days and nights he was tested by the Devil. Lk. 4, 1-13
Today’s gospel-reading gives us Luke’s account of how Jesus went into the solitude of the wilderness or desert to concentrate on discerning how to live out his mission as the Messiah. To understand the implications of Jesus’ deliberate decision to take time for such a retreat, we have to keep reminding ourselves that Jesus was fully human, as human as the people among whom he lived. He had to work out for himself the best way to live out the vocation to which he had come to realise God was inviting him. He had to do the hard work of praying and discerning as we all have to do. He had no special privileges.
Jesus had gone to the wilderness in search of solitude, to find an opportunity to reflect, pray and discern. He fasted from food not as a way of doing penance but to give his full attention to God. Having fasted for forty days, he was in need of sustenance. So it comes as no surprise that Luke described him as being hungry. That gave the Devil, personified evil, the opportunity to tempt him to assume a sense of entitlement, to use his power to turn stones into bread for the sole purpose of self-gratification. He resisted being drawn into that, responding that everyone’s life is nourished by a lot more than bread – for example, friendship, love, acceptance, sunshine, music, art. There are things in our lives that are more important than food and drink, even though we all need sustenance.
The second temptation that Jesus encountered was about power. We are aware of the inclination we all have to wield a bit of power, be it in the work-place or on the sporting-field. At the same time, we are repelled by the manner in which power is being grasped and abused in the tragic events unfolding in the Ukraine at this very moment. We witness abuse of power frequently, in the way politics are acted out at the national and local level in our home countries. We see elected leaders jockey for position and advancement by fair means and foul. Jesus was tempted to compromise the values espoused by God and to opt, instead, for the kind of power and control that manipulates the lives of others. He refused to accommodate injustice. He had discovered that dedication to God would give him all the freedom and authority he needed to accomplish with integrity the mission to which God had invited him.
Jesus had come to realise that love and human freedom do not flourish in circumstances driven by coercion. And that true allegiance does not grow out of trying to win people with free food and drink. We have all seen people who try to win power and status with promises, or who fete electors with lavishly catered receptions. Sometimes they succeed, but all too often the promises are not met, the receptions dry up, and the electors disappear. Jesus was not going to be drawn in by that tactic.
Finally, Jesus was enticed to play games with God by a tempter who even quoted to him a psalm. In inviting Jesus to throw himself from the Temple parapet, assuring him that he would have the protection of God’s angels, the Devil quoted Scripture as the trump card in his arsenal. Jesus responded that only God is worthy of worship and not to be toyed with.
We have all experienced temptation and failure. We have all felt the urges to put self first, to go in search of power and to try to convince God to do things our way, to fix up our problems in ways that suit us. Those urges are variations of the very same temptations Jesus experienced. Moreover, let’s not ignore the very last sentence of today’s gospel-reading in which Luke observes: “When the devil had finished all the tempting, he left Jesus, to await another opportunity” (Luke 4, 13). Fully human, like each of us, Jesus had to contend with temptation all through his life. So, let’s not think for a moment that, after his desert experience, he was exempt from temptation for the rest of his life. As we, too, journey through life, we will encounter seductive people and forces offering us easy, attractive and corrupt ways of satisfying our wants and desires. There will even be some who will offer us short-cuts into manipulating God. If there is one thing that stands out in this account of Jesus’ temptations in the desert it is that Jesus willingly chose to stand with all of us in the struggle to live decent, honest, upright lives.
At the same time, if we truly believe that God’s Spirit dwells within each of us and is also alive and active in our world, we can only conclude that the same Spirit invites us to venture into the desert of our lives throughout the forty days of the Lenten season. The very word “Lent” has come into contemporary English from an Old English word lencten, meaning Spring. Lent, then, is a time to Spring-clean our lives, to embrace the newness and transformation to which God’s Spirit is constantly and consistently inviting us.
Nobody’s life unfolds without struggle, be it struggle that accompanies the unforeseen or unavoidable circumstances of day-to-day life or be it struggle that arises from our personal frailty, errors of judgement or straight-out sinfulness. Lent offers us the opportunity to ponder and depth those struggles. If we can find the courage to engage honestly with those struggles, there is every chance that God’s Spirit will bless us with the insight and vision to move creatively into the next phase of our growth into God.