1st Sunday of Lent
Preached March 10, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil for forty days.
So also, led by the Holy Spirit, we must follow Jesus during the forty days of Lent, into the spiritual desert of self-denial in which we too can expect to face trial and temptation.
In English we have three words “temptation”, “trial”, and “test”, all of which are used to translate a single Greek word found in the Gospels. Well, a temptation is a kind of test, a test in which the devil maliciously tries to trip us up, but which God allows in order to test our fidelity to him.
We pray lead us not into temptation. This can have two meanings. It could mean: “Don’t lead us into the proving ground the way you led Jesus out into the desert because, well, we are afraid we might fall”. Or it might mean: “If we must be subject to the trial of temptation then do not allow us to enter so deeply that we have no way out except by yielding.”
St. Paul writes, God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it. (1 Cor 10:13)
When we read the New Testament and encounter the words “temptation”, “trial”, “test”, we should remember that they are all translating the same word.
God put Adam and Eve to the test, allowing them to be tempted by Satan, and they fell. God put Job to the test, allowing him to be tempted by Satan and he remained faithful. God put his own Son, Jesus Christ, to the test, allowing him to be tempted by Satan, and not only was he faithful, but by his victory he teaches us to be faithful and gives us the power to conquer.
Why does God put us to the test?
He does not need to know what will happen, but we do. Through the trials and temptations that God allows to take place in our life we learn of our need for God, we come to know our own strength and weakness, we grow in strength through the practice of virtue, we are given a opportunity to show the purity of our love for God by our fidelity in adversity, and we come to know the presence of God in our life as we learn how he guides and sustains us in temptation.
When he tempted Eve, the devil claimed that God forbad eating of the fruit because he was nothing more than a jealous control freak. He called God’s goodness into question.
The truth is that God needs nothing and nothing can threaten him; he rules over us and gives us commands for our good. We need to put our trust in his goodness.
With Job, the devil hurled a challenge against God saying that even the best man is no more than a mercenary who serves God only because of the temporal benefit he receives. Yet, it is Job himself who needs to discover that he can serve God freely; it is Job himself who needs to learn to serve God even in severest trial. With Job the devil called God’s justice into question.
The truth is that God has a right to rule over us and put us to the test. We need to put our trust in God’s justice, even when it is not apparent.
The first temptation came to Eve only for the outside, from Satan. Since then temptation can come directly from Satan – but only with God’s permission. Or temptation can come from the adversity of the created world. Or from the hostility of other human beings. Or from the external weakness of our body. Or the internal weakness of our soul. Further Satan can employ any or all of these sources of temptation against us as he did against Job.
When Satan approaches Jesus in the desert he has two goals. First, as usual he wants to corrupt the man by seducing him with his temptations, temptations that call God into question. Second he wants to find out who this man is. The man puzzles him because he knows that he has no part of him, as with the rest of humanity. He suspects that he is the “Son of God” – something he has heard about, but despite his extraordinary intelligence does not really understand. He knows that the “Son of God” is somehow meant to be his downfall, but he doesn’t grasp that either.
But let us take a look at the strange temptation that St. Luke emphasizes by putting in the last place. The devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem, sets him on the parapet of the Temple and says to him: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,” and: “With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
The temptation is a bit puzzling. Why would Jesus (or anyone else) want to jump from the parapet of the Temple? To make a display of himself? To attract attention?
Maybe we could take the matter a bit more symbolically. To cast oneself down from the Temple, the place of God, is to depart willingly from God, which is always a ‘downward’ movement.
To cast himself down from the Temple would, for Jesus, be to make an exception for himself; to except himself, perhaps, from the law of gravity; it would be a display of the attitude of privilege.
This is the attitude shown by the wealthy and powerful man who on the one hand makes a show of his devotion and integrity, but on the other hand uses his power to make exceptions for himself. It is the attitude that the law applies to others, not to me. The more extreme example would be to abuse God’s mercy as a license for sin; this is the path of presumption.
Jesus, who as the Son of God was indeed above the law, by becoming man, freely made himself subject to the law. Satan, perhaps, is tempting him to act above the law, but Jesus did not make any exception for himself. He fulfilled all the demands of God’s justice in order to bring us his mercy.
Jesus replies by saying: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.
God has the right to put us to the test, but we do not have the right to put him to the test.
In prosperity and strength we put him to the test by making exceptions for ourselves, or following the path of presumption. We say, in effect, “God will not call me to judgment”; or “God will forgive me; he has to.” Or, “If God does not want me to lead a life of sin, he will have stop me.”
In adversity and trial we put God to the test when instead of believing in him and putting our trust in him, we demand that he prove himself to us first. We say, in effect, “Do this for me and I will believe in you” or “I will only believe in you if you do as I ask.”
This is how Israel continually put God to the test during their forty years in the desert. They acted towards God like the sort of people who complain about everything and can never be satisfied. God said of them: They challenged me and provoked me, although they had seen all of my works. (Ps 95:9)
We are not to put God to the test by presuming on his mercy or by challenging and provoking him, but the Psalmist invites us saying, Taste and see that the Lord is good. (Ps 34:8) “Tasting” is another way to test God, a right way to test God. What does it mean? Instead of challenging him, or presuming on his mercy, it means trusting him and following the way of his commandments and so learning by experience how good he is to those who put their trust in him. The Virgin Mary in her song of thanksgiving said, His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. (Lk 1:50)
The 2nd century martyr, St. Polycarp, who in his youth had heard the preaching of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, in his old age was commanded by the Roman authorities to deny Christ. St. Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp; 9:3) St. Polycarp had truly tasted of the Lord’s goodness; he had put him to the test in the right way, by resisting temptation and following the Lord’s way; so in the supreme trial of his life he did not put the Lord to the test by denying him. Instead he offered his life in fulfillment of the sacrifice that he had offered when, as a priest, he had celebrated the Holy Eucharist.