"Then was Jesus led up by the spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4.1)
In the Gospel lesson for this First Sunday in Lent, we have St. Matthew's
account of the temptations of Jesus. John the Baptist had come out
of the wilderness, preaching the baptism of repentance and the advent
of the Kingdom of God.
In the baptism of Jesus, John's mission was fulfilled: here was the
longed-for Messiah, "he that should come." (Matthew 11.3) Here was
the Messiah, sealed by the descent of the Spirit, and the divine
commendation, "this is my beloved Son." (Matthew 3.17) Here, at last,
was the bringing in of God's new kingdom, looked for by the prophets and
martyrs of Israel, present but not spelled out in the hopes of the
Gentile wise men. The hopes and expectations, the desires and longings
of countless years, all came to a focus in this man from Nazareth.
This was no ordinary moment. But what, more precisely, was his vocation
and his kingdom? That was yet to be made clear.
"Then was Jesus led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted
by the devil." And there, in the wilderness, an explanation comes. God's kingdom, the age-long conflict of good and evil, of light and
darkness, is in this moment fully explained. In general, the things
of darkness are things obscure and confused, muddled and indefinite; but
the coming of light makes them plain. In the clear simplicity of
the desert, away from all the familiar distractions, the conflict
becomes an open one: the devil, that is to say, is manifest. And
in the temptations of Jesus, the nature and forms of that conflict are
First, he is tempted to turn stores into bread. The devil wants him
to turn the divine power to essentially worldly ends, to satisfy
the demands of the senses. Not that there is anything evil about
being hungry and wanting to eat, but the temptation lies in seeing such satisfactions as the purpose of his vocation and the point of God's kingdom. But the Kingdom of God does not consist in eating and drinking; so
it does not consist in devices to make the world more comfortable
and convenient. "Man does not live by bread alone, but by the whole
Word of God."
The second temptation is to test - and that is what "tempt" really means
- to test the divine powers: "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself
down." It is the temptation to measure the divine power, to control
and manipulate the divine spirit, according to one's own terms. It
is the temptation to try to have God under control. But God's Kingdom and
its miracles have nothing to do with using God for human purposes.
The miracles of God's Kingdom have quite another character and purpose
than this. "Thou shall not test the Lord thy God."
The third temptation is the most fundamental, and indeed it is the root
of all others. It is the ancient diabolical temptation of Adam: "to
be as God." It is the temptation to see one's finite self in the
place of God, to be oneself the absolute measure of everything. That is
really to worship the devil. "All these things will I give thee, if thou
wilt fall down and worship me." It is, of course, an illusion, a
futile pride and ambition, because it is untrue to the absolute reality
of God, and his order of creation. "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve."
"Then the devil leaveth him." That is to say, the devil is unmasked,
the illusions are revealed for what they are. They are the temptation
to use God for worldly ends, and the temptation to regard one's human
self as God. Once they are unmasked, of course, they are absurd there
is nothing so absurd as the devil - but human kind has great capacity for blindness and self-deception.
"And behold, angels came and ministered unto him." With the temptations
dispelled, Jesus is free in his vocation and mission. The perspective
is right, and the angels, the justice of God's universe, will serve
These temptations of Jesus represent the essential forms of all temptation;
they are our temptations, and the temptations of the Church. They
are the illusions that we can use the divine spirit for worldly ends,
that we can make God subject to our whims and idle curiosities, that
we can be as absolute as God.
In this season of Lent we are led up by the Spirit into the wilderness;
and the point is that we should be made free from our illusions. For this, a kind of wilderness, or a certain quiet, is necessary.
It seems that the world goes faster every day, and that we are increasingly
consumed by its complex busyness. There is noise and activity everywhere and always. It comes to pass that there is no time or place for quiet reflection. We are hidden to ourselves, muddled and confused about ourselves,
and inclined to measure everything in terms of immediate worldly
ends. And that is the very devil.
A certain wilderness is necessary for the clarifying of the Spirit. Turn off the noise for a bit, and shun the continual distractions
for awhile. There is a powerful modern prejudice in favour of busyness;
even the Church seems determined to keep us busy. Even when we have
retreats, which used to be times of quietness, the inclination now is to
turn them into conferences with discussion groups.
The ancient Christian hermits, the "Desert Fathers," as they are called,
had a point when they claimed that the real battles of the spirit,
the real confrontations with our devils, take place in quiet and
isolation. Lent calls us to participate, at least in some small way, in
that flight to the desert, to try to see ourselves clearly in the
undistracted light of God's word, to identify our illusions so as
to be free of them.
Impractical, perhaps, in some sense, but then, what really is practical? "What does it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose
his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"
(Matthew 16.26) Our supposed practicality can be very soul destroying. Genuine practicality, purposeful activity, requires a clearness of perspective and a dispelling of illusions.
That is what today's Gospel is about, and that is what our Lent should
be about, "lest," as St. Paul says, "we receive the grace of God
St. John, in his first Epistle, summing up the three forms of temptation,
puts the matter this way: "Do not love the world or the things in
the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not
in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust
of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of
the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he
who does the will of God abides forever." (1 John 2.15-17)