Jesus goes to the desert “to be tempted by the devil.” It is only after he fasts for 40 days and nights that the devil comes to tempt him. The devil tempts Jesus three times with three different temptations.
First, he tries to allure Jesus with food. Surely this temptation would have been attractive in Jesus’ weakened physical state. The devil is cunning. This temptation is not simply for food. He also tempts Jesus to prove he is the Lord. “If you are the Son of God …” the devil says. Jesus responds through acknowledging his reliance on the Father, not himself.
Second, the devil attempts to entice Jesus with “power and glory.” The catch is that Jesus will have to worship the devil instead of his Father. Jesus resists again, quoting Scripture, “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.”
Third, Satan endeavors to have Jesus challenge his Father through a test. Satan is trying to get Jesus to “force the hand,” so to speak, of the Father. (This is somewhat akin to a not too uncommon practice of praying to God: “If you do this for me I will do that for you.”) Jesus responds: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
The temptations are real. Although Jesus is weakened physically through his 40 days in the desert, he is strong in spirit and will. He resists those temptations recognizing them for what they are, not for what the devil proposes them to be.
As we begin the 40 days of Lent, the Church provides this Gospel account for the liturgy. It is an opportune time to reflect on temptation as we recognize the temptations that hit us in life. The Gospel account presents these three temptations of Jesus in a very direct and clear manner through his interchange with the devil.
In our lives we need to recognize when temptation is present; the temptations need to be identified. We know they come. In the Gospel account, Jesus was able to recognize each temptation for what it was and to resist submission to it.
Temptations usually come in the form of something pleasurable. We would not be tempted to do or to have something, if that something was not deemed pleasurable to ourselves. We are tempted by something we want, something we desire. Yet what is pleasurable is not always what is good, in fact we know that sometimes it is bad. This is where truth comes to the fore.
Knowledge of what is truly good and worthwhile of pursuit helps us to know when we are being tempted and to what end. Temptation might seem “good” but it leads us away from what is really “good.” Hence recognizing temptation for what it is helps us to resist acting on it.
There is a story about, of all things, monkeys that might help to illustrate this point. A plague of monkeys hit some towns in India at the turn of the millennia. The monkeys would invade homes, bite people and take off with food stocks. The people decided that they would have to reduce the large number of monkeys to alleviate the problem. The solution would be to capture monkeys and relocate them.
A traditional method of seizing the monkeys was used. Milk jars would be gathered. A lollypop would be placed in each one. The monkeys would come and, attracted by the sweet smell of the lollypop, would place their hand into the bottle. Grabbing the lollypop their hand would get stuck in the bottle because they would not let go of the lollypop. It was in this way that the people in these small towns captured the monkeys, relocated them and the pestilence ended.
In this story the monkeys were attracted by the lollypops. They were something that tasted good. Normally this would not be an issue. Yet in this case the lollypop serves as an enticement. The monkeys were attracted to it but did not realize that this lollypop, because it was in the glass jar, would lead them to be captured. Because they could not process the connection between holding on to the lollypop and their arm being stuck in the jar they did not let go. They were trapped. For us recognizing those things that are “temptations” is the first step in avoiding the trap.
The penitential practices of prayer and fasting help us to face and overcome the temptations that we encounter in this world.
Prayer helps us to know God and to know his will. Through prayer we are able to build up our awareness of God, his plan for us, and how he wants us to live this life he has given us. Through prayer we grow in our relationship with God. We become more acutely aware of the bond of love he has for us, and the abundant mercy he bestows on us.
The bond of love strengthens our desire to life our lives for him who gave us life. Strengthening our relationship with God, through his grace, assists us for living life to the full.
Jesus’ fasting in the desert provides us an example. Fasting, or giving up something good, helps us to not be dependent on passing things; things that may be pleasurable, maybe even good. Our dependence is not on material things but on God’s gracious love. His love brought us into being, sustains us in life and draws us to him who is life.
Fasting helps keep this in focus. Through the spiritual exercise of fasting we strengthen our will so that when we recognize temptation we will be able, with God’s help, to resist it.
The season of Lent helps prepare us for the celebration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection that we celebrate, in a special way, at Easter. The 40 days provide us with an opportunity for renewal and growth. The disciplines of the season, particularly prayer and fasting, help us to recognize temptation, to resist temptation and to have a fuller life as a result. Jesus, as always, shows us the way.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.