Forty days and forty nights Jesus spends in the desert. St. Matthew tells us that he was led there by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Prior to that specific confrontation, Jesus fasts and prays. The evangelist tells us that he was hungry when the tempter approached. He was weak. Satan sees this as his opportunity to lure Jesus away from the Father.
Satan’s role here harkens back to an earlier victory for him which we hear about in the first reading, from the Book of Genesis. Here we find Adam and Eve representing the first humans. They have been created by God who breathes life into them so that they could live. The garden was a place of beauty and provided food for the couple. In the center was the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The cunning one approaches Eve and entices her: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” She answers no, saying that the only one prohibited is the one in the middle, for eating of this would bring death.
The devil jumps at this opportunity. Telling Eve that the only reason God has said this is that he knows that if she eats from this tree she will be like him. Eve looks at the tree and finds it pleasing. A desire wells up in her for its food. She wants to know, and she gives in to the tempter and eats. Immediately she shares it with Adam and he too eats.
Satan has his victory, he has turned them away from the Lord. The author then tells us that their “eyes were opened” and now instead of seeing the beauty that was theirs, they see nakedness and shame.
At the heart of the story is the interplay between God and Satan, life and death, beauty and shame. God is the giver of life, he is the creator of all that is good. He gives life to humanity and man finds life in Him. Satan is evil. He is the one who seeks to rob man of life and beauty. He connives, lures, plays to man’s weakness and desires. He knows that God created man free so he cannot force a turning, he has to entice. This he does.
The choice of Adam and Eve represents something greater than simply a choice to eat a piece of the forbidden fruit. The choice represents a turning from God to Satan, from life to death, from grace to sin, from virtue to vice.
The story provides background for Jesus’ own encounter with the devil. Jesus is sent from the Father for healing the wounds inflicted upon mankind by the choice of the first humans. He is sent to reveal the Father’s love, to turn man back to God and to heal the brokenness caused by sin. Obviously, this would rob the devil of his earlier victory so he tries here to stop it. Three times he temps Jesus to abandon this mission.
His temptations are more developed now but at heart they are still the same — turn from the Father and turn toward me. In the first two temptations Satan tries to get Jesus to prove himself, saying, “If you are the Son of God ….” The first temptation plays on Jesus’ bodily weakness from the fasting. In the second temptation the devil temps Jesus to force the hand of the Father to save him (this will have a much greater significance at the end of the Gospel when Jesus has to endure the passion).
Satan, seemingly frustrated, finally temps Jesus to worship him rather than the Father. Here all pretenses are gone and the evil desires of Satan are manifest.
Jesus answers the temptations, fortified by the Scriptures: “one does not live on bread alone …;” “you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test …” and “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” In the end, Jesus dismisses the devil saying: “Get away, Satan!” and he leaves.
Jesus’ temptation in the desert represents the victory that is coming. The story is not over, it is only the beginning. Satan will return as Jesus’ invites mankind to be renewed in the covenant of love. Yet the temptation provides a backdrop for the mission. Jesus chooses to follow the Father, to trust in his love and fidelity. Ultimately, he will allow the forces of evil to run their course, but he, Jesus, remains faithful and is raised from the dead and with him all who share in his life.
The second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans reflects on this: “Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”
During the forty days of Lent we, as the church, prepare for the annual celebration of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. We are reminded that in baptism we have been united with Christ Jesus in his death so that we might likewise share in his resurrection.
We, like Jesus, can be tempted along the journey. The tri-fold discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving help to fortify us for living the life of the baptized, united with God through the healing powers of those springs of life.
The discipline strengthens us in Christian living. The practices help us to face the different temptations we will face in life and fortify us when they come, so that we might say, as Jesus did, “Get away Satan.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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