March 1; 1st Sunday of Lent; Year A

1st Lent 19 20The Heart of Temptation

It’s Lent again, time to double or triple our efforts to get holy. Strangely enough, this is the time of the year, when temptation doesn’t get any sweeter or more alluring. The more we wish to grow in intimacy with God, the greater would be Satan’s effort to frustrate that goal. At the beginning of his pontificate, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who is fond of speaking about the devil as a real being rather than just some impersonal concept, had this to say about temptation: “Temptation is a normal part of life's struggle, and anyone who claims to be immune from it is either a little angel visiting from heaven or "a bit of an idiot.”” He added that the biggest problem in the world isn't temptation or sin, rather it is people deluding themselves into believing that they're not sinners and losing all sense of sin. That is why the Church begins this First Sunday in Lent with a meditation of the temptation of Christ. Yes, it is both challenging and comforting to acknowledge that no one is immune to temptation. Not even a hero. Not even a nobody. Not even people like you and me. And certainly not even Christ, the sinless One, the Son of God.

From the waters of the Jordan, the Spirit leads our Lord into the harsh wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The gospel presents this ordeal as an escalating series of three temptations. The first temptation is most subtle, seems harmless, innocent and even rationally necessary. The second is less so, but yet the lure of an audience could be interpreted as giving glory to God for a wondrous miracle. But the third temptation is the most blatant and audacious. All three are attempts by the Enemy to divert our Lord from the path of human suffering, the way of the cross, and ultimately from the obedience to the Father’s plan that His mission entails.

The first temptation runs: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.” What seems apparent to most people is that the devil wishes for our Lord to perform a miracle to relieve the suffering of His physical needs – to do something for His own personal benefit. Nothing wrong with that. But the real focus of this temptation is on the identity and power of Jesus. What was declared in public by the Father at the baptism, “This is my beloved Son”, is now tested in private. The temptation is not really about food but about turning our Lord away from the path chosen for Him by the Father. His mission is not to serve Himself by exploiting His divine prerogatives but to serve others by a life of heroic sacrifice. And that is why our Lord answers, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God’s Word, God’s will for us, and our obedience to Him takes priority.

The second temptation brings our Lord to the holy city of Jerusalem where the devil perches Him high on the parapet of the Temple and utters these words, “If you are the Son of God ... throw yourself down”. Why was the Temple chosen? Well, this is the place where the Jews believed God had chosen to dwell among His people. Just as no one is immune to temptation, no place is also immune from the devil’s snares; not even the “holiest place“ on earth. As in the first temptation, the divine Sonship of Jesus is central to the test. This time the temptation is buttressed with a quotation from Scripture that promises God’s protection through His holy angels. Immediately one notices how the tempter adjusts himself to the one being tempted, the devil uses the same method as used by the Lord, the Word of God, to continue his assault. This second temptation is essentially a challenge to the trustworthiness of God. Satan wants Jesus to subject His Father’s promises to verification. It is an attempt to manipulate God into action, just like so many of us do in prayer. To which our Lord rightly answers, “You must not put the Lord your God to the test.” God is not on trial. We are. He doesn’t need to prove Himself. Rather, it is we who must prove our faith in Him.

The third temptation brings our Lord to the summit of a very high mountain. The purpose is to give Him a panoramic view of all the kingdoms of the world. This time the devil’s mask comes off. Subtle insinuations have proven ineffective. Now the ambition of Satan is laid open to view. Peering out at the great empires of the world, the devil says, “I will give you all these if you fall at my feet and worship me.” In essence, our Lord is being offered a shortcut to achieving His messianic objectives. Here, authority and power are handed to Him on a silver platter without Him having to pay for them with the cost of His life’s sacrifice on the Cross. In exchange, Satan wants nothing less than a brazen act of idolatry. Jesus is asked to repudiate the Father by surrendering Himself to the lordship of Satan. Our Lord rejects this last offer, “Be off Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve Him alone.”

The last temptation actually exposes the true nature of the first two temptations and in fact, all other temptations. It is the repudiation of God. The ultimate goal of Satan is to keep us from worshipping the One he hates. As a master of persuasion, Satan easily deceives mankind into focusing on anything but God. Hardly any of us would admit that we would blatantly worship the Devil. But the devil’s temptation is more subtle. Secular society often finds itself believing that it has no need for God – as long as we can eradicate world hunger, find a cure to cancer, seek popular support for our political agenda and economic programmes of establishing economic justice and world peace – then there is no place for God in our lives. As attractive as this idea may be, the bottom line is that unless we are prepared to submit ourselves humbly to God in total obedience, all these man-made solutions would fail. Whenever we believe that we can move ahead with human progress and solutions without any reference to God, we have knowingly or unknowingly, fallen at the feet of Satan and worshipped him. As G. K. Chesterton once said, “For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.”

The devil’s last request is a parody of the worship which is due to God. In fact, if there is anyone who deserves our kneeling and worship, it is God alone. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had once remarked: “Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible.” Wise men knelt, Peter and the apostles knelt, lepers knelt, rulers knelt, Gentiles knelt, even men possessed by the devil knelt (Mark 5:6). They knelt only to the King of Kings. But even this Great King chose to kneel. He knelt to wash the feet of His disciples. In the garden of Gethsemane, He “knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41). On the other hand, there is one who will never ever kneel. ‘The devil has no knees,” wrote Abba Apollo, a desert Father of the Church who lived around 300 AD, “he cannot kneel; he cannot adore; he cannot pray; he can only look down his nose in contempt. Being unwilling to bend the knee at the name of Jesus is the essence of evil. (cf Is 45:23, Rom 14:11)” This by far, is the greatest irony. The Being that chooses to kneel to no one, now demands that the Son of God kneels to him.

The devil is no fiction. He is very real. But so is God. In a world where temptations seem to lurk around every corner, it may be prudent to return to God in prayer, always seeking His grace and assistance to face the wiles and lies of the enemy. Without God, nothing is possible, we are paralysed. With God in our lives, everything is possible. This is real discipleship — complete dependence on the Lord in everything. Our lives should be Christ-sufficient and not self-sufficient. This is the only way to see through and resist the temptations of Satan. Let our hearts be humbled during this Lenten season to place our entire trust in the Lord, and with Him, let us confidently stand up to the enemy and declare: “Be off Satan!