Today's story is one of those Gospel stories that is so familiar that it is hard to really listen to it, let alone reflect on what it means to us. For most of my life when I heard this story, it struck me as a little scripture quoting contest between Satan and Jesus. But it had no real challenge for me; after all, I've never fasted for 40 days (as you can see), nor do I expect to be swept up over the earth and promised all the kingdoms of the world, nor were any of the Psalms written about how the angels have been tasked with keeping me out of danger. So it seemed like just a nice little story to listen to.
But it is unlikely that Luke included this story in his Gospel just as a nice story. Both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles Luke wrote are written not just to tell the story but to teach what Jesus calls his disciples to think and do. The story of the temptations is no exception. I would suggest that one of the problems is the name we usually give to this story: The Temptation of Jesus. The Greek word (peirazon) that we hear translated as tempted has a much broader meaning. It is the same word that the Greek version of the Old Testament uses to describe what is happening to the Israelites in their 40 years in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. It would be better translated as "put to the test".
This is not just about Jesus resisting some forbidden fruit dangled in front of him. It is about Jesus, wholly human, doing a very human thing in preparation for his public ministry: he is testing the foundations of his fundamental attitude.
In the first test, Satan approaches Jesus after he has fasted for 40 days and is hungry. He challenges Jesus to prove that he is the Son of God by turning stones into bread. Jesus does not deny the need for sustenance in order to live. He is just focused on a larger, more important question: where does the real fullness of life come from? It is not from physical food or anything of this world, but from the word of God. Even his deep hunger does not distract Jesus from focusing on this larger reality. What does this challenge us with as disciples? Where do we believe the source of full, satisfying, rich life is?
Next, as Luke tells the story, Satan takes Jesus on a quick tour of the kingdoms of the world. He then promises all those kingdoms to Jesus if he will just worship Satan. Jesus doesn't get into a debate as to whether Satan has the power to give him the world, nor does he speak about the evils of greed or power. He goes right to the heart of the matter: only God deserves worship. God has created all the world, and some aspect of worshipping God includes savoring the beauty and riches of creation, but as wonderful as creation is, only God deserves worship. Jesus will never waver from that understanding no matter what he encounters in his life or death. What does this challenge us with as disciples. Who or what do we worship? Do we really see that God is the only one who deserves worship?
Then Satan takes Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. For Luke, Jerusalem is the central point of his two act treatment of the salvation history. The Gospel leads Jesus to Jerusalem where he will fulfill all the promises made to Israel as he suffers, dies, and rises from the dead. And then in Acts of the Apostles, Jerusalem is the starting point from which the Church will spread the Gospel to the far ends of the world, extending those promises to the Gentiles. Satan again challenges Jesus to prove he is the Son of God by throwing himself off the parapet towards the rocks a hundred feet below. Once again Jesus focuses on the heart of the matter. It is not a question of whether Jesus is the Son of God. It is a question of whether he thinks God will be faithful to him. And his answer is unequivocally yes. There is no need to test whether God will be faithful to him. He is unwavering in his understanding of that. And again, this is a defining attitude that Jesus will take to his death,and then beyond, as he descends into hell. What about us as disciples? Do we really believe that God will always be faithful to us? Or do we engage in a constant testing to see if our good behavior has earned us a special place in God's attention, or if our bad behavior has caused God to turn away from us?
So Jesus responds to the testing by expressing the defining attitude he will take through his life: first, he is aware of where the fullness of real life comes from, God; second, he is aware that only God is to be worshipped; and third, God will always remain faithful to him. In revealing Jesus inner thoughts, Luke teaches us what we need to aspire to as disciples.
Human beings are funny creatures. We often need to express our thoughts, no matter how fundamental we may think they are, before we really own them and clearly understand them. These tests are not just a nice story. In responding to these tests, Jesus, fully human, is solidifying his fundamental attitude as he prepares to enter his public ministry. We too, as humans, need to make sure that we test, not God, but our own beliefs so that we can clarify and sharpen and own them. Lent is a time that the Church gives to us to focus on these tests. The traditional lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving can help us respond to Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel.
Fasting helps us realize that the fullness of life does not come only from food or drink or any of the things of creation but from the word of God. Prayer reminds us that only God is worthy of worship and that the only authentic posture we have as creatures is one of gratitude and praise. And finally almsgiving helps us to realize that we can always depend on God to be faithful to us. The things that we have are not given to us for our exclusive use. They are given from the unlimited bounty of God for the benefit of others. There is no need to test God's faithfulness or to doubt it by clinging to what has been given to us.
Don't let this Lent slip by us without it changing us. Instead of the classic giving up candy or beer or extra helpings of dessert, why don't we try testing our defining attitudes. What if we test our fundamental belief about the source of real life by one or two nights a week reading the Bible for the same amount of time we would normally watch TV? What if we test our fundamental belief that only God is to be worshipped by spending 15 minutes a day praying together as a family. What if we test our fundamental belief that God will always be faithful to us by making a conscious effort each day to forgive someone for something we normally would get mad about or trying to find one person each of the six weeks of Lent that we can help with some of the gifts that we have been blessed with? You get the idea. Let the Spirit lead us into the desert of this Lent so that we can have our defining attitude tested. And in that testing, may it become the attitude of Christ for the rest of our lives.