First Sunday of Lent

Reflection: Be wary of temptations


“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”

 Now that’s a mind-blowing sentence!

Was Jesus really tempted? Doesn’t temptation imply a confusion or indecisiveness that seems uncharacteristic of Jesus? Was he really that human? Another question: Why did the Spirit lead Jesus to temptation? Didn’t Jesus teach us to beg God not to do that?

In response to the first question, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all clearly say that Jesus experienced temptation in the desert. These three Gospels, called synoptic because they follow a similar pattern, paint a very human portrait of Jesus. John, in contrast, portrays Jesus as keenly aware of his divine origin and destiny.

In addition, the word tempt has two related meanings: to put one to the test, or to manipulate someone in an effort to coach them into wrongdoing. Our opening line includes both definitions: The Spirit led Jesus to test his identity; the devil attempted to manipulate him to be untrue to it.

What is at play here — and in the whole of the Gospels — is Jesus’ identity as son of God. Matthew began his Gospel with the genealogy, a description of Jesus’ origins in the people of God. Now diabolos (the proper name of the chief of the demons) comes to direct him about how to fulfill his vocation among them.

We should note that this scene comes immediately after Jesus rose from baptism and heard the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It seems that, following his choice to be baptized, Jesus’ experience of the Spirit impelled him to explore and clarify what it meant to be son of God. Baptism led him to confront everything implied in the word temptation.

The temptations are archetypal with a great variety of interpretations and applications. For today, we might see them as tapping into the same confusing desires the snake used to snag Eve and Adam.

In the Genesis story, the snake told Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would make her/them like gods. The serpent mastered them, not because they were proud, but because they failed to recognize that they were already like the God who had breathed life into them and created them in the divine image. They got caught in a frenzy of trying to achieve for themselves what they had already been given for free.

Diabolos, a one-hit wonder, tried the same trick on Jesus. The first two temptations begin with the phrase, “If you are son of God,” with the implication that the tempter could define what that meant. The third temptation drops all pretense of faithfulness and offers an alternative life. We might think of them this way:

Diabolos: “If you are son of God, get the rocks out of your head! Hunger, thirst, and dependence on others are beneath you!”

Jesus: “A son of God revels in relationship. Both sides feed on the risk of being vulnerable to want and thus find greater fulfillment.”

Diabolos: “If you are the true son, God should keep you safe, even from your own pretentious foolishness.”

Jesus: “A son of God seeks God’s will — and that’s worth dying for.”

Diabolos: “Forget this God business! Look around and admit it. Mine is the only power that runs the world.

Jesus: “Stay in your own hell if you wish. I have no power to stop you.”

Jesus’ temptations were not a one-time event, nor simply an experience in the desert and then the Garden of Gethsemane. In some form, they summarize all the ways he and any of us can distort our vocation to be images of God.

Diabolos’ insistence that we need to assure our own bread and security diverts our attention from the truth that when anyone is hungry or in danger, not only are all in need, but all have the ability to respond in a way that privileges solidarity over selfishness.

Diabolos’ suggestion that religion is meant to be our safety net perverts Christianity, prioritizing self-preservation over self-giving. The appeal to raw power promotes the sham of fear-induced unity and control; it betrays and rejects the ways of the God of love. Most of all, it cannot endure.

As we begin this Lenten season, let us pray that we may recognize and reject the ways we, our church and our society, are continually tempted to betray our vocation to be images of God. Lent is our time to reappropriate our own baptismal commitment and to confront and expose Diabolos’ machinations. In the end, we hope to join Jesus in telling Diabolos, “Dwell in your hell. We’ve got a better option.”

Reading 1

(Genesis 2: 7-9, 3: 1-7)

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being.
Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and placed there the man whom he had formed.
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals
that the LORD God had made.
The serpent asked the woman,
“Did God really tell you not to eat
from any of the trees in the garden?”
The woman answered the serpent:
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;
it is only about the fruit of the tree
in the middle of the garden that God said,
‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'”
But the serpent said to the woman:
“You certainly will not die!
No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it
your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods
who know what is good and what is evil.”
The woman saw that the tree was good for food,
pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.
So she took some of its fruit and ate it;
and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized that they were naked;
so they sewed fig leaves together
and made loincloths for themselves.

Responsorial psalm  

(Psalm 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17)

R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Reading 2

(Romans 5: 12-19)

Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by the transgression of the one, the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned.
For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation;
but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, 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.


(Matthew 4: 1-11)

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply,
“It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God.”
Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus answered him,
“Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
“Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.