Genesis 2:7-9, 16-18,25;3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The Gospel of today’s Mass always features the temptations of Jesus in the desert. It clearly links with the Lenten themes of fasting, penance, and reconciliation with God and our brothers and sisters.
There is a striking contrast between Jesus in the Gospel and our First Parents in the Garden of Eden as given in the First Reading, while the Second Reading connects the two events: it was the sin of our First Parents which brought about the coming of Jesus to restore our relationship with God. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil says of that first sin, “Oh happy fault”. The weakness of our First Parents – a symbol of our own weakness – brought about the coming of Jesus and all that he means to us for our lives. It is an example of how even behind unpleasant and, in fact, evil happenings God’s love can be found at work.
Note that Jesus is led into the desert by the Spirit of God. He is the one beloved of God, chosen by him. The purpose clearly is not to lead him to do evil but as a testing of his fitness for his coming mission. Will he fail like our First Parents or like the Israelites of old? Or will he prove himself worthy of the mission he has been given? The testing will be done not by God directly but by the Evil One, the Tempter. It is pictured as taking place in a barren region between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus, like Moses before him, had fasted for 40 days. He is alone in the wilderness without food. He is hungry, weak and vulnerable. Now is the time for the Tempter to move in. There are the three temptations. Each of the three temptations touches on Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, which had been revealed during his baptism. “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” In each of the three tests, Jesus is being led on to do something which would seem to enhance his mission as Lord and Saviour.
The Tempter then begins, “If you are the Son of God, why not use your divine powers to turn these large, flat stones at your feet into bread?” God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert. Surely he will feed his own Son. Why have powers and not use them? Why not take this opportunity to prove that you really are the Son of God? In this first test Jesus rejects the offer by saying that, “it is not on bread alone that we live”. True happiness does not consist in satisfying material wants, in having many things, but in identifying ourselves fully with the vision of life which God gives us through Jesus
Satan’s next approach is to bring Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Now here is a chance really to prove that trust. Two things will happen:
a. God will not allow Jesus to be hurt. Now it is the Tempter himself who cleverly quotes Scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” God promises his providential care in the normal course of our lives.
b. If Jesus jumps and is miraculously saved, everyone will know his divine origin and will believe in him! Jesus quotes the Scripture back again, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
He brings Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. All that can be Jesus’, if he falls down and worships the Tempter. It is, of course, an impossible bargain. Jesus absolutely rejects the offer: “Away from me, Satan!”
In fact, these three tests are really symbols of real tests that we find in the life of Jesus. Jesus did produce large quantities of bread on two occasions but not for himself but rather to feed the hungry. He rejected calls from his opponents to prove who he was, by performing some striking signs. He said the only sign would be his own death and resurrection. After one of the feedings (as told in John’s gospel), he had the crowd at his feet and they wanted to make him king. Instead, he fled to the mountains to pray to his Father and packed his ambitious disciples off in a boat and into a storm which gave them something else to think about – survival.
In fact these temptations were a call to be unfaithful to the mission. Jesus is the new Israel. The old Israel failed in the desert. They asked for bread, they doubted God’s power then they asked for water in the desert and they worshipped the golden calf. Here Jesus the new Israel succeeds and overcomes the tempter. What happened to Jesus happens to us in our daily events of life. They are temptations too. Jesus passes all three tests and will continue to do so all during his life right up to the moment of his death. In the garden of Gethsemane, he will beg to be spared the horrors of his Passion but will then put aside his own fears of suffering and death and accept his Father’s way. On the cross he will make the despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and soon after, in total submission, say: “Into your hands I surrender my life.”