Sunday reflection and Lectio divina on Mt 4,1-11 for first Sunday of Lent

Sunday reflection: “Temptation” by Sr Sarah O’Rourke


First Sunday of Lent Year A – Lectio divina on Mt 4,1-11

We know the episode of the temptations of Jesus only from the synoptic tradition (Mt 4,1-11; Mk 1,12-13; Lk 4,1-13). It is placed immediately after the accounts of the Lord’s Baptism (Mt 3,13-17; Mk 1,9-11; Lk 3,21-22). Before beginning his public ministry, which will have as its aim the announcing of the Kingdom of God (Mk 1,15; Mt 4,17), Jesus receives the Spirit of God and is proclaimed the beloved Son (Mt 3,17; Mk 1,11; Lk 3,22) – first Son, then evangelizer. Apart from its obvious moralizing intent, the account of the temptations relates an event which is to be taken seriously, and not only because it is historically true. The temptation Jesus faced, as described by Matthew in three forms, concerns his understanding of his personal mission. Contrary to popular expectation, and maybe even his own desire, Jesus chooses to fulfil the plan of God and to do so in the way chosen by God  -living by the word of God and not by bread alone, trusting in God’s ordinary providence without seeking extraordinary proofs, adoring God even though it means powerlessness and social irrelevance. It is certainly not by chance that the temptations, and their rejection, are expressed in quotations from Scripture – the Word of God needs God’s Sprit in order to become the instrument of victory.

At that time 1 Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you,’ and `On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, `You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; 9               and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”10 Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, `You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

I. Read: understand what the text is saying

This episode begins with Jesus being led by the devil (4,1.3) and ends when the devil leaves the place to the angels who serve him (4,11). The whole scene is a face-to-face encounter between Jesus and the tempter. Nobody else witnesses the temptation, and nobody else is tempted. Jesus feels alone and weak after his prolonged fast. The tempter is able to approach him (4,3), only because the Spirit led him there.  It is the Spirit who leaves the Son of God in the hands of the devil (4,1)!

Between his being led by the Spirit and the devil’s intervention, there is a long period of fasting. The duration of this period, forty days, seems to refer to the period of the trials which Israel, that other son of God, experienced on its way towards the covenant (cf. Ex 16.17.32). This explains the state of serious need that Jesus suffered before his temptation. A long fast left him weak as he faced his tempter. The testing comes when Jesus is at his weakest and when he has no one at his side to support him.

Although it is repeated, the temptation is one, as the tempter is one.  At his baptism Jesus was proclaimed as Son. The devil now tries to make Jesus renounce his status as son. With different motives but always with the same objective, the temptation consists in going against God’s decision: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” (Mt 3,17). The possibility of undermining God the Father is presented to Jesus as a ‘temptation’ (Mt 4,3.6: ‘If you are the Son of God…’). Jesus must prefer to be Son, to be what God has told him he is, ahead of anything else. (cf. Mt 27,40-43).

The temptation comes in three stages which all follow the same pattern.  (1) The tempter always takes the initiative (Mt 4,3.5.8). The temptation is not the result of the situation of Jesus. It is not brought on by his hunger, but comes from outside, at a moment when he is manifestly weak. (2) Jesus always reacts by quoting God and finds support in God’s word. (Mt 4,4.6.10). The word of God helps him in his discernment to overcome the test and guides his personal decision. He refers to the Word of God and reaffirms his status as Son of God who does not challenge his God.  (3) The tempter does not persist with the same proposal. He repeats the temptation but changes the motive. There is a certain progression in those motives. The tempter begins by offering to solve Jesus’ hunger, then goes on to question God’s assistance, and ends up by tempting him to deny God. Hunger nourishes a doubt about God’s providence which culminates in the temptation to adore other gods, more secure and more promising.

The devil’s first attack in the desert takes place when Jesus is alone and hungry (Mt 4,3-4).  A self-respecting Son of God, says the tempter, should be able to turn stones into bread, if he finds himself in need. Jesus cites a text in which the people of Israel were reminded that the hunger they suffered was proof of God’s fatherly care for them (Dt 8,3; cf. 8,2-6). He replies by saying that we live, not only by bread, but by everything that God says. The Son of God is not one who does not suffer need, but one who finds nourishment in the word of God.

The second attack takes place in the temple, the privileged place of the presence of God (Mt 4,5-6). The tempter’s subtlety is obvious, and terrifying. Repulsed by the power of God’s word (Mt 4,4), he now uses the Word of God to tempt the Son of God (Mt 4,6). Even the word of God can be used as a weapon of temptation! Interestingly, Jesus responds with a text that calls for the service of God alone (Dt 6,16), as if he were not the one being tempted. If the Son is being tempted, is the Father not also being called into question?

The third attack is the final one (Mt 4,8-10). The tempter becomes proud despite his repeated failure. He shows Jesus the world and its glory, and offers it to Jesus if only he will worship him. Only the devil in his audacity would dare to present himself as divine. For the first time, and with unaccustomed authority, Jesus commands the tempter to withdraw, and then he finds support in God’s word. The text he quotes (Dt 5,9; cf. 6,13) belongs to the Decalogue (cf. Dt 5,6-21). This solves the question once and for all, and no further temptations are necessary. Worshipping the one true God who is to be adored, leaves no room for worship of lesser gods, however entertaining they may be. Anyone who feels a passion for God is free from other great passions and small distractions.

II. Meditate:  apply what the text says to life

No longer proclaimed son by God, Jesus must face trial alone and in a weakened condition. It is not God who tempts him, but it is the Spirit who leads him to the tempter. It is part of God’s loving plan, therefore, to put his beloved sons to the test. Jesus had to accept personally the love for him expressed by the Father. The one temptation faced by Jesus, and the temptation faced by Christians, is to question the love of God for his people. For Christians, temptations are not so much proof of our personal weakness, but demonstrations of God’s favour. At the crucial moment, a temptation must not become a cause of anxiety or a waste of time. Are these the temptations that I experience or fear? Do I judge my temptations according to my own weaknesses, do I confuse them with my own appetites or desires?  Or do I see them as opportunities to experience God’ fatherly love, as proof which confirms God’s preferential love which I have already experienced ?

The Spirit leads to the test one who has already been loved. Temptation is not the road by which we earn God’s approval, nor is it a competition in which we have to struggle, nor a pastime for those who like to take risks. It is a necessary stage for obedient sons, a privilege granted to those who are loved by God. Do I see every temptation I suffer, whether one I have sought or one in which I find myself, as a desert where I have been led by the Spirit? As a lonely place where God is watching over me (cf. Mt 6,4.6.8)? As a time of hunger and weakness where strength comes only from the love God feels for me, and not from what I feel without God?

Jesus responds to every insinuation of the devil by relying on God’s Word. To defend what God has said to him, he has no better weapon than the Word of God. What use do I make of the Word of God in my life?  Do I have recourse to it when I speak to others about God, and do I cultivate it so that God may speak to me? Is it not true that when I do not listen to the Word of God, I become more susceptible to the voice of the tempter?

Jesus’ divine sonship is called into question (Mt 4,13: ‘if you are the Son of God’). His hunger is perfectly normal, the result of a long voluntary fast.  Even so, the tempter tries to make Jesus doubt, suggesting that if he were really the Son of God, he would not suffer hunger. He would find nourishment even in the stones. It is a subtle insinuation. The hungrier the Son of God feels, the more tempting the stones become.  Jesus says that the Son does not use his power to nourish himself and solve his own needs. He lives by what God says. The word of God is bread for God’s sons. What do we deprive ourselves of today and what do we feel in need of? Why is God’s word not enough to satisfy our needs and reduce our demands? Is it not perhaps that we do not see ourselves as sons of God, and for this reason, we find ourselves hungering for bread and for love?

Jesus finds his divine sonship called into question for a second time in the temple, the earthly dwelling place of God, the place where God’s presence could be taken for granted. This temptation was based on the notion that one who is loved by God can afford to take risks without any consequences. The diabolical thing about this temptation is that it was based on the very thing that was the key to Jesus’ earlier resistance – the Word of God. The promise of God to his children could nourish in them illusions of greatness. His nearness could lead us to think that God is always at our disposal. The Son knows he is always guarded by the Father but knows also that he must not put him to the test. Is it not enough for us to know that we are God’s children, or must we always feel his protection? Does God deserve our trust only if he keeps us always secure from evil? What do I expect from God, what conditions do I put, before I entrust myself to his fatherly care? Do I desire God for what he gives me, and for as long as he cares for me, or do I desire him simply because he desires me?

The third temptation is the most barefaced. The tempter removes his mask. He is not worried about Jesus, or his needs or convictions. He no longer argues about Jesus’ relationship with God. He himself now claims to be God. Is there anything more tempting than power? Power is the only motive behind this third temptation. This time it is not just a suggestion but an unconditional promise. “I will give you all these…” – all that Jesus could see before him. Jesus chooses God alone. Only a God who desires him as Son is worthy of adoration. Until I discover what it is, however insignificant it might be, which has power to keep me from worshipping God, I will not know what it is I must detach myself from for God to become again the object of my adoration. Why is it so easy for me to worship other gods which are less powerful and less loving?

The devil should have nothing to do with those who prefer to adore the Father. The devil abandons the one who is drawn to the God he adores. Worship of the true God is the best antidote to preserve us from the evil one and his wiles. Do I consider God worthy of adoration? Is he my only and constant passion? Or is God, for me, just an entertaining pastime?

III. Pray: desire that what I have heard may become real in my life

Lord, I am puzzled by your way of acting.  I do not always understand you. How can it happen that the Spirit leads your beloved Son into the desert and leaves him there alone with the tempter?  You have a strange way of being Father, putting your children in difficulty.  Help me to distinguish between the trials you send me and the temptations into which I put myself. Help me to know the difference between the situations your Spirit leads me into, and those which come from my own weakness. In some cases you are the one who is being put to the test, and sometimes I am the one who is testing you.

Your Son Jesus took refuge in your word. It gave him reason to be strong in the presence of the tempter. I cannot pretend that I am better than your Son. Why, then, in moments of trial do I not have faith in your word? Your will weighs upon me and I sometimes desire what is contrary to your will. Return and speak to my heart so that I may no longer desire anything other than what comes from your lips. May your word be my refuge when I feel troubled. May it be my consolation when I am lonely. May it be food for me in the desert when I am afraid of being lost.

Lord, there are many hungers that tempt me! There are too many things, too many people and projects, that I long to possess and strive to obtain. I am tempted by a hunger that is not for you. There is a deep dissatisfaction that makes me weak. I acknowledge that sometimes I feel more afflicted by the things I lack than by my need for you. Give me a hunger for you that cannot be satisfied by anything else. Increase my need for you until I cannot live without you.

My needs lead me to doubt your providence. I feel the need to put you to the test, in order to prove what I should already know – that you love me and have given yourself to me so many times. Do not free me, Lord, from the hunger for you and the need for your word. If there is no other way to make me turn to you, lead me to the tempter. Let me experience having to do without the good things that I live on, until I choose to make you my supreme good, the God and Father I adore.