Updated: May 5, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
The temptations from the devil are very subtle.
When he tempted Jesus to turn a stone into bread, he was trying to persuade Jesus to allow his bodily needs to govern his actions, rather than his will, which is always aligned with his Father’s will. "Take care of your body first." Sounds reasonable, right?
When the devil said he’d give Jesus power over all the kingdoms of the world, he was telling Jesus that he could have his way. "Wouldn’t things be better if you had your way? Wouldn’t everything be better if everyone agreed with you and did as you asked? I'll give you that influence... if you worship me..."
When the devil tempted Jesus to throw himself from the Temple heights, he was saying that God will take care of you. Don't overthink it. Why worry so much? He'll take care of you. Have faith. Again, sounds reasonable.
In our gospel we heard our Lord’s response to these temptations, which I’ll get to later. But first, I’ll mention our own response to these temptations, which we hone in this season of Lent.
Against temptations involving any sort of bodily need or pleasure, we practice the discipline of fasting. We hold our bodies in contempt because we are not enslaved to the body. Like athletes, we discipline our bodies. That's what fasting does for us.
Against temptations involving control or influence, we practice the discipline of almsgiving. Money is a means of influencing people and things. Through almsgiving, we abandon that vanity of wanting to control everything and have things our way.
And against temptations of presumption—the idea that God can be taken for granted, we practice the discipline of prayer, which is dialogue with God. That’s all prayer is: it’s a conversation with the Lord. Yes, the Lord is our savior from sin and death—he does care for our needs; but that comes through dialogue with him, not through manipulation or presumption.
Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. We practice these disciplines particularly in the season of Lent, but there’s a more perfect discipline—a more perfect way—that every disciple must embrace before their journey is complete. And that way is the way of the Cross.
[Gesturing to the crucifix]. This sign teaches us everything, remember? In the final act, through this, our Lord definitively rebukes the devil’s temptations with absolute and unequivocal resolve.
On the cross, it becomes abundantly clear that our Lord disregards any sort of sensible pleasure or bodily need. Here is a man of suffering, his hands and feet pierced, his body lacerated with marks and in bodily shock.
Here is the Lord who receives all authority, not only on earth but also in heaven, not apart from the cross, but through it; and not by worshipping the devil, but in unbroken relationship with his Father.
And here, the Lord did not ask his Father to save him from the cross. No. He died on it, according to the Father’s will and his own. And he entrusted his Spirit to his Father with his last breath.
This [gesturing to the crucifix] is the perfect form of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This is our answer against every temptation. And this is also our defense against the most insidious of temptations. Again, the evil one is very cunning—it’d be terrifying but for the grace of God.
There’s a hidden temptation delicately placed within the devil’s words, which is the most sinister. Did anyone notice it? It’s an ancient deception that led to the fall of our first parents.
Think back to the third chapter of Genesis; which reads:
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The temptation is there, carefully seeded: You will be like God…
That’s a very curious thing to say. After all, didn’t God himself say in the beginning, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
The man and woman were already like God. The serpent tempted Eve to doubt her identity. And that deceit led to the first sin.
In our gospel today, at the heart of the devil’s temptations is that same deceitful challenge. Jesus is the Son of the Father—the Son of God; that is who he is, and there's nothing that can ever change that. Yet, twice, the devil began his challenge with: “If you are the Son of God…” “If you are the Son of God,” show me!
It’s a direct attack upon Jesus’ identity. And if Jesus doubted his identity, then any sin in possible. But Jesus didn’t doubt his identity. He appealed to that identity when tempted. Jesus said: “Man shall not live by bread alone,” as if to say: “My relationship to my Father will not be compromised by demands of the flesh.”
Against the second temptation, Jesus said: “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” He was quoting the first commandment, which is foundational to the identity of every Jew.
And against the third temptation, Jesus said: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Jesus will not cheapen his relationship to his Father with mind games.
Even until today, at the heart of the devil’s temptations is an attack upon our identity. The devil has no new tricks; only updated versions of old temptations. He may change his tactics from age to age, but the strategy is always the same: get them to doubt their identity, because when humanity loses its sense of identity in God, then any and all sin is possible. And we see that.
What is our identity? Ultimately, we are all created in the image and likeness of God. We were purchased at so great a price. God deigned that he himself should die for our salvation. We were redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and are united to him through his Spirit. We are sons and daughters of God. That is who we are.
If we base our identity on any other claim, be it about race, nationality, political affiliations, job, rank, sexuality—anything—then we’ve already fallen prey to that primordial temptation, through which all other sin becomes possible.
But Lent is the season in which we can rediscover our true worth, and begin again.