KENNETH LEECH writes that the desert regions in which Jesus fasted were characterised by “waste, darkness and struggle. . . Never was a location so suited to the spiritual exploration and crisis which occurred within it” (True God: An exploration in spiritual theology). Elijah spent forty days and nights in such deserts, and they form the backdrop to John the Baptist’s ministry. Four centuries later, they became home to some of the first Christian hermits.
In each case, the journey to the wilderness was a response to the state of wider society. Elijah and John were called to speak a word of contradiction to religious and political leaders who had forsaken God’s ways. Likewise, as Leech explains, the retreat of the early hermits into the desert was “a form of protest against a compromised Church”. Unless they first did battle with their own temptations of greed, ambition, and pride, none of these prophetic figures would have been able to point their wider communities back to God.
Before he begins his ministry of preaching and healing in Galilee, Jesus must also do battle with the spiritual forces which can ensnare the soul and distort even the most noble intentions. As David Lyle Jeffrey observes, there is an “uncanny coalescence” between the temptations that face Jesus — identified by St Augustine as “appetite, ambition, and boasting” — and the greatest “seductions” of today’s culture (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).
That Jesus is tempted is not a sign of any spiritual weakness. Luke emphasises that he is “full of the Holy Spirit”, and is “led by the spirit” into the wilderness. As St Ambrose explains, far from being ambushed by Satan, Christ is led to the desert “to the intent that he might provoke the devil”. Jesus endures the same temptations faced by Adam, that he might “deliver him from exile who was cast out of Paradise into the wilderness”.
Satan’s approach in the wilderness echoes that in the Garden of Eden. Just as he cast doubt on God’s command to Adam and Eve, so here he begins, “If you are the Son of God. . .”. His aim, once again, is to sow doubt and insecurity. These words echo the later taunt of the soldiers: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27.40).
In the wilderness, Jesus makes the choice that will ultimately lead to Calvary: refusing an easy demonstration of worldly power. He chooses, instead, the mission entrusted to him by the Father. In doing so, he will demonstrate the greater power of suffering love.
Pope Benedict XVI writes about the place of faith in our Gospel reading: “At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently more urgent matters that fill our lives” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration). This is why the lectionary pairs this Gospel with two great affirmations of faith: the recounting of the Lord’s mercies, which is to be used at the offering of the first-fruits; and the confession “with your lips. . . and in your heart” of the lordship of the risen Christ.
At the end of his forty days of fasting, Jesus is “famished”, Luke tells us. Both St Augustine and St Ambrose comment on how fitting it is that — just as Adam is conquered by his desire for an apple — Jesus’s first victory likewise concerns appetite.
The next test concerns ambition: Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for fealty to Satan. This reveals the real question at the heart of all temptation: who is it that we trust and obey? As St Teresa of Ávila explains, “The more we see that any action springs not from the motive of obedience, the more evident is it that it is a temptation of the enemy.”
The final temptation is to pride, as Satan invites Jesus to test God’s care for him by jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple. Once again, as Benedict XVI observes, Jesus’s response sets his face towards the cross: “He did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenceless. He ventured this leap as an act of God’s love for men.”