GOD is love, which is “by nature diffusive of itself”. The devil, by contrast, is “the principle of contradiction and negation that wants to interrupt the flow of love from and to God, the response in creatures we call obedience” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).
It is immediately after his baptism that Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”. At the Jordan, he was glorified by the Father. Later, in the signs and wonders of his public ministry, he will again reveal his glory to the world. Now, in the silence of the desert, he does battle with temptations that invite him to seek a false glory that stands outside the Father’s loving purposes.
As Cardinal Robert Sarah explains, there is both a positive and a negative aspect to the wilderness experience. Positively, throughout the scriptures, “the desert is where God leads us in order to speak to us in a heart-to-heart conversation.”
Yet the desert is also “the place of hunger, thirst, and the spiritual combat”. We find its silence and solitude unsettling. They force us to confront the reality of our deepest impulses and motivations, and the turmoil of our divided hearts. In contrast, “with its festive appearance, noise is a whirlwind that avoids facing itself” (The Power of Silence: Against the dictatorship of noise).
The first temptation appeals to Jesus’s immediate appetites. His “famished” body could be fed if he turned the stones into bread. This is an invitation to disobedience; for it is the Holy Spirit who has led him into this time of fasting. As Leiva-Merikakis explains, “He is tempted to operate and work separately from his Father and for merely personal motives — the precise thing he tells us in St John’s Gospel he cannot and will not do.”
The second temptation is subtler. Jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple will proclaim his divine Sonship — and the Father’s providential care — to all onlookers. Jesus rejects this proposal for the same reason as the first. Scripture commands human beings not to put the Lord to the test. Jesus will not manufacture a crisis so that his Father has to rescue him; rather, he elects to follow the Father’s guidance even unto death. Jesus’s glory will not be revealed in a dramatic rescue at the hands of angels, but in the desolation of Calvary.
In the final temptation, the devil reveals the intention that lies behind all three. He offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour”; but the price is idolatry. Satan is seeking to “interrupt” the “flow of love” between Jesus and his heavenly Father — tempting him to imagine a glory and a dominion that are in competition with his Father.
The irony of these temptations is that the kingdoms of this world are not the devil’s to give. Even though they are now in rebellion, at the last day “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Revelation 5.15).
This final temptation mirrors the one that snares Adam. God has lavished all things on him, but the devil lured him into thinking of God as a competitor — and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” as one that will give Adam and Eve an independent source of power. But, as Paul explains in our epistle, the sacrificial obedience of Christ has a far greater power than Adam’s disobedience.
Sarah Heaner Lancaster draws out the centrality of obedience in the Christian life: “Sin assumes we are independent of God, and so it takes us out of relationship with God.” As we are reminded by the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the death which came into the world with Adam’s sin “exposes the limits of our independence and the falseness of devotion to things of our own creation” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Romans).
In our Lent, the Church invites us to refrain from some of our usual forms of consumption and activity. Like the wilderness, this fasting has both a negative and a positive aspect. It unmasks our conflicted motivations and “the limits of our independence” — and, in so doing, calls us back to the “flow of love” by which and for which we were made.