The Temptation of Jesus

Anthony Zimmerman
March 15, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

The Gospel would not attribute to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the decision of Jesus to expose Himself to temptations by the devil in the desert if this had no great significance. By attributing the impetus to the Holy Spirit, the Gospel tells us that Jesus took on the devil in this battle, in order to grow powerfully in love for God and for us, in His human nature. The Spirit was helping Him to grow in love.

We know that everything done by God is done by all three Persons in common, so when we read that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, it signifies that God's divine love is operating here in a special manner. It is that Living Love of the Father toward the Son that is in action here; and the Reciprocal Love of the Son for His Father; and the Spirit acts simultaneously with the Father and Son. This love for God drives Jesus into the desert. So we are about to see a great drama in which the Love of God is at work. Jesus is going to be tempted and undergo hardship in His human nature to toughen Himself up for coming events; He will accustom Himself to beat the devil in the latter's claimed territory; and He will thereby enlarge and enhance and fortify His human will to love for God and for us. He needs this training in order to star in the final game between Himself and the devil which will be played on the Hill of Calvary.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

We ask what might be wrong if Jesus turns a few stones into bread to satisfy His hunger. Surely He had the power to do that. He would later multiply five loaves of bread into enough loaves to feed five thousand. If it would be okay later, why not now?

Jesus makes up His mind decisively to not use His miraculous powers to serve Himself with material needs. It would be a cheapening of His mission. His mission from God is spiritual, not one of this world. He should not use miraculous powers for personal convenience. He will use divine powers for divine purposes, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. The devil loses this round, as Jesus floors him with a word from Deuteronomy 8:3,"It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" St. John Chrysostom explains that Christ does nothing in vain:

But Christ signifies Himself not to have consented, either to him then or afterwards to the Jews his partisans, in their demand of signs: invariably instructing us, whatever we may have power to do, yet to do nothing vainly and at random; nor even when want urges to obey the devil (Gospel of Matthew, Sermo 13, 3).

The lesson is for us priests too. We do have special powers from God, to preach, to teach, to Baptize, to preside at the Liturgy, to administer the Sacraments. We should use the powers for the reason that God gives them to us, for cooperating with the Bishop, with the Pope, to foster the kingdom of heaven on earth. People are generous to us. Shall we buy fancy clothes, drive Cadillacs, frequent the races, eat like gourmets? Or shall we pass this test by stating with Jesus: "I'll stick to my mission and give it all I have." The temptation to use the priesthood selfishly will be ours to overcome not once, not twice, but day after day during all our priestly lives. In general the 405,000 priests in the world today do quite well, but not always. Pray that Jesus will give them strength. Priests flourish when the faithful pray for them.

The lesson is for married couples too. Shall we live to make ourselves happy with lots to eat and drink and be merry; or shall we be faithful to our mission: "Increase and multiply and fill the earth;" also "to have and to hold, until death do us part." Shall we adhere to God's laws that ban contraception, or shall we indulge our sexual hunger for selfish purposes? Jesus felt pangs of hunger, but did not indulge in a manner contrary to His mission. Shall we try IVF and technologize a baby? The way of Jesus is not IVF but God's way and perhaps adoption.

Jesus teaches us to take the high ground, to refuse to satisfy pangs of hunger, or sex, or ambition, in a manner that is below our mission here on earth. We are made for higher things. Let the devil say what he wants, he is only jealous if we go our way instead of his way. He will try again, though.

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, 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.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God'" (Matt 4:5-7).

This "pious devil" can quote the Scriptures right and left, and abuse them to tempt Jesus into doing wrong. The devil quotes from Psalm 91, one of the most beautiful in the Bible, one that Jesus, Mary and Joseph may have recited as part of Evening Prayers. It begins with trusting words:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust." For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence (Psalm 91:1-3).

Wouldn't it be marvelous, suggests the devil, to stand on the roof of the temple, to yell to the crowds below to "Watch this!" and then dive to the people's horror, only to see an angel wing his way under Him in triumph. You'll be famous, and crowds will rally to you from all sides. Not so, replies Jesus. He can quote Scripture too: "You shall not tempt the Lord your God" (Deut 4:16). Again, the devil knew not what to respond. Jesus flattened him with a powerful word of the Scriptures. Chrysostom admonishes:

How then doth Christ? He is not indignant, nor provoked, but with that extreme gentleness He reasons with him again from the Scriptures, saying, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God:" teaching us that we must overcome the devil, not by miracles, but by forbearance and long-suffering, and that we should do nothing at all for display and vainglory (On Matthew 13,4).

How easy it would have been for Jesus to make a cheap show of Himself, to be a super-magician, to multiply loaves of bread and then allow Himself to be proclaimed the Messianic king. When the High Priest challenged Him on the night of His trial, Jesus refused to show His power to save Himself:

But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt 26:63-64).

The time to show His power was not that night, before the High Priest. That must wait until the Last Judgment. And when Jesus was tempted to come down from the cross, He kept hanging there instead as though He were powerless:

So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God'" (Matt 27:41-43).

My uncle, Brother Longinus, SVD, once told me, "If Jesus would have come down from the cross, the devil would have laughed." The life of Jesus must not be so miraculous that unwilling people be coerced against their wills to believe in Him, to be saved by Him. People of good will, and people of bad will, must remain free to believe in Him, or to refuse belief. Jesus preserves for us our precious gift of freedom to believe, by not jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, by not overwhelming the sneering High Priest by coming down on the clouds of heaven, by not releasing His hands and feet from the cross, but by hanging there until He died a natural death. What an immense difference we see in the noble character of Jesus our Messiah, as opposed to the devil with his cheap suggestion of and Ersatz Messiah.

But how tempted we are today to look away from the humble Jesus of Bethlehem and of Calvary, and seek a political leader instead. The movement of "Liberation Theology" is now probably past its peak, but at one time it persuaded many that the Church should use temporal powers to revolt against governments and to establish messianic peace. That is not the Lord's way. We will continue to reflect on this next week.