March 13, 2011
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is tempted in the desert by the devil. This Gospel, like all the Gospels, is meant not to simply tell us something about Jesus’ life, but to serve as a guide as we attempt to build our own relationship with God. So, what can we learn from this Gospel about our way of discipleship?
We might begin by noting that the Greek word which is translated in our lectionary “tempted” can also be translated “tested.” And, if we adopt this broader notion of the term, it allows us to pose two questions to the text: What kind of things test us in life? And what can we do about them?
This Gospel suggests that three things test us in life: scarcity, threats, and doubt. The first time that the devil tests Jesus, the issue is scarcity. Jesus is hungry and there is no bread. Scarcity can be a tremendous test for us because when something which is essential to our life is in short supply, we are indeed in need. This could be some material thing, such as the loss of employment or a crisis that devastates us financially. But, it also could be a personal issue such as a scarcity of love: questioning whether we will ever find someone with whom we can share our life, being afraid that the love in our marriage is dying, or grieving the loss of a loved one in death and wondering whether we will ever love again. Whether material scarcity or personal scarcity, when there is not enough, we are tested and we wonder how we will survive.
The second time that the devil tests Jesus, he places him in a threatening situation, on the parapet of the temple and asks him to hurl himself down. When evil approaches us in our life, we are threatened. It might be a physical evil such as sickness or depression. But it also could be an personal evil, such as a friend who betrays us or anger, jealousy, or discontent in our family. When such evil approaches us, our life is threatened and we are tested, wondering whether we will be able to face the future.
The third time that the devil tests Jesus concerns his relationship with God, because the devil asks Jesus to worship him. We can be tested in our own relationship to God through doubt. When something happens that we do not understand, when we expect God to be present and God seems to be absent, we ask: Why did this happen to me? Where is God when I need God? We can even begin to wonder whether God cares or whether God is real. Doubt can be a true test of our lives and a true test of our faith, wondering whether God is with us and will save us.
So we can be tested in life through scarcity, threat, and doubt. What can we do about it? Here, as always, we must follow the example of Jesus. What does Jesus do when the devil tests him? He stands his ground. He holds on.
Now, of course, as Jesus stands his ground, he is not idle. He knows the Scriptures and debates the devil. We must do the same thing: Know the Scriptures, know the tradition of our Church, consult with people who are wise as we try to cope with testing in our lives. But one of the things that this Gospel makes very clear is that even when we have those resources, the devil is not easily defeated. In the Gospel, the devil comes three times to Jesus. If it takes Jesus three times to send the devil packing, how much more difficult will it be for us? Therefore, the most important example that Jesus gives to us in today’s Gospel is that of perseverance, of holding on during testing. Jesus holds on as the devil attacks. He holds on until the devil departs and angels come and minister to him.
As we face tests in our own life, we should expect no different pattern. We need to hold on. We need to keep repeating the right words even when the words do not seem to be working. We need to keep believing that God is with us even when it seems that God is not. We need to keep trying even when it seems that things could slip away.
Now, this approach is not easy, and of course it does not produce immediate results. There might be times when we think that there is no way that we can succeed. But, this is why the example of Jesus is so important. We must hold on. We must face the devil toe to toe. We must stand our ground and wait for the angels to come.