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Temptations in the Desert

Temptations in the Desert

Mediterranean Culture and the Mediterranean world is a world a deeply rooted belief in spirits, good and evil, in numbers too huge to count. These spirits were thought to interfere in the daily life of human beings capriciously. The use of amulets, formulas and symbols to ward off evil spirits is still widely used in the Mediterranean World (Spain, Italy, Greece, Sicily, Sardinia, Israel, etc.) The color blue was believed to be a protection against mischievous and evil spirits; people would, therefore, paint their window sills and door lintels blue to ward off spirits.  When the voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus to be God’s beloved Son immediately after his baptism in the Jordan, all the spirits would have heard the compliment.

The very next scene in Matthew’s Gospel, the one we hear in the Gospel today, is of Jesus being tested to see if he is worthy of being called God’s beloved Son.  Note, however, that the Gospel does not record that Jesus used any amulets or formulas or symbols to ward off the spirits, nor did he wear anything blue.  Instead, he engages the spirits in a one-on-one face down.

Matthew is portraying Jesus as the faithful and obedient Son who is worthy of the compliment paid him at his baptism. The three temptations that Matthew relates are modeled on the three temptations that the Israelites faced in the desert after their escape from Egypt.  The scene takes place in a desert, similar to the scenes in the Books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and ends on a high mountain, a symbol of revelation in the Scriptures. 

Satan first tempts Jesus with bread and reminds us of the episode in which the Israelites murmured against God until he gave them manna.

The second temptation attempts to get Jesus to test God, just as the Israelites tempted God at Massah in the desert.  Jesus refuses.

The third and final temptation asks Jesus to fall down in worship before Satan.  The Israelites asked Aaron to make a golden calf like the idol of Egypt and fell down in worship before it.  Jesus again refuses.

Having failed in his purpose, Satan withdraws.  Jesus has triumphed and has established without a doubt that the voice from heaven was true.  Once again it is helpful to remember that Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Christians who had converted from Judaism.  Consequently, Matthew uses their own history to prove that Jesus is who he says he is and who the voice from heaven proclaimed he was – the obedient Son of God in whom God is well pleased. 

As we have just begun yet another Lenten journey toward Easter, we once again are told the story of the temptations in the desert.  The Church is inviting us to look at the nature of temptation.  Oftentimes we think that temptations are a part of our weaker nature.  However, careful consideration will show us that just the opposite is true.  Satan appeals to Jesus’ power – the power to turn stones into bread, the power to defy gravity, the power to invoke his true divine nature.  The same is true of us.  We are gifted people who have been endowed with great intellectual and physical and creative power.  We are tempted to use this power not as God wills but as we will.  Like Adam and Eve, humanity has tried to take on the role of God by misusing our power, by hoarding God’s gifts, by squandering what God has given us.  Unlike Jesus, we often fail to use the power of our minds and our bodies in healthy and virtuous ways. 

Lent is a time for us to turn away from sin, to listen to the Gospel, and to reconnect with the promises made at our baptism.  We enter the desert with Jesus in fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  However, we do not enter the desert without sustenance, for we are invited to the table of the Lord where we will receive the body and blood of Jesus as food for our Lenten journey.  With this food and drink, we have Jesus as our companion on the journey.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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