Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the liturgy wants to reflect on the temptations of Jesus. It presents the way in which the Master has confronted them to tell us how they can be recognized and overcome. [In the picture: The temptations of Jesus, a thirteenth-century mosaic from the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice]
Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the liturgy wants to reflect on the temptations of Jesus. It presents the way in which the Master has confronted them to tell us how they can be recognized and overcome.
Reading the passage today, however, one gets the impression that the experience of Jesus cannot be of much help: his temptations are too different from ours, are strange, even outlandish. Who among us would cede to the solicitation of worshipping the devil? Who would listen to his proposal of turning a stone into bread or his invitation to throw oneself out of a window? No, our temptations are far more serious, more difficult to win, then they do not last only a day, but accompany us for a lifetime.
This difficulty stems from the lack of understanding of the “literary genre,” namely, the way used by the author to communicate his message. Today’s Gospel is not the faithful chronicle, written by an eyewitness of the battle between Jesus and the devil (neither Luke nor any other have seen it). The passage is a lesson in catechesis and wants to teach us that Jesus was put to the test not with three, but “with all kinds of temptation”—as the text clearly states (v. 13).
To put it in simple and clear words: we are not in front of the story of three isolated incidents of Jesus’ life, but three parables in which, through images and biblical references, states that Jesus was tempted in all points like us, with an only difference: he has never been won by sin (Heb 4:15). These three frames are a symbolic synthesis of the struggle against the evil which he sustained in every moment of his life.
Maybe someone is still a bit baffled by the idea that Jesus had doubts like us, had encountered difficulties in fulfilling his mission, and had only gradually discovered the Father’s plan. We are almost afraid to lower him too much to our level. But God did not feel any aversion to our weakness, and made it his, in our mortal flesh and he overcame sin.
Before you consider these three “parables” we make another premise.
Unlike Matthew who says that Jesus was tempted just at the end of the forty days of fasting (Mt 4:2), Luke states that the temptation accompanied Jesus during his entire time in the desert. With this call to the desert and to the number forty, Luke intends to connect the experience of Jesus with that of Israel, put to the test during the Exodus. He repeats the experience of his people: “Your God has brought you through the desert for forty years to test you and know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deut 8:2). Unlike Israel, Jesus, at the end of his “forty days,” will go out of the “desert” fully victorious. Evil will be forced to admit its utter helplessness against him.
Now we consider the three frames in which all the trials passed by Jesus are condensed.
The first temptation: “Tell this stone to turn into bread” (vv. 3-4). The account of the temptations follows immediately after the baptism that has been commented on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We noted then that Jesus, the just one, the holy one, did not begin his mission scolding sinners. He did not merely give them directions, maintaining his distance, as did the Pharisees. He went to be baptized along with the sinners, in the lowest point on earth. He mixed with them, has become one of them, he has chosen to walk alongside them the path that leads to liberation.
Sharing our human condition in everything is not easy. So here is the first temptation that Jesus had (not only once, but throughout life): to use his own divine power to escape the difficulties that ordinary people meet. They are hungry; they get sick and tired; they have to study to learn, can be deceived, are subject to misfortune and oppressed by injustice … Well, he can get out of these difficulties and the devil invites him to do so. He proposes not to exaggerate in identifying himself with people. He suggests to him to work miracles for his own personal gain. If Jesus had listened to him he would have given up to be one of us. He would not be truly man, he only pretended to be.
Jesus understood how diabolical this project was. Yes, he used the power to perform miracles, but never for himself, always for others. He worked, sweated, suffered hungered, thirsted, spent sleepless nights and did not want privileges. The highlight of this temptation was on the cross. There he was again invited to perform a miracle for himself; he was challenged to come down. If he had made the miracle, if he had refused the “defeat,” Jesus would have been a winner in people’s eyes, but he would have been a loser before God.
This temptation persists, devious, every day, even to us. It reappears first as an invitation to a selfish withdrawal to ourselves without thinking about others, as an invitation to reject the attitude of solidarity assumed by Christ.
If he gives in to this temptation when the ability that God has given are used to satisfy one’s whims and not to help the brothers; when he adapts to the current mentality in which everyone tries to make do, thinking only of one’s own advantage, Jesus chose to be poor and defeated with others rather than become rich and feel good alone.
In this first scene, the wrong way with which man interacts with the material realities is identified and denounced. The selfish use of assets, to accumulate for oneself, to live by the work of others, to seek pleasure at all costs, to squander in the luxury and in the superfluous, while others lack the necessary is evil. Jesus responds to the proposal of the devil by referring to a text of Scripture: “Man lives not on bread alone” (Deut 8:3). Only he who considers his own life in the light of the Word of God is capable of giving to the realities of this world the right value. They are not looked down upon, destroyed, rejected, and not even turned into idols. They are just creatures, woe to consider them absolute.
The second temptation: “I will give you power over the nations … for they have been delivered to me …” (vv. 5-8). What the devil says seems a bit exaggerated. Yet it’s true: the logic that rules the world, that governs the relationship between the people is not that of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–8), not that of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26), but the opposite, that of the evil one (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).
The first temptation denounced the wrong way of dealing with things, the latter helps to identify evil ways with which we can relate to people, with our own kind.
The choice is between to dominate and to serve, to compete and to be in solidarity, to overpower and to consider ourselves servants. This choice is manifested in every attitude and in every condition of life. Who is educated and has reached a prestigious position can help to better the lives of the less fortunate, but he can also use it to humiliate those who are less endowed. Who has power and is rich, can serve the poorest and those who have been disadvantaged, but he can lord it over them too. The lust for power is so overwhelming that even the poor are tempted to overwhelm those who are weaker.
Authority is a charism, a gift of God to the community so that everyone can find in it his place and be happy. Power instead is evil, even if it is exercised in the name of God. Wherever dominion over persons is exercised, wherever one struggles to prevail over others, wherever someone is forced to kneel or bow down in front of another person, there is at work the logic of evil.
Jesus did not lack the talents to emerge, to climb all the steps of the religious and political power. He was intelligent, lucid, courageous, enchanted the crowds. He would certainly have been successful … but on one condition, that “he worshiped Satan,” that is, to come into compliance with the principles of this world: competition, resorting to violence, overwhelming the others, allying oneself with the powerful and using their methods. His choice was the opposite: he made himself a servant.
The third temptation: it is the most dangerous because it puts into question the relationship between man and God. The diabolical proposal is based even on the Bible: “Throw yourself down from here—says the tempter—for it is written …” (vv. 9-12). The most insidious wiles of evil are to show itself up with an attractive face, to assume a pious stance, to use the same Word of God (crippled and misleadingly interpreted) to lead people astray.
The maximum target of evil is not to provoke some moral failure, some fragility, some weakness, but to basically undermine the relationship with God. This is achieved when, in the mind of man, sneaks a doubt that the Lord does not keep his promises, unfaithful to his word, who ensures his protection but then abandon those who gave him trust. The need to “have proof” arises from this doubt. In the desert, the people of Israel, exhausted by hunger, thirst, and fatigue, have succumbed to this temptation and exclaimed: “Is the Lord with us, or not?” (Ex 17:7). The people provoked God, saying: if he’s on our side, if he really accompanies us with his love, let him manifest himself by giving us a sign, performing a miracle.
Jesus never succumbed to this temptation. Even in the most dramatic scenario, he refused to ask the Father proof of his love. He has not doubted his loyalty even when on the cross, the absurdity of what was happening to him, could have misled him into thinking that the Lord had forsaken him.
When the Lord does not realize our dreams we begin the grievances: “Where is God? Who knows if he exists! Is it worth continuing to believe if he does not intervene to support those who serve him?” If he does not give evidence of love that we demand, the fragile faith is in danger of collapse.
God has not promised to his faithful to protect them from the difficulties and tribulations. He has not promised to free them miraculously from disease, pain, but to give them strength because they don’t come out defeated by the evidence. It’s unthinkable to think that God treats us differently from the way he treated his only Son.
Today’s passage ends with an annotation: “Having exhausted every way of tempting Jesus, the devil left him to return another time” (v. 13).
Luke above all speaks of every kind of temptation, therefore, the three frames he depicted had to be interpreted as a synthesis of all the temptations. They represent, in a schematic way, the wrong ways of dealing with three realities: with things, with people, with God.
Luke gives us a glimpse, from the beginning of his Gospel, of the time when the temptation will manifest itself in the most violent and dramatic way: on the cross.
The devil has not strayed definitively; he withdrew waiting to return at the appointed time. He and his seductive work will be discussed later during the passion when he will enter Judas and push him to betray Jesus (Lk 22:3). That will be the manifestation of the empire of darkness (Lk 22:53), empire, that just when it thinks of celebrating its triumph, it will be defeated.
Italian missionary and biblical scholar