|Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 4:1–11. In this reading, we hear of Jesus being led into the desert for forty days where He is tested in a variety of ways. His experience offers several points for our reflection and prayer.|
The first thing to notice is that each of the temptations begins with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” (Some translations read, “Since you are the Son of God…”). Satan is not tempting Jesus to deny His identity but rather to prove Himself in a way that goes against obedience to the Father’s will. Satan is testing Jesus to see what sort of Son of God He will be! In Jesus’ responses, we see the Lord humbly, faithfully, and obediently accepting His human condition rather than asserting His own will and exercising His divine power. That is a challenge to us because Satan uses the same tactic to tempt us. We may know that we are “Christians”, but the challenge is to ask, “What kind of a Christian am I?” There are lots of ways to answer that question. Perhaps we are Christians who think it’s enough to go to Mass each week but that’s it. Perhaps we are Christians who recite daily prayers but have no other connection with the Lord in between those prayers. We need to remember that in our baptism we were claimed completely and eternally by Christ. We belong to Him not just one hour a week or even one hour a day. We belong to the Lord at all times and at all places. Sometimes we can be tempted to define our discipleship based on what we find convenient or expedient. This temptation of Jesus is addressed to us every time we face the similar temptation to settle for a lesser definition of discipleship than what Jesus has given us. When we strive for anything other than the fulfillment of God’s complete will in our lives then we are succumbing to the temptation to re-define our actions based on our own wants rather than basing our actions on God’s will.
What is your identity (husband/wife, father/mother, Christian, career, and so forth)?
When are you tempted to act contrary to your identity?
We form our sense of self in relationship to others; Jesus knew Himself first and foremost in relationship to the Father.How do people today seek a sense of “self” in relationship to things other than God (possessions, power, position, human relationships, work, pleasure, and so forth)?
What helps us to find and keep our primary identity rooted in relationship to God?
Second, it is significant that Jesus was tempted to turn stones into breads. It is important to notice the plural in this temptation (breads). Matthew is giving us an insight into the real meaning of this temptation. You see, only one loaf would have been needed to satisfy Jesus’ own personal hunger. The use of the plural indicates that Jesus was tempted to make bread not just for Himself but for others as well. This temptation becomes more meaningful when we realize that one of the common first century expectations of the Messiah was that He would re-produce the miracle of manna and there would be a lavish supply of food for humanity. By turning the stones into breads, Jesus would be giving in to others’ expectations of how He should act as the Messiah. Anyone who can feed the multitudes gains enormous political power (even current-day regimes understand this dynamic). Jesus will not allow himself to be controlled or dominated by popular expectations of how He should act or what He should do. Rather, His life and His actions will be guided by every word that comes from the Father.
Whose expectations influence your life?
When have you been tempted to appease others’ expectations even though it is not what you knew to be “right”?
Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the false expectations of others. What do you rely on to give you strength in such moments?
When can others’ expectations be a good and healthy thing?
What are God’s expectations of you today as His disciple?
Third, Jesus is tempted to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem so as to test the promise of Psalm 91:11–12 that, “…he commands his angels…to guard you wherever you go. With their hands they shall support you. He will give his angels charge of you … and on their hands they will bear you up.” This temptation shows us that even Satan can use Scripture to confuse us for his own benefit! Jesus is able to preserve Himself from being misled or confused by knowing which Scripture verse was applicable in which moment. All texts of Scripture have a context; when we remove texts from their context, then those texts become a pretext and we are in danger of misreading them. The context for Jesus’ life and ministry is obedience to the Father’s will as someone who will not test the Father’s promises or make the Father prove Himself.
When do you find yourself wanting to make God “prove Himself”?
When do you doubt God’s presence with you?
Sometimes people put themselves in harm’s way and then expect God to save them from the consequences of their own irresponsible decisions. What does that statement mean to you?
What are the primary temptations to reckless living people experience today?
Who taught you to be responsible and accountable for your actions? How are you teaching others that same lesson?
How can Scripture verses be used today in deceptive ways?
What helps you discern the difference between Scripture that is correctly used and Scripture that is incorrectly used?
Fourth, Jesus is taken to a high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world. Satan promises Jesus authority over all these kingdoms with the condition that Jesus pay homage to Satan. This is a very subtle but real temptation. You see, Jesus is being tempted to allow the worldly values of power, force, intimidation, and so forth to guide His life. By doing so and accepting the ways of the world, Jesus would be de-facto paying homage to Satan! None of us have idols in our homes, and yet we end up paying homage to forces that oppose God every time we agree to settle for the world as it is and allow worldly values to guide our lives. Jesus was tempted to rule the kingdoms of the world by capitulating to the Devil’s kingship over that world. Instead, as St. Chromatius said in the fifth century, “The Lord withstood temptations from the enemy that He might restore victory to humankind and He thereby made sport of the devil.”
When are we tempted to accept the status quo of the world as our guiding principle?
How can selfishness and practical disregard for God’s existence (that is, living life in a personal or professional way as though God does not exist) affect our actions?
Jesus could have it all if He would just cut a few corners of fidelity. When are you tempted to act contrary to God’s will for the sake of “getting ahead” by cutting corners on ethics, morals, or faith principles?
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will be given all power and authority on earth, but it is only after He obediently fulfills the Father’s will to die on the cross. When have you been rewarded for your fidelity after first being crucified for it?
What are “short cuts” people use today for the sake of success but at the expense of Christian ethics?
Lastly, this Sunday is a good opportunity to reflect on the three primary spiritual practices associated with the Time of Lent: prayer, self-denial, and works of charity. While these practices are to always be essential components of a disciple’s life, the forty days of Lent are a time when we are asked to intensify them so as to become more faithful to God’s Word as did Jesus in the desert. Deepened prayer helps us to hear the Word of God more clearly and to become more responsive in following the Lord’s will in our lives. Prayer also increases our love of God by deepening our relationship with the Lord. Self-denial frees us from being enslaved by our appetites or dominated by wasteful practices. Self-denial, especially fasting, also awakens us to the needs and sufferings of others and allows us to experience the frailty of the human condition so as to grow in compassion for those who live in constant need. In performing charitable works (almsgiving), we express our love of God in our love of neighbor and begin to make a practical difference in the lives of others as a witness of our discipleship. Charitable works (almsgiving) also challenge us to let go of the false security of our possessions and the illusion of self-sufficiency by our responsible care for others. Thus, these three practices are interconnected. Prayer, self-denial, and good works all lead us into a practical and more profound love of God and neighbor. Lent is not so much about what we “give up” but rather what we “give to” God and others.
How can you deepen your prayer life during these forty days of Lent so you can hear more clearly the Word of God being spoken to you?
What are some of the enslavements you experience, and how can the practice of self-denial help free you from being governed by those enslavements (“Do you control your desires, or do your desires control you”)?
Who needs to experience your mercy and charitable works, and how can you express your love of neighbor in a new way during this Lenten time?
St. Chromatius, “Tractate on Matthew, 14.5” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture,
New Testament, Ia, Matthew 1-13, Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2001, p. 64.