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TESTING IN THE DESERT

Fr Chris Hayden



Last Sunday, the Lectionary was doing what St Paul did, and what many of the earliest theologians did: putting the temptation of our first parents in the garden side, by side with the temptation of Our Lord in the desert. Let’s be mindful that in biblical language, ‘temptation’ and ‘testing’ are one and the same; the biblical languages have just one word to cover both. So, Adam and Eve were tested and failed; Jesus was tested and prevailed.

The tempter’s question to Eve, ‘Did God really say…?’ is the root of all temptation. It instils doubt regarding the reality, the clarity and the goodness of God’s word and his promises. When we heed that question, when we ponder it, savour it, give it space, then we hack at the very foundation of our relationship with God. That’s what happened in the garden, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But that history is the Salvation History, a history that winds through the desert, and into the Land, and out of the Land into exile, and back into the Land, only to endure internal exile as subjects of a foreign power. And at a culminating moment in that history, Jesus is led out into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.

Question: what was the last thing Jesus heard, before he heard the voice of the devil? He heard a clear statement of his relationship with the Father; he heard the Father say: ‘This is my beloved Son’ (Mt 3:17 – the verse immediately before our passage begins). And what is the first thing he hears the tempter say? ‘If you are the Son of God…’ The tempter is up to his old tricks. He didn’t say to Eve: God did not say… No. He was more subtle than that, more canny, more insinuating. His words were more a nudge than a direct statement: ‘Did God really say…?’ And now, to Jesus, the devil doesn’t say, You are not the Son of God. No. He simply invites Jesus to ponder alternatives.

If you are the Son of God. I’m not sayin’ you’re not… Just sayin’! Surely it’s only reasonable to give the matter some thought. And why not demonstrate it – to yourself – by doing something no mere mortal can do?

‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves.’ That’s the first temptation, and it’s based on food. Just as it was for Adam and Eve. The Tempter doesn’t carry a three-pronged fork and dress in a crimson cloak and gracefully wag a long tail. He doesn’t deal in the spectacular, but in the ordinary. Stuff like food, and sex, and security and the desire to be esteemed. Sure, he progressed to something a bit more exotic, once it became clear that Jesus was not going to fall at the first hurdle. But temptation seeks us out in the routine, ordinary details of life, just as surely as God’s providence accompanies us in the same ordinary details.

There’s nothing more ordinary than our appetites. If they aren’t met, we will cease to exist. But it’s precisely in our appetites that temptation finds a foothold. The tempter brings disorder to our appetites, so that the very desires that are intended to keep us alive, become instead, and ultimately, a cause of death.

The first temptation of Jesus is the temptation to produce bread. How is that normally done? Well, it starts with a plough and it ends with a loaf, but between the two, there’s a whole chain of human effort and cooperation. Sowing – harvesting – transporting – milling – mixing – baking – distribution. So, Jesus is being invited to bypass that chain of human effort and cooperation. He is being tempted to perform a miracle, and one that is a miraculous shortcut. A shortcut, furthermore, that refuses ordinary, awkward, tedious communion and cooperation with others. Our Lord is being confronted with the tempting insinuation that it doesn’t have to be so. There’s an easier and more direct way than all the hassle that lies ahead.

Later in this Gospel, Jesus will teach us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ and ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Which is precisely the opposite of commanding stones to become bread, and rejecting the ordinary association and cooperation with others that make forgiveness necessary.

The tempter doesn’t quit lightly. He uses the very same tactic, the very same words, a second time: ‘If you are the Son of God.’ Let’s remember that we remain vulnerable. The tempter doesn’t need an arsenal of fresh tactics for us. We need to be forever casting ourselves on God’s grace and mercy. The substance of the second temptation is to engage in something spectacular – not just a stunt, but a publicity stunt. A dive from a high place, from the parapet of the Temple, would be witnessed by all. Word would travel. People would be amazed. They’d be convinced.

Another shortcut. And most importantly, it would be a shortcut around the high place where Jesus was to bring salvation: the high place of the Cross, the hill of Calvary. The Irish singer-songwriter, Johnny Duhan, in one of his lyrics, captures the heart of that temptation, with a phrase he puts on the lips of the devil: Climb the steeple / and jump down / show the people / God’s in town. But Jesus refuses to seduce people by spectacular deeds. He says a resounding ‘no’ to any kind of miraculous messianism. He wants us to follow him not because we’ve been blinded by brilliance, but because our eyes have been opened to the truth.

These things come in threes. The tempter has, by now, given up on the effort to instil doubt in Jesus regarding his relationship with the Father. Now, in another high place which is not Calvary, nor Tabor, nor the Mount of the Sermon, the devil says to Jesus, ‘fall at my feet and all is yours… all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour.’ There’s a subtle – and of course, satanic – aspect to that temptation. It tries to twist Jesus’ entire mission: ‘You’ve come, Jesus, to claim the world for your Father. Well, here it is… in an easier and more direct way than all the hassle that lies ahead. You can have it all, in just one, immediate, total, totalitarian step.

And Jesus resists. And at the very end of this Gospel we’ll hear him say to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ It wasn’t the devil’s to give, after all. But then, what do we expect from the prince of lies. And it’s not that Jesus, the humble Nazarene, would have any issue kneeling at someone’s feet: at the last supper, in John, he knelt to wash his disciple’s feet. But he did so as an expression of loving service; he did so precisely because he was immersed in the human condition – not as a means of short-circuiting that condition.

Finally, I’d suggest just two ‘take-homes’ for us. First, that we strive to be rooted in our relationship as sons and daughters of God the Father. Second, that we be mindful that our Father does not evacuate us from history, from process, from tedium, from slow and painful out-workings. But he is with us in all of that. He is, as St Paul reminds us, working all things to the good for those who love him’ (Rom 8:28).

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