The First Sunday of Lent ~The Fidelity of Jesus ~ February 21, 2021
This is a story about fidelity in the face of temptation.
This is a story about the Jesus I know and love.
Before I get into my own thoughts on this important opening story in the life of our Lord, I’d like to share some notes from our Scripture scholar-friend William Barclay.
He says that the word to tempt in Greek peirazein has a different emphasis than its English counterpart. We always think of tempting as something bad. But peirazein has a different emphasis; it means to test.
One of the great Old Testament stories makes this clear. Remember how Abraham narrowly escaped sacrificing his only son Isaac? God was testing him, not tempting him!
So, with Jesus, this whole incident was not so much a tempting as the testing of Jesus.
We have to note further where this test took place. The inhabited part of Judea stood on a central plateau that was the backbone of southern Palestine. Between it and the Dead Sea stretched a terrible wilderness, thirty-five by fifteen miles. It was called Jeshimmon, which means “the Devastation.” The hills were like dust-heaps; the limestone looked blistered and peeling; the rocks bare and jagged, with heat like a vast furnace and ran out to the precipices. 1,200 feet high, that plunged down to the Dead Sea. It was in that awesome devastation that Jesus was tempted or rather the Father was shaping him — testing his mettle — for his mission.
Then there are these other points to take note . . . .
First, all three gospel writers seem to stress the immediacy with which the temptations follow the baptism. As Mark has it, “The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12). Barclay suggests to us that we ought to be on guard when life brings us to the heights because that’s when we’re in the gravest danger of a fall.
Second, we should not regard this experience of Jesus as an outward experience. It was a struggle that went on in his own heart and mind and soul. The proof is that there is no possible mountain from which all the mountains of the earth could be seen. This was an inner struggle.
It is through our inmost thoughts and desires that the tempter comes to us. His attack can be so real that we might almost see the devil.
(Pope Francis has said that Christian life is sometimes a battle. And then he cautioned when someone said “you’re so old-fashioned; the devil doesn’t exist, “Watch out! The devil exists. We must learn how to battle him in the 21st Century and must not be naïve. We must learn from the Gospel how to battle him.”)
Third, Barclay goes on, we must not think that Jesus conquered the tempter and that the tempter never came to him again.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. In Christian warfare, says Barclay as well as Pope Francis, there is no release. Some people think they should get beyond that stage; Jesus himself never did, even in his last hour in Gethsemane.
Fourth, one thing stands out about this story—these temptations could only come to a person who had special powers and knew he had them. We are always tempted through our gifts. We can use our gifts for selfish purposes or we can use them in the service of others.
Fifth, the source must have been Jesus himself. He was alone in the wilderness. No one was with him in his struggle, so he must have told his men about it.
We must always approach this story with a unique and utmost reverence, for it is laying bare his inmost heart and soul. And that is what I’ve always done in the following presentation written many years ago . . .
THIS IS A STORY about earth-shaking silence that bore the sound of deafening harsh voices and one soft and gentle voice Who sent Jesus among us so we could know we had a Father-God who loves us with an everlasting love.
This is a story of confrontation and testing.
Dramatic confrontation with the elements–blinding sun and penetrating darkness, blistering wind and numbing cold, impassioned hunger and parching thirst.
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to pray and fast.
There, he would shape his mission. He was searching for the answer of the question: What kind of spiritual leader would he be?
There, he was also tempted by the devil, who sought him to distort that mission.
First, a harsh voice prompted Jesus to turn stones into bread as a way of manipulating others to get them to follow him. Jesus could have made people dependent on him; instead, he shared with them what he realized: Our common dependence on the Father of all, who gives us our daily bread.
To interpret this, the first temptation presents physical attraction as the ultimate good, Jesus teaches us to seek bread from heaven. We continue to pray for and live by this daily bread.
Another harsh voice tempted him to throw himself down from the parapet of the temple and have his angels come and raise him up. He could put together a traveling road show of clever signs and wonders. Things would be easier that way. People would easily follow a clever magician. But this would draw people away from the Father, not toward him.
The soft voice was simply asking Jesus to reveal the true order of the Father’s kingdom.
Jesus realized his mission in life was to reveal Abba’s love as Father of all. Jesus was to let the world know that there was a soft voice within us all, who is there to affirm and to love, to test and to guide.
Again, as an interpretation, the second temptation is about fame and admiration—making a name for ourselves. In fact, Christ will throw himself down—in free and obedient conformity to the Father. Jesus will endure mockery instead of admiration. Christ did not cast himself down from this pinnacle of the temple . . . He did not tempt God, but he did descend into the abyss of death . . .and the desolation of the defenseless.
A third harsh voice promised Jesus the whole world, saying: “You’ve got the power to gain the whole world. You can be king of this world.
And Jesus sadly realized that many of his followers, even in the Church, would succumb to greed of every form. They would kill in Crusades and Inquisitions in the name of love.
The third temptation is for earthly power and rule. But the only crown that Jesus will wear will be made of thorns, his kingdom is “not of this world” (john 18:36).
As he was tempted, he was led into a soul-embracing love of the One he was to reveal. In the desert, Jesus must have knelt down and promised in all simplicity to seek and to do the will of the Father from moment to moment. And in that act of fidelity, in that decision, the new covenant surely was sealed in Jesus’ heart.
In the desert and its temptations, the whole of humanity was drawn into the possibility of intimate experience of the divine. Because one person was willing to be led into the holy of holies, we all can go with him. We can go–provided that we–like Jesus, are willing to be tested and cleansed, strengthened and purified.
In this story, at the beginning of Jesus’ mission, is the answer to the question: Why did Jesus have to die?
The answer was:
To surrender himself into the hands of evil people was the only way Jesus could be faithful. God could have intervened on behalf of his own Son. But that was out of the question.
The world could not accept God as a gentle Father. They found his message of love much too demanding. And since the authorities could not and would not accept him and his message, the only recourse left to him was simply to give witness to that message–even to the end.
He chose to be faithful to the soft Voice of the Father, not compromise the message, even if it led to his death.
Jesus had to suffer and die because, because tragically, that was the only way the world would allow him to be faithful to the Word he heard ~ and preached.
The Father was more pleased with the fidelity of one son than he would have been with the spread of a message that did not reveal his love.
This is a powerful lesson for those among us who would COERCE others into being good – as we see the proliferation of dictators across the globe today.
The false voices which Jesus tamed and quieted ~the voices of greed or accolade or power–we must tame and quiet, relying on his power as elder Son.
The soft voice of the Father to whom he was so devoted, the voice that was the source and object of all his fidelity, each one of us should train ourselves to hear.
And then learn . . . day after day after day to love . . . more deeply . . . more intimately . . . more really–the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This . . . . is the Jesus I know and love.
And I ask him to teach me the gentle ways of the Father. Through Jesus, may we be faithful too.
And now, before you go, here’s a song I’ve always loved with a lovely slide show ~ On Eales’ Wings. Click here. It’s the text of Psalm 91 that says, “For He will give His angels charge over you, To guard you in all your ways.” Remember to turn up your speakers and enter full screen.
And here are today’s Mass readings if you’d like to reflect on them. Click here.
William Barclay / The Daily Study Bible Series / the Gospel of Matthew ~ Volume 1 revised edition Westminster Press Philadelphia / 1975 / pp. 62 -66.