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The Temptation of Christ by the Devil
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Most of our meditation so far had been on the good angels. Certainly from Christs conception on to the beginning of His public ministry; it was the good angels who announced to Mary that she would be the Mother of God, it was the good angels who told the shepherds of Christs birth, it was the good angels who ministered to His needs. But once Christ appeared public and began to proclaim the Gospel foretold to the shepherds by the angels, the evil spirits were aroused. The devils have remained very intelligent beings. They are clever, even cunning. In fact, the evil spirit who tempted Eve at the dawn of human history is described as a serpent. Over the years of teaching missiology, my students from Asia and Africa told me once missionaries enter a pagan territory and begin to proclaim the Gospel, the evil spirits who the pagans worship as their god become phenomenally active.
Not surprisingly then, St. Matthew who wrote his gospel for the converts from Judaism, gives us a detailed account of how Jesus allowed Himself to be tempted by the devil. The last thing the devil wants is converts to Christianity.
By now volumes of commentary have been written about this historic event in the life of Jesus Christ. Our plan here is to devote two meditations to Christs temptation by the devil. In the present meditation we shall concentrate on the narrative which is found in the gospels, for our purpose especially in St. Matthew, with an explanation of the meaning to understand what exactly took place when Christ was tempted. Our next meditation we will be to see the implications, the profound implications for our moral, spiritual, and collective lives of society which, I can honestly say, is being deeply penetrated by the evil spirit.
First then the narrative. There is a special significance in the context of Christs temptation by the devil. It occurs right after the short discourse on the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. No sooner was Christ baptized and a voice from heaven declared, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased - that Christ underwent His demonic temptation.
Quoting from Matthew:
Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. The tempter came and said to Him, If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread. But He answered and said, It is written, Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Then the devil took Him into the holy city, and set Him on the pinnacle of the temple. The devil said to Him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written, He will give His angels charge over you; and upon their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. Jesus said to him, It is written further, You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Again the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and shown Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. And he said to Him, All these things will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me. Then Jesus said to him, Begone, Satan! For it is written, The Lord your God shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve. Then the devil left Him. And behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
Now our explanatory commentary. When we speak of Christ being tempted, we must be very clear. Unlike us, Christ could not be tempted from within. Unlike us, He did not have a fallen human nature. Christ had no concupiscence. Christ had no sinful urges, either in His body or in His will. He could be tempted only from outside of Himself, either by the world or by the devil. The world tempted Christ to have Him deny who He really was, tempted Him to become what His contemporaries wanted Him to be, a military leader, wanted Him to conquer the despotical leaders. But Christ could be and was tempted by the evil spirit.
When we therefore say that Christ was tempted by the devil, we mean that the evil spirit actually thought he could seduce the Savior and lead Him into sin.
The evangelist tells us that Jesus began His public ministry by spending forty full days and forty full nights, without eating or drinking anything. He was therefore very hungry and very thirsty. We may say that Christ sustained Himself without bodily food or drink by working a miracle of sustenance, but, lets be honest, not without experiencing the pangs of forty days and forty nights of total fasting.
The devil was smart. He did not attempt to tempt Jesus until after the prolonged fast. The devil figured, Ah, now is the time. That is why the first temptation by the devil was to tempt Christ by appealing to His hunger. The devil surmised, but he did not know, whether Jesus was indeed the Son of God. On the devils side therefore, his tempting the Savior was also a test to discover Christs true identity. That is why the devil told Jesus, it was a conditional statement, Note the devils logic. The devil was not sure if Christ was the living God become man.
The Fathers of the Church again, who have so much to say about the good and evil spirits, said that the temptation to which the evil spirits succumbed, was their being told millennia in advance, that God would make a human race far below the angels by their natural gifts of mind and will, and that God would become a man. And the angels were foretold that they would have to worship this God man and adore Him as their master and Lord. And many of the angels, led by Lucifer, refused.
Back to the dialogue between Christ and Satan. The devil was not sure that Christ was the Son of God. So he made a condition. If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread. Christs answer was very profound. Human beings have two levels of life, a life of the body and a life of the soul. We never die, only our bodies die. Our souls, once created, will last for eternity. The life of the body is sustained by such food as bread. The life of the soul is sustained by the only food that can keep the soul alive, it is sustained by the truth which God reveals, and which alone can nourish the human spirit. Without the truth, the spirit dies.
We might say the first temptation of Christ was to gluttony. Some commentators think so. I would say not really. But more profoundly, Christs temptation was a temptation to the pleasures of this world in preference to the joys that only the possession of Gods truth can provide. How this needs to be known. We are only as happy as we possess, live, and cherish the truth.
The second temptation of Christ was a strange one. The devil set the Savior on the pinnacle of a temple in Jerusalem. Again the doubt of the devils mind. He asked Jesus, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Unlike the first temptation, this time the devil quotes from scripture and reminds Jesus what the Old Testament says in the Psalms. It is a Messianic promise that God would send His angels to protect the Messiah from suffering harm.
As before the devil was not sure that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. If He is the Son of God, so the devil thought, then He could throw Himself down from the top of the temple and suffer no harm. So the devil thought. It is imperative to understand the devils logic. He is profoundly smart, logical to the extreme. But everything depends on the first premise of the devils logic, is it the truth or is it a lie?
This time Christ quotes another passage from scripture, this time from Deuteronomy. Notice, in his first temptation of Christ, the devil did not quote from scriptures. But, smart demon that he is, Christ resisted the devils first temptation by quoting from the bible. The devil thought to himself, I should have thought of this sooner. This time I too, will quote from the scriptures. I repeat, the devil can tempt, presenting nothing less than the Word of God to mislead people from God. The Sacred Scriptures, quoted by Christ, warn us not to sin by presumption. It would be presumptuous to expect God to work a miracle because of our own whim or fancy. God works miracles on His conditions, not our own.
Tempting God is a strange expression. It can mean many things. In this context, tempting God would be putting God to the test, saying in effect, If you are really the God you claim to be, then you will do what only God can perform. That is the crime of tempting God.
The devil was not finished. You might say, not surprisingly. In the third temptation, the devil does not start by saying that you are the Son of God. Rather he took the Savior to a very high mountain. On the high mountain from which a large view of the surrounding territory could be seen for miles up to the horizon. Commentators on the scriptures tell us that what the devil showed Christ was not only the land and the buildings surrounding a physical mountain in Palestine. It was a global view of all the kingdoms of the world and their majestic glory.
It was the devils last effort to tempt the Savior. But this time it was a temptation that only the devil, as the prince of this world, could offer. He told Jesus, All these things I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
What was the devil telling our Lord? He was telling Him that as the one who is lord and master of the earthly pleasures that the kings of this world over the subjects, he would give everything to Christ on one condition. All Christ would have to do is fall on His knees and worship the evil spirit.
The history of the human race is a history of a conflict between two powers, the power of the devil over the worldly possessions of our planet, and the power of God over the humble souls who are willing to sacrifice everything in this world rather than abandon their service of God.
This was enough. Christs reply has become one of the most known imperatives in the human language, Begone, Satan! The devil could just go so far, and no further. Christ told the demon, again quoting from the scriptures, that there are two kinds of adoration that human beings can practice: either adoring the evil spirit as the ruler of this world, or adoring the true God, who is the only One whom we may serve.
St. Augustines City of God is the masterpiece in Christian literature explaining through a score of chapters what is the only real warfare that had ever been fought in world history. It is a war between the City of God, whose Leader is Christ, the Son of God; and the City of Man, whose master is Lucifer.
We are so accustomed to thinking of idolatry as an ancient form of paganism that no longer exists. The exact contrary is the truth. Idolatry in the modern world is widespread. It is nothing less than the worship of Self, inspired by the father of lies who tells people it is their will which they are to follow; it is their choices they are to make; it is their world in which they are living, and not the fantasy that religious zealots picture as created and ruled by an infinite God.
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the universe, protect us from the wiles of the evil spirit, teach us to follow your example of humility in submitting our wills to the will of your divine Son. He conquered the evil spirit and gave us the grace to follow His example. Amen.
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