Our own forty days in the desert

First Sunday of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:4-10

Moses spoke to the people, saying: “The priest shall receive the basket from you and shall set it in front of the altar of the LORD, your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord, your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien. But there he became a nation great, strong, and numerous. When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore, I have now brought you the firstfruits of the products of the soil which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And having set them before the Lord, your God, you shall bow down in his presence.”

Romans 10:8-13

Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart —that is, the word of faith that we preach—, for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. For the Scripture says, No one who believes in him will be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Luke 4:1-13

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, One does not live on bread alone.” Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.

If the genealogy of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, which begins from His human origin “He was the son, as was thought of Joseph . . .” (Lk 3:23), is meant to underscore His human background; the temptations in today’s Gospel reading further prove the reality of His human nature – “He had to become like His brothers in every way. . . because He Himself was tested through what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb 2:17-18). But many would say that Jesus’ temptations are not our temptations: turning stones into bread, possessing the whole world or jumping off safely from a building. Though it is true and we cannot be tempted to do what is impossible for us, each of us does have our own desert story to tell; for in a broader sense, Satan’s tests of Jesus are our everyday trials as well.

Our desert experience may not be so much about turning stones into bread, but the desire of seeking to live in ease and comfort. In other words, the temptation of sensuality. While it is right to look after our corporal necessity, attachment to physical pleasure, worldly luxury and self-gratification would easily make us lose our supernatural insight – that of following the way of the Cross which is the way to salvation. Jesus’ words from Deuteronomy 8:3 remind us of the spiritual aspect of our earthly lives. We are not asked to be indifferent to our bodily needs, but we have to put things in their proper orders.

Likewise, our desert experience may not be so much about owning the entire world, but the fantasy of having power and success. Though not everyone can obtain power or be successful, oftentimes we admire those who have acquired them. In one way or another, we may want to acquire things that satisfy our vanity, for example, wealth, fame, beauty, etc. In other words, the temptation of idolatry – for these are the idols (not necessarily other gods) that we adore. Jesus’ words from Deuteronomy 6:13 remind us that God alone is the real power and the everlasting glory; all others are illusive and temporal. He is the only one that we should adore.

Finally, our desert experience may not be so much about landing safely from a height, but the attempt to wane the reality of God’s existence. In other words, the sin of dubiety. It stems from arrogance and presumption. The arrogance to request proofs from God that He exists and the presumption of trying God according to our subjective will. “He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty” and “We alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do” (Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI). Jesus’ words from Deuteronomy 6:16 remind us that God is God, the supreme sovereignty; He is not an object to be manipulated by us.

It is not difficult to see that the root cause of these temptations is the lack of love for God. Because of such lack of love for Him, we relegate His words, we downgrade His importance and we prioritize everything else except that of God. We no longer believe anything as real unless we can see, grasp and test. Jesus teaches us the way to conquer temptations is to keep God’s presence always in us by knowing Him well through the Scriptures, by remembering His love for us and by denouncing anything that lures us away from God, especially the rationalizations and excuses that disguise our real intentions. Temptations are like litmus papers, revealing the depth of our faith and love in God. Let us be humble and pray for the grace to overcome them.

Posted: March 10, 2019

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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