The temptations of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are stylized accounts of three temptations that may not have happened in so neat a fashion in real life, but are clearly meant to be comprehensive of the fundamental temptations that challenge all humans, Jesus included. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, which would have been particularly strong during his forty days of solitude in the wilderness, are a guide to dealing with the same temptations in our own lives.
The first temptation, that Jesus should turn stones into bread, can stand for all sensual temptations. It is surely not a sin to satisfy one’s hunger but it is a sin to be focused on physical sustenance to the neglect of all else, to make god our belly. (Phil. 3: 19) The devil’s proposal puts bread front and center, which sparks the competitive tendencies of humans to seek more material goods for the sake of having more material goods than others. Jesus’ reply puts bread in a wider context, implying what Matthew spells out, that we not only need bread but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) Within this broader context, bread is provided in the wilderness by God as it was to the Israelites in their desert journey after escaping from Egypt. When bread is a gift from God, then it should also be a gift between humans as well.
Lust for power is often thought to be the greatest human temptation, as Matthew suggests in his ordering of the temptations, but Luke makes it the second greatest temptation. We might think that the devil’s offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” as being out of our league, but all of us tend to seek power in our own social settings. That is, we try to build up what sociologists call “social capital.” This is what Jesus was warning us about in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday when he told us not to fast or give alms “like the hypocrites” who compete for human admiration. (Matthew 6) In seeking social capital, we try to build our little kingdoms piece by piece. As with the first temptation, Jesus responds with the larger picture grounded in God by alluding to Deuteronomy 6: 13: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That is, we should seek our social capital first with God rather than with humans. By worshiping and serving God, we will then serve other people rightly and thus gain social capital in less competitive ways.
The third temptation is the most subtle and the most dangerous. The first two temptations proposed substitutes for focusing primarily on God. The third temptation focuses on God. The devil quotes Psalm 91 to assure Jesus that if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ heavenly Abba would surely save him, as promised in the psalm. But the focus on God is distorted in what amounts to an attempt to manipulate God, which would make God a competitor among human competitors. Catching this distortion, Jesus clarifies the right focus on God by saying that one should not put God to the test. The distortion of the third temptation is subtle because it is based on the profound truth that God cares for each of us and takes care of us. But to assume that we can do anything, no matter how heedless and reckless because God will take care of us is presumption, putting God to the test. If there is anything the prophets have taught us, it is that God allows us to live with the consequences of our choices. Otherwise, what meaning would free will have?
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our frailty as mortal creatures. The temptations of Christ, the same temptations we experience daily, remind us of our moral and spiritual frailty. If Jesus had to remain mindful of his heavenly Abba and guard against distortions in that relationship, we should do no less. Let us take comfort that, as the author of Hebrews said, precisely by being tempted in every way as we are, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 4: 15, 12: 2)