The beginning of Lent is Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that our ultimate fate is to be reunited with the earth. This is done with ashes placed on our forehead in the form of a cross along with the words: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” In one of the creation accounts, the Hebrew text makes this verbal similarity apparent. Adam=man; adamah=earth. (Gen. 2:7)
The above reminder of our “earthy” beginnings is indicative of the journey we have during Lent to attain the goal of the solid hope for resurrection. Needless to say, there are objects that can easily obviate our journey. One of the most common is temptation.
The Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent (Matt. 4:1-11) shows us how Jesus dealt with the issue of temptation. In fact, temptation is not a sin, but rather the opportunity to choose sin. Consequently, “choice” becomes the principal reason of whether we sin or not.
Readers/hearers of Matthew’s gospel had a memory framework from which they were able to draw theological conclusions. It seems to me that we can see at least three memory reminders that allowed the readers/hearers to understand the temptations of Jesus. These are: Desert; Conditionality; and the Mountain.
First, the desert. Quite often, the desert became a place of testing, committment. The memory experience of the Israelite community was the saving experience of the Exodus as the people were tested as they crossed the desert on the way to the promised land. So, Jesus’ place of testing was the desert.
Second, conditionality. Conditionality, in fact, is the context from which “choice” is made. The key word is IF. When the Israelites covenanted themselves with God during their desert journey, it was a bi-lateral bonding of mutual responsibility. God said, “I will be your God and you will be my people IF you keep my commandments.” While Jesus was being tempted by the devil, each of the temptations was preceded by the word IF so that a choice would be presupposed.
Third, a mountain. Quite frequently in the biblical context the appearance of a “mountain” means that something very significant is about to occur. An example is that the famous covenant between the Israelites and God occurred on Mount Sinai. The idea behind this is that the mountain top was considered the meeting place between heaven and earth. For the third temptation, the devil takes Jesus to a “very high” mountain. So we become aware that something very interesting will soon take place.
Yet, we can learn something from this reading of the Gospel. Jesus’ best defense comes from a firm grounding in Scripture. The first temptation is about food. The devil wants a frivolous miracle from Jesus to “prove” that he is the Son of God. Jesus counters with a Scripture quote stating that, in effect, people are nourished by the Word of God rather than by bread alone. We should watch what we eat and not be overindulgent. The more we take care of our bodies, which includes eating healthy foods, the more effective ministers we shall be.
The second temptation is about the battle of the Scripture quotes. The devil tells Jesus to throw himself down and the angels will save him (Ps. 91:11-12), and Jesus answers that one is not to test the Lord (Deut. 6:16). The idea being that one should not look at Scripture to support a foregone conclusion, but rather look at Scripture to help arrive at a conclusion. How how do we use Scripture?
The third temptation has to do with worship. The devil tells Jesus that he will give him multiple possessions IF Jesus worships him. To worship someone means total dedication and service. This is big stuff, hence the “very high” mountain. Jesus once again quotes Scripture: “You shall worship and serve God alone.” (Deut. 6:18)
We can see that temptation can be a huge distraction in making the “choice” for God in all that we do. Hence the period of Lent makes it possible for us to “choose” to be and do for God. The temptations about food, using Scripture justly, and worshipping God alone, will be able to help us make the choice to love and serve God. The Lord’s Prayer, which we recite at Mass, has the helpful phrase: “And lead us not into temptation.”