“IF YOU ARE THE SON OF GOD… TEMPTATION AND TEMPTATIONS.” FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT, YEAR A by Fr. Robert B. Manansala, OFM

March 8/9, 2014
Dasmarinas Village/Santuario de San Antonio/North Forbes

A story is told about a driver who parked his car in a no-parking area and attached the following message to the windshield: “I have circled this block twenty times. I cannot find an available parking space. I have an urgent appointment to keep. The Lord Jesus taught, ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’’

When the driver of the car returned, he saw this reply attached to his own note. “I am a police officer. I have circled this block twenty years. If I don’t give you a ticket, I will not be doing my job and I can lose it. The Lord Jesus also taught, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’”

The word temptation comes from the Latin word temptare, which means “to handle, test, or try.” Although temptation is an inducement to sin, to disobey God and his precepts and to betray our identity and dignity as God’s children, it is also a time of testing and trial. The Protestant evangelist Rick Warren says, “Temptation simply provides the choice… Every time you choose to do good instead of sin, you are growing in the character of Christ.” Jesus is tested in the desert by the Devil but he chooses to be on the side of God and his will and, in the process, he comes out victorious. He shows himself a real Son of God, truly obedient to the will and ways of the Father.

To better appreciate the import of the Temptation of Jesus, we need to take note of three important considerations:

First, the temptation of Jesus is preceded by his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. In the said baptism, the theme of Jesus as the “Son of God” is very prominent. The voice of he Father is heard, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Mt. 3:17). The heavenly Father reveals that Jesus is the Son of God and it is precisely this divine identity as God’s beloved Son that is under attack by Satan. Satan introduces two of his tests or temptations with the phrase “If you are the Son of God…”

Indeed, the fundamental temptation of Jesus, on which the three particular temptations are anchored, has something to do with his divine identity. The Devil is daring him to prove his divine identity as the Son of God. He wants him to compromise his filial trust in the Father. He is challenging his identity as beloved Son and inducing him to doubt it and to put his trust in other things such pleasure, power, and prestige instead of reaffirming his trust in his heavenly Father and his will for him. The Devil wants him to take a different route instead of keeping steady on the way of the cross that the Father has designed for him in bringing about the Kingdom of God and for the salvation of humanity.

Is this not also the fundamental temptation that we all experience in life? When we are tempted, it is a test of who God is really for us and who we are before God. In the face of temptations, do I continue to cling to God and to his ways? Do I remain faithful to his will and to his teachings? Will I try to be a true child of God and of the light or will I allow myself to be a child of Satan, of darkness and of this world? Will I continue to put my trust in God and in his providential care for me or do I change allegiance by putting my trust in pleasure, wealth, power, and prestige and in anything that is not of God or that leads me away from God and his will?

Second, about a hundred years before Jesus began his ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God, the Roman Empire had conquered Palestine and annexed it as a Roman colony. Understandably, the Jewish people, who considered themselves the God’s Chosen people, resented their subjugation to the foreign and pagan Roman Empire. Before the coming of Jesus, the environment became saturated with expectations for a Messiah from the line of David who would take on a politico-military role to liberate the people from the yoke of the Roman Empire. What the people had been expecting was a type of temporal, worldly and political messianism that would exhibit might and power.

The different temptations offered by Satan are a trap leading to this type of messanism. The Devil does not only challenge the identity of Jesus; he also induces him to accept the worldly concept of messianism and not the type of messianism that is according to the plan of the Father. He is challenging him to take things into his hands and do things according to the values of the world and according to his deceitful dictations. But the messianic way of the Father is not a temporal, worldly, political and even violent messianic way; the way of the Messiah, as designed by God, is the way of the cross, of love, peace, service and humility. We see this very clearly in Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem commemorated on Palm Sunday. Jesus comes on a humble donkey and not on a horse, a symbol of power, might, wealth and prestige. Jesus bluntly rejects the false enticements of the Devil and sticks to the way of the heavenly Father.

In this world, in order to reach whatever goals and aspirations that we have set for ourselves, for our families, inner circles and companies, we can be tempted to take things our way and according to the ways of the world at the expense of some fundamental spiritual, moral and gospel values. We can embrace immoral and illegal means in pursuit of power, riches and prestige and other things and values that can become mammons or idols. Our end goals, no matter how noble, do not justify illegal and immoral means. A true child of God, as the temptation incident reminds us, always seeks and pursues both God’s goals and ways in all things.

Finally, the Temptation of Jesus reminds us of the desert experience of Israel after their experience of slavery in Egypt and of the fall of Adam and Eve. On those 40 days in the desert, the Jewish people were also tested in many different ways. On one instance, for example, the people became hungry and were unwilling to trust in the providence of God (Ex 16 = Deut 8:2-3). While Israel of old succumbed to temptations, Jesus proves victorious in the face of temptations.

Much earlier in the Biblical account, Adam and Eve were also tempted. Like the Israel of old, they also succumbed to temptations and disobeyed God. But such is not the case with Jesus. Jesus is victorious over sin, temptations and death and has broken the cycle of sinfulness. Jesus as the New Adam and the New Israel is presented to us in the Temptation account as a model of fidelity to God and to his will.

The gospel incident also gives us some clues that enable Jesus to defeat the Devil and his machinations. Jesus is secure in his divine identity as the Son of God. He lives in close intimacy with and connection to his heavenly Father. It is only when we are truly grounded in God and in our identity as children of God that we are able to resist evil and temptations in this world. Our traditional theological terminology calls this a “state of grace.” When we are in a state of grace, when we are filled with God’s spirit and presence, we are stronger to say no to the evils and temptations of this world. Indeed, when our lives are directed more towards God, them we are able to turn more away from evil and temptations.

We can also see here the importance of prayer and fasting and other spiritual disciplines and of being grounded in the Word of God. Jesus has been praying hard and fasting in the desert when the Devil comes into the scene. Jesus is equipped with the necessary spiritual weapons to combat the enemy. Someone said, “Unless we have within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that which is about us.” Every Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we are reminded of the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to help us grow in holiness and to combat the evil within and outside of us.

The Devil can also quote the Scriptures for evil designs and to make things appear to be good, noble and even holy and according to God’s will. Is this not the nature of evil and temptation? They usually appear to be good and enticing, hiding the destructions that they bring. But Jesus is truly steeped in the Word of God and can very well discern those that are from God from those that are not from God. In life, we also need this discerning spirit that is guided by the knowledge and the living out of the Word of God in order to see what is truly of God and embrace it and reject what is not of God.

Jesus is quick in resisting the Devil. Spiritual writers and saints tell us that we can never dilly-dally before Satan, his temptations and machinations. We can never negotiate with Satan and his ways. We must resist at once for we are stronger at the first moment of temptation. We need to be resolute in immediately dismissing the Evil One. Jesus is firm in his responses to the Devil and he dismisses him, “Get away, Satan.” And if we do not have the courage to dismiss Satan, we need to remove ourselves from the territory of the Devil, from evil and sinful occasions, and flee. The Desert Fathers have a simple but wise advice: “Pray and flee.”

In the Our Father we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” As we pray to God to deliver us from evil and temptations, it is important that we also do not expose ourselves to temptations for we may fall. Arnold Glasow says, “Temptation usually comes in through a door that has been deliberately left open.” John Ruskin also says, “No one can be delivered from temptation unless he has finally determined to do the best he can to keep out of it.”

To end, someone said, “To pray against temptations, and yet rush into occasions, is to thrust your fingers into the fire, and then pray they may not be burned.”

May this Lenten Season be truly a desert experience for us, an experience of purification and transformation and of reaffirming our identity as beloved children of God whose sole allegiance is to God and to his will even in the midst of trials and temptations.

About Fr. Robert and his reflections

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