Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Recall that this event comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. After his baptism Jesus was praying when the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son.” (3: 22) The devil now says to Jesus, “If you are Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Then the devil promises all of the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him. Finally the devil challenges Jesus to throw himself from the parapet of the temple to prove that since he is God’s Son, he would not be injured. Jesus triumphs over each temptation.
The writers of the gospels clearly affirm the humanity of Jesus. However, it is unlikely that they would have dared to say that Jesus was tempted by the devil–with the implication of the possibility of failure–unless Jesus himself had spoken of the trials he was undergoing. The Letter to the Hebrews expresses the tradition that Jesus initiated: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” (4:15) In the dramatic confrontation between the devil and Jesus, Luke indicates that until the day Jesus died, the devil attempted to entice him from fidelity to his Father’s will and to his mission.
Luke explains the meaning of the temptations Jesus underwent by using the Book of Deuteronomy description of the temptations that Israel underwent in the desert wilderness. The key to interpretation lies in the text known in Hebrew as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with all your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Dt 6: 4-5) The Dominican bible scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor explains how the Shema was
understood in Jesus’ time (Bible Review, August 1999).
“With your whole heart” means with a heart undivided by a contrary desire. In the desert wilderness the people’s craving for food divided their hearts from trust in God’s care for them. Jesus, however, would not allow his craving for food to divide his heart from complete trust in his Father’s care. “With your whole soul” means trust in God even if you should lose your life. In the wilderness the people were afraid they were going to die of thirst, and demanded evidence of God’s presence: “The Israelites quarreled there and tested the Lord, saying ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’”(Ex 17:7). Jesus, however, would not ask God to prove his presence by saving him if he jumped off the temple parapet. (Luke places this temptation last in his sequence because his whole gospel is a narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. There he will choose fidelity to his Father’s will and mission over the desire to save his own life.) “With your whole strength” means with all your wealth. After the Israelites reached the Promised Land, they are warned that their wealth would cause them to forget the Lord, and to worship false gods and demons. The devil, understanding the allure of wealth, promises to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would forget God, and worship him. Jesus said to the devil in reply, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve’” (4: 8).
The temptations of Jesus point back to the temptations of Israel in the past, and point forward to the trials that the Church in all its members will undergo in the future. It is now we who are in the wilderness, with no lasting city, on a journey to the Promised Land. Each trial that life brings even to our dying day is a crisis, but is also an opportunity to trust more completely that the Lord is with us, and that we do love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might. We are confident that we will triumph in our trials of faith, not because of our own strength, but because Jesus has given us his holy Spirit. Thus sharing the fidelity of his undivided heart, we can pray with confidence: Our Father, do not let us be defeated by temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.