We are already in the liturgical season of Lent, the 40-day period for us to explore and strengthen our faith and prepare to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we embark on our Lenten journey, the Gospel calls our attention to challenges we may encounter along the way.
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit who leads him into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days. In the Bible, spending a set time in the wilderness can symbolize a period of challenges and growth, such as the Israelites’ time in the wilderness after the Exodus. The 40-day timespan also has biblical significance, as Moses and Elijah spent 40 days fasting on Mount Sinai/Horeb.
According to Luke, Jesus fasts which causes him to be physically weak, and his first temptation is to make bread for himself. Refusing to give in despite his hunger, Jesus quotes Scripture to counteract and deflect his tempter.
The second temptation in Luke is for Jesus to worship the devil in order to receive power, glory and authority. Jesus rebuffs this temptation, quoting Deuteronomy, “You shall worship the Lord, your God and him alone shall you serve” (Lk. 4:8, Dt. 6:13).
The third temptation is framed as a test of God’s ability to save, as Jesus is told to throw himself off the temple in order to be saved by angels. Jesus declares that it is not right to test God, in response to which the devil departs, as Jesus had finished his trials and resisted the temptations.
Why depict Jesus being tempted? Jesus’ humanity is in focus here, as he is confronted with challenges and aspirations that humans experience: hunger, quests for power and desires for protection. Each of the synoptic Gospels includes a tradition of Jesus being tempted before beginning his ministry, depicting Jesus confronting and overcoming challenges before calling followers and preaching the Gospel through words and actions.
Matthew’s account most closely resembles Gospel from Luke, except that the temptations occur in a different order. Mark lacks details about the temptations, but he says that while in the wilderness, Jesus lived among wild animals and was waited on by angels (Mk. 1:13). Mark situates Jesus in relation to the animal and divine world in order to frame and highlight his human experience. Jesus’ responses offer a model for how to keep perspective and resist actions that are damaging, even if they are desirable in the moment.
As we continue our Lenten observance, Gospel calls on us to reflect on challenges that we must face and overcome. Lent is often associated with prayer, fasting and almsgiving, acts that were the focus for the Gospel on Ash Wednesday. Recall that Jesus tells his disciples that it is important to perform these practices in private, so as not to draw the attention of others.