03 March 2009

Why is Jesus tempted?

First Sunday of Lent: Gn 9.8-15; 1 Pt 3.18-22; Mk 1.12-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Jesus is driven into the desert. Not invited or called. Not lured or encouraged. But driven. With the waters of the Jordan still running off his head and the Spirit’s proclamation of his divine Sonship still ringing in his ears, Jesus is sent forth, by that same Spirit, into the wilderness sands to be tempted by Satan for forty days and nights. This is not a very dignified way to celebrate the baptism of the newly announced Son of God. This is not the welcome we would expect for the freshly washed, the newly purified. Nonetheless, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to live among wild beasts and to be ministered to by angels. What purpose does this indignity serve? What possible good could come from allowing Jesus to be tempted by the Devil?

Let’s understand what all this business about being “driven into the desert” implies about Jesus and his baptism. How is he driven into the wilderness? It seems as though he goes out into the sand reluctantly, under compulsion by the Spirit. Other English translations use “sent forth into,” “impelled to go out,” “put forth” instead of “driven out.” What’s missing from these other translations is the sense of immediacy and urgency Jesus feels. But using “driven out” leaves the impression that Jesus goes unwillingly. In fact, his baptism and the announcement of his divine Sonship by the Father—events immediately prior to his going out into the desert—are so profoundly definitive of Jesus’ ministry, mission, and identity that he is “driven into” the desert in the same way that athletes are driven to competitive perfection and artists are driven to creative expression. Gifted at his incarnation with both a human nature and a divine nature, the one person, Jesus, perfects his gift of Sonship in the crucible of the desert so that that gift might be used for God’s greater glory in the service of others—the salvation of all creation.

This first chapter of Mark clearly indicates the incarnational nature of Jesus’ Sonship by marking the divine with his baptism and marking the human with his temptation in the desert. After the forty days with the devil, Jesus is a finely honed, razor-sharp weapon of gospel preaching and miracle-working. Having been shown the limits of human loyalty to the Word and tempted to violate them, and having been shown the limits of angelic loyalty of the Word and tempted to violate them, Jesus walks out of the desert victorious over the devil, proclaiming: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” How much more forceful is this proclamation once we know that its clarity and simplicity were forged in the heat and sweat of the devil’s wilderness by “a man like one of us.” And how much more are we encouraged to hear this proclamation knowing that it comes from a man like one of us, and not only a man like one of us, but also the Father’s only-begotten Son. Fully human, fully divine—the gift of divine Sonship perfected in the trials of the desert—Christ Jesus comes to us as John prophesied, and we hear the gospel preached from the Word himself.

Jesus proclaims, “This is the time of fulfillment,” this is the moment of consummation, of satisfaction and completion; this age is the age of achievement and conclusion, of having done and being done. Every contract has its terms to be fulfilled. Every promise comes due. Every I.O.U. waits to be made right. We have a covenant with the Lord that surpasses Law, that surpasses Promise, that surpasses even the words of the Prophets. Our covenant with the Lord is the Lord himself in human flesh. The terms of our covenant, if you will, are etched on his skin, signed with a whip, and sealed with nails. Peter puts it rather succinctly: “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.” If our sins were to be healed, Christ had to become sin for us. If our sufferings were to be relieved, Christ had to become suffering for us. If our temptations were to be defeated, Christ had to become temptation for us, standing in the stead of our dis-ease, so that health might triumph. Origen gets it exactly right, “The whole man would not have been saved, unless Christ had taken upon himself the whole man.”

In as much as the man Jesus goes into the desert to try the limits of his humanity against the enticements of evil, so we are driven into that same desert to test the limits of our divinely-gifted end. All too familiar with the devil’s lures, we should look instead for the enchantments of our loving Creator, our God Who made us to come to Him and live with Him forever. Of course, the devil will lurk as he always does, but our attention, our focus and energy are wasted fighting the Loser. Christ has beaten the devil. But the devil refuses to concede the fight. Though he has lost, he can still find some satisfaction in convincing you that there is something to fight him about! And if he can convince you to spend your Lenten retreat fighting him, then he has succeeded in preventing you from glorying in God’s gifts of mercy and care.

We asked early on: what possible good could come from allowing Jesus to be tempted by the Devil? Simply put: our good, that is, the good of all the Father’s children who strive to reach and grasp His promise of divine life beyond this life. Without the bridge of the incarnation, without the sacrifice of Christ—fully human, fully divine—and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we would be left to our natural end: death and decay. Christ’s defeat of the devil’s enticements in the desert marks just the beginning of our recovery as loved creatures destined for divine union!

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7 comments:

  1. Fr,
    Is it possible that Jesus was driven into the desert so as to mortify his human will? Would his human will also not be in need of maintenance?

    Thanks,
    John

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  2. Anonymous10:31 PM

    great homily Father

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  3. "...Jesus is driven into the desert. Not invited or called. Not lured or encouraged. But driven ... the sense of immediacy and urgency Jesus feels..." My parish priest stressed that aspect of this event, too - that powerful inner drive. Your illustration of that something innate in an athlete or artist, makes it very clear. There's a helplessness against it.

    "...After the forty days with the devil, Jesus is a finely honed, razor-sharp weapon of gospel preaching and miracle-working...." Love it!

    "...All too familiar with the devil’s lures, we should look instead for the enchantments of our loving Creator ... our attention, our focus and energy are wasted fighting the Loser ... If he can convince you to spend your Lenten retreat fighting him, then he has succeeded in preventing you from glorying in God’s gifts of mercy and care ..." Thank you.

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  4. Thank you, Father Philip!

    I hadn't thought of the change of purpose you talk about in the second to last paragraph-- "driven into that same desert to test the limits of our divinely-gifted end" and "we should look instead for the enchantments of our loving Creator, our God".

    Almost like beating on a stone wall (fighting the devil) while a gate stands open behind us (God's love and mercy).

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  5. very interesting...is a very different way of looking at Jesus' desert time for me...will ponder.

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  6. The Greek word for "driven out" is the same one used for exorcism. But the more interesting question is not why he is driven out, but why he is tempted? And what does it mean for the Second Person to be tempted? And what does the devil know? What does Jesus know, for that matter. Is he in full possession of the beatific vision at that moment (or any other)? If so, what could temptation possibly mean?

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  7. JohnM.,

    My guess would be that Jesus' human nature is being tempted.

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