1st Sunday of Lent: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
Who knows what tempts you better than you do? You know the sights that can draw your eye; the possibilities that make your heart beat a little faster; the delights that lead you off the righteous path into the wilderness of sin. If power and prestige can't tempt you, maybe vengeance or victory can. If food, drink, sex have no inordinate appeal to you, maybe possessions or dissolute daydreams can grab you. Though what tempts each of us is calculated to appeal to an individual weakness, all of our weaknesses together share a common theme: sell eternal life for the price of a moment's indulgence; exchange enduring love for temporary affection, divine mercy for worldly pardon. Temptation is all about showing us what we can have right now if we would just let go of all that we have been given as heirs to the Kingdom. The Devil whispers, “Sign over your eternal inheritance, and I'll give you everything you desire right now.” You do know what you want, right? I mean, you can draw up a list of desires; catalog everything you need, true? If you can't, no worries. The Devil is here to help. If anyone knows what you desire better than you do, it's the Fallen Angel. He's eager to parade all of God's eternal rewards before you. The catch? Nothing he can show you is his to give. Everything he can show you comes with a price.
We might wonder why the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Adversary. Is there really any chance that he might surrender to temptation and fall from his Father's grace? Could the Devil win? Nope. Jesus can be tempted, but he cannot sin. If he cannot sin, what's the point of tempting him? Why does the Devil waste his time? Quite apart from the fact that it is the Devil's nature to tempt God's children to sin, it's important for us to see how temptation works, to understand what's so appealing about what the Devil has to offer and why his wares are so dangerous. The first thing we must remember about the Devil is that he is a fallen angel. Once, he was placed at the pinnacle of the Lord's angelic hierarchy. He enjoyed God's favor; lived at the foot of the Throne. He has seen what awaits us if we endure in Christ. He also knows that if we endure in Christ and find ourselves face-to-face with the Divine, his self-imposed loneliness and despair is made all the more intense. By enduring in Christ, we abandon for eternity the demonic agenda of rebellion against our Father. And Rebellion longs for nothing more than it longs for miserable company. So, the Devil's recruitment program is simple: offer us our heavenly reward to be enjoyed now; tempt us to borrow against our inheritance and party 'til it's spent.
Think about what tempts you. Why do those particular things appeal to you? What is it about power, prestige, sex, money, vengeance, food/drink, etc. that draws your eye? Are you so corrupted, so deeply fallen that you long for these delights? Maybe so. But your corruption doesn't explain why power, prestige, sex, etc. are appealing. Our fall from grace doesn't explain the lure of greed or envy or wrath. Pride, sloth, lust, etc. are all states of a soul already surrendered to temptation. Why do these souls surrender? Remember what the Devil knows. He has seen what awaits us if we endure in Christ. Having seen our perfected reward in heaven, he can show us imperfect copies, distorted imitations. In fact, the only thing he can tempt us with is cheap knock-offs, bootlegged versions of the prizes Christ has already awarded us. The temptation to indulge in inordinate sexual desire is nothing more than an offer to fake a genuine loving relationship. The temptation is indulge wrath through vengeance is nothing more than an offer to distort true justice in charity. Everything that tempts us to sin is a godly desire perverted to serve Rebellion.
This is what Jesus teaches us in the desert. Everything the Devil uses to lure Jesus into the demonic fold already belongs to the Lord. Christ already possesses all wealth, all power, all bodily fulfillment. The only course left to the Devil is to promise to give these treasures to Jesus now. Skip the teaching and preaching, skip the miracles; skip the beatings, the ridicule, the Cross. Skip all the nasty, brutal pain and suffering and all this can be yours. Jesus answers the Devil by saying, in essence, “These are mine already. You cannot give what is not yours.” The Devil is defeated not by the force of Christ's will to endure temptation but by the fact that the fallen angel has nothing to give, nothing with which to reward those who surrender to him. All he can do is hold a filthy mirror up to the Father's heavenly treasures and promise that the murky reflections are the real thing. The Devil is crushed by truth.
Can we turn this episode in the desert into a weapon against temptation? Yes! If the Devil is only able to tempt us using fun-house mirrors to make fraudulent promises of treasure, then all we need do is carefully examine what it is that tempts us. If we can discern our temptations, we can discern what it is that we most desire from God. If I am tempted by worldly prestige, then perhaps what I most desire from God is the chance to use my gifts for His glory. If I am tempted by inordinate sexual desires, then perhaps what I most desire from God is the gift to truly love without limits. Our weapon against temptation is not willful, stoic resistance but prayerful discernment for clarity about what gifts we need to do the work we have been given to do. Certainly, we can resist temptation but even the strongest walls eventually fall when placed under siege. At what point in the battle do we come to believe that by resisting temptation we are actually refusing a divine gift? That's the greatest temptation of all! How many Christians commit adultery in the name of true love? How many Christians welcome the abuse of worldly power in the name of social justice? Have you ever surrendered to temptation so that a “greater good” might be accomplish? It's a trap. A very dangerous, very devilish trap.
You can spend these forty days of Lent mulling over your sin and seeking after mercy. That's hardly a waste of the season. But here's a challenge for you: rather than contemplating past sins, contemplate on what tempts you to sin. Watch for those times that the Devil draws you in and then contemplate on what gifts you desire most from God. The Devil will promise you a knock-off. But only the Lord can give you a genuine grace.
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