Thursday, January 20, 2011

Temptation in the Desert and its Twentieth Century Parallel II

Pope Benedict XVI wrote a book called Turning Point for Europe? in 1994. In it he wrote that immediately following the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, after spending years in slavery, God gave Moses and his people the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. It was no accident, he continued, that liberation and the God’s law were to be closely linked to one another. During the long journey in the desert, and even after they settled in the Promised Land, the Hebrews would be constantly put to the test. Fidelity to the Lord and adhesion to his always proved to be a means of liberation; both on a personal and national level. As such, their freedom would be secure. St. Paul would confirm this centuries later by saying, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” On the other hand, when the people of God were unfaithful, this inevitably resulted in their bondage. Western Civilization has a lot to learn from this.

For each Christian, the sacrament of baptism is God’s instrument of spiritual liberation. Through the baptismal waters, we cross from the world of darkness to the world of light. However, after Jesus received the Spirit of God at his baptism he was immediately driven into the desert to be tested. Similar to the close relationship between the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and the Ten Commandments given at Mt. Sinai, there is in the Gospel, a relationship no less closer, between Christ’s baptism and the temptation in the desert. It would seem that the Holy Scripture is telling us that with the privilege of receiving God’s benediction, and consequently liberatiion, there inevitably follows a corresponding duty to conquer evil; to confront it face to face. But first, it is always beneficial to know how the Evil One goes about tempting people. It is then, as St. Paul said, we can know his designs on us.

This brings us to the first temptation: The tempter approached and said to Jesus, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread." (Matt. 4:3) Here, Satan is tempting Jesus on the presumption that he is God. After all, only God can change stones into bread. Yet, if Jesus were to give in to the temptation by converting stones into bread so as to consume them, worst case scenario, he would be breaking his fast with the possibility of sinning against God.

With the second temptation, Satan approaches Jesus as if he were a mere holy man; for if a man can command an angel he would undoubtedly be holy, but he would not be God because such assistance would be unnecessary. The second temptation is as follows: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you and 'with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" (Matt. 4:6) In the absence of such angelic assistance, the cost of succumbing to Satan’s proposal is one of physical death. A pattern begins to emerge: As the devil assigns a lower status to the one he tempts, the hazard of consenting to such a temptation only increases.

With the first temptation, Satan approaches Jesus as if he were God (this one, he got right); the second temptation, he is presumed to be a holy man, but only a man; and the third temptation, Satan assumes the worst: “Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.’” (Matt. 4:9) In assuming the worst, Satan’s approached Jesus as if he were a sinner; because only a sinner would worship the Devil. However, the cost of consenting to such a temptation, if unrepentant, would merit the loss of one’s soul. And to be sure, there is no greater loss than to be forever banished from God’s presence.

With each temptation, Satan downgrades the status of our Lord’s holiness; and with each lower status, there is a greater hazard. To put it another way, the more sinful Satan believes you to be, the more gullible you are in his mind; gullible because consent would only mean disaster for the sinner. Indeed, sin darkens the mind. As Jesus said, whoever sins is a slave to sin. Hence, the darkness of sin leads to slavery. No one knows this better than the tempter himself.

These three temptations, and the design behind them, have a twentieth century parallel. That in the next blog-