Sometimes, out of exasperation from the many evil around us and out of pain from so much suffering we are experiencing, we cry to God in protest: If you are a mighty God, why don’t you just remove all the suffering and hunger and make everyone full and prosperous? If you are a caring God why wont you defend and protect those who are oppressed and abused? Why wont you just display your power and eliminate all evil people in the world?
In today’s gospel of the first Sunday of Lent, the devil tempted Jesus to showcase his power and magically ease himself out of suffering. The devil first tempted Jesus to make bread out of stones to appease his hunger after forty days in the desert. Then the devil tempted Jesus to jump from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall. Finally, the devil tempted Jesus to worship him and forget all about God’s mission in return for all the kingdoms of the world.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Then [the devil] led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here
These temptations are not just the temptations that Jesus encountered in the desert before he began his ministry. These temptations represent the temptations that Israel, the chosen people of God, experienced in the desert (God’s testing of Israel and Israel’s testing of God) as told in the first reading (Deuteronomy 6 through 8) today.
When the devil challenges Jesus to demonstrate his divine sonship by commanding stones to turn into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live on bread alone”—which those who knew their Deuteronomy would complete with the words, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” When the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him, Jesus paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God; him alone shall you serve.” When the devil shifts from temptations to arrogance to a temptation to presumption (if you are the Son of God, jump from the Temple parapet; God will surely protect you), Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” It becomes clear here that Jesus is pictured as reliving the story of Israel in the wilderness, and getting it right. The parallel (and contrast) extends even to the talk of sonship: “So you must realize that the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines his son” (Deut 8:5).
We too are not immune to temptations. Temptations are a part of our daily living. The world around us is full of temptations: We are seduced to buy what is not needed, to eat too much, to steal money and things from others, to cheat, to have power over others through sex, to be violent, to take vengeance and many others. Temptations tests the depth and strength of our faith. Temptations are not sins, according to our catechism. They can even serve as an opportunity to hone our skills, deepen and purify our faith by God’s grace. On the other hand, if we fall into them, we are led to sin. We are led to the devil and become separated from God, from others and from ourselves.
Contrary to what temptations will always tell us, neither bread nor magic will save us. It will be only, as St. Paul writes to the Romans in the second reading, by our entry into Christ’s own act of total trust and abandonment, believing in our hearts that therein we ourselves are raised from the dead and delivered.
In this season of Lent, Jesus invites us to confront and defeat evil. Lent is confronting the devil himself. The whole purpose of Lent is to defeat the devil. The goal of Lent is to share in Jesus’ resurrection, his victory over evil and death.
How do we do this? How do we come face-to-face with the devil?
Jesus invites us to enter into the desert.
In the history of the church, Lent has been associated with testing and trial period. In the Bible, the desert is the traditional ground where the people of God is tested. Before they could enter into the promised land, the Israelites had to first wander in the desert for forty years – letting themselves be led by God, undergoing many trials, and swallowing much impatience. A long period of uprooting and frustration preceded the prosperity of the promised land.
All the great spiritual masters and saints have undergone great trials and come face-to-face with the devil. They see the desert as the place where one is exposed to chaos, raw fear, and demons of every kind. In the desert we are exposed, body and soul, made vulnerable to be overwhelmed by chaos and temptations of every kind. But, precisely because we are so stripped of everything we normally rely on, this is also a privileged moment for grace. All the defense mechanisms, support systems, and distractions that we normally surround ourselves with so as to keep chaos and fear at bay work at the same time to keep much of God’s grace at bay.
By stripping ourselves of the things that superficially nourishes and supports us, we become aware of the essentials. We put aside the distraction and the abundance and focus on the essential. We empty ourselves so God can give us just what we need. Similarly, Lent calls us to focus on the essentials in the Christian life: stretching our roots into the life-giving, joy-giving water of Christ. Because it is God who gives us life; things don’t.
A growing trend in the past few years is minimalism. Its mantra is less is more or going back to basics. It’s about simple living, living with fewer material possessions. An example of this trend are those who chose to live in tiny houses which help them save money that they can use for other things that would truly make them happy.
Lent is the unloading of many spiritual baggages we have accumulated over the years. Lent reminds us once again to focus our time and energy and resources on what matters most. It means removing anything that keeps us from living the full, abundant life that Jesus came to give us which can be possessions, luxuries, addictions, sinful vices or enslaving mindsets. By stripping ourselves of many things and focusing on the essentials, Lent will bring us to a freedom from sin, a freedom to uncover our true selves, and a freedom to unleash our potentials in joyful service to God and to others.
This Lent we are invited to go into the desert. Desert can be literal or metaphorical. It can be a physical, geographical thing or a place in the soul. It can be a place in the soul where we feel most alone, insubstantial, frightened, and fragile. Mostly, it is within ourselves where we come face-to-face with our weaknesses and temptations, the tool of the devil. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer “Lead us not into temptation” becomes very real for us as we confront temptation every minute of our lives. We admit that we are weak and cannot defeat the devil by our own efforts alone but by humbly and trustingly relying on God’s grace.
In these 40 days in the desert, let us return to the bare essentials of God’s grace. Like St. Paul, let us place our lives in God’s grace, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So at the end of Lent we can, in a new freedom, recognise the joyful abundance of Easter’s new life.