The temptation in the desert: sermon on the first Sunday of Lent

“Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.”

According to a great pope of the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII, all history can be understood as a war between two opposing forces: he calls these two armies “the kingdom of God on earth, namely, the true Church of Jesus Christ”, and “the kingdom of Satan, in whose possession and control”, he says, “are all whosoever follow the fatal example of their leader” (Humanum genus). Christ is at the head of His kingdom, and the devil is at the head of his. This gives a unique interest to the gospel of this first Sunday of Lent: it describes the only confrontation of which we know between these two kings — between our Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Apocalypse calls “the king of kings”, and the devil, whom the book of Job calls “the king over all the proud”.

What was the reason of this confrontation? As we know, the devil was created good, but he rebelled against God, and was cast out of heaven. Since then, he has had two principal motions of action: pride and envy. These two motives lead him to the same goal, which is to prevent human beings from attaining salvation. He envies us the heavenly beatitude to which we are called, and from which he has forever excluded himself. And in his pride, he desires to increase the extent of his own kingdom, which is composed of all the fallen angels and lost souls. 

Both the pride and the envy of the devil, therefore, led him to seek this encounter with our Lord in the desert. The devil knew that God was going to send a Saviour into the world: he knew this, since he had been there, in the beginning, in the garden of Eden, when God promised to send this Saviour, after the fall of our first parents. And he knew it because the prophets who lived later had often spoken of it in their prophecies. But the devil did not yet know for certain whether Jesus of Nazareth was this Saviour. He could see that our Lord was a just man, in whom he had not been able to find any flaw; but he did not know whether He was the Son of God. Probably the devil was in great perplexity. On the one hand, he sees that Christ seems to have no faults; but on the other hand, the devil’s own pride prevents him from believing that the Son of God could have come into the world in such a humble way, as the son of a poor family in an obscure village. 

So the enemy comes to test Christ with some subtle temptations. Of course, he did not present himself as the devil; perhaps he presented himself as a holy angel. St Paul tells us that the devil is able to transform himself, at least for a time, into an angel of light. He tries to make our Saviour avow who He is, or else to commit some sin which would show once and for all that He cannot be the Son of God.

That explains why Satan went to seek this encounter with our Lord. But why did Christ agree to meet him? I can think of three reasons, without claiming that these reasons are the only ones: the acts of God are always too great for us to comprehend them in full. The first reason why our Lord accepts this confrontation is to allow the devil to deceive himself. Notice that I do not say that Christ Himself deceives His enemy. Christ is the truth, and so He can deceive no one. But He speaks in such a way that He knows that his enemy will draw the wrong conclusions from it. 

Why do I say this? Our Lord, on this occasion, seems not to speak on His own authority. Elsewhere in the gospel, He speaks with an authority which surpasses that of the prophets and even of Moses. For example, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old: thou shalt not kill. But I say to you … that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgement.” But here, in speaking to the enemy of our race, Jesus simply quotes Scripture, as any pious Jew might have done, making no addition to its teaching. “Not in bread alone does man live … Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God … The Lord thy God shalt thou adore.” The devil must have thought to himself, “If he were really the son of God, he would not be content to quote Moses in this way. He would speak from himself, he would use his own authority!” Thus, the humility of Christ confuses the pride of the enemy, and he deceives himself. Why is it important that the devil should not know for certain who our Lord is? St Paul seems to give us the answer when he says, “None of the princes of this world would have crucified the Lord of glory” had they known the wisdom of God. That is, the fallen spirits would not have brought about man’s Redemption by provoking the Jews and Romans to crucify Christ if they had known that He was the Word made flesh. For they would have guessed that the crucifixion would be their own downfall. As some of the Fathers of the Church say, the Cross was like the hook by which the fish is caught.

A second reason why our Lord agrees to meet the devil in this combat is, it seems to me, to humiliate him. I do not simply mean that it is humiliating for our enemy that he does not discover the truth: I mean also that, later, he will realise that Christ told him what he wanted to know, and yet that he didn’t understand it. Consider Christ’s words. When the devil bids him turn stone into bread, He replies, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”There is more in this answer than appears at first sight. Our Lord is not saying only: “I have something other than bread by which I live.” He is also, it seems to me, saying, “It is not with bread that I have come to feed men, but with the words of my mouth.” But if man lives by the words that come from the mouth of Christ, then Christ is God. This is the very thing that the devil wanted to know; he is told it, and he does not grasp it. 

We can say the same about the second temptation. In reply to the suggestion of stepping from the parapet of the temple, to appear as the Messiah in the presence of the Jews, Christ replies, “It is written: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” On the surface, He is simply saying that we must not expect miracles when they are unnecessary; this is what we call the sin of tempting God. For it is not necessary that He impress the Jews by remaining suspended in mid-air above the temple, and so there is no reason to ask God to perform this miracle. But again, there is a deeper meaning in Christ’s words, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” For Christ is God, and so the devil is acting sacrilegiously in putting Him to the test. Once again, our Lord reveals the truth about His divinity, but in a way in which his enemy cannot understand. And so the devil will be humiliated later, when he realises his error: a just penalty for his pride.

Even the third temptation will be humiliating for the devil to recall. The devil tried to induce our Saviour to fall down and worship him. In reply, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy: “The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve.” It might seem that Christ is simply refusing to comply with the temptation. In fact, He is pronouncing a sentence upon His enemy. He is telling him: “You, Satan, will be obliged to fall down before me, since ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend’, and you will serve me without intending to, when you bring about man’s Redemption.”

But the final reason why our Lord underwent these temptations, and even allowed himself to be carried from place to place by the unclean spirit, was His love for us. It was not only in His Passion that our Saviour merited our salvation, but in all the acts of His life. And what He merited for us during this single combat with the devil was, surely, the grace to resist when we are tempted. If ever we are tempted to sin, we can say to ourselves, “Christ has gained for me the power to resist this temptation.” For “He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world.”