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The Rector writes …

Saint Matthew and Saint Luke detail three major temptations faced by Jesus. Significantly, they are recorded as taking place towards the end of his time in the wilderness when Jesus had already maintained a long period of fasting: “he ate nothing in those days: and when they were ended, he was hungry”. Saint Mark adds the detail that “the angels ministered to him”, but, however strict the self-denial might have been, we know that any prolonged fasting can lead to  heightened awareness. The more time Jesus spent on his own, the more acute would seem to have become his sensitivity to the human condition in its isolation from the Father. The name “Satan” means “adversary” (other terms  used by the Evangelists here are “the devil” and “the tempter”) and we are left in no doubt that there was a huge struggle going on within the human consciousness of Jesus as he tried to understand his mission and its consequences. Although Scripture provides us with three temptations, they are probably no more than headings which encapsulate not just these six weeks but a lifetime of self-questioning which will eventually come to a head in the agony of Gethsemane.

 

“The tempter came to him and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’”( Matthew 4:3). The logic must have seemed obvious. In writing about the Eucharist, Saint Ambrose says: “could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before? It is no less a feat to give things their original nature than to change their nature”. But what is Jesus being asked to do? In the wilderness he had to come to terms with his position as the Son of the omnipotent God, by definition capable of anything and everything. But he also knew himself to be a Son of Man who had voluntarily taken into himself the limitations of a human being at a particular time and in a specific place. By exercising divine power in this instance, Jesus would be compromising all that had been learned and experienced in the previous thirty “hidden” years. The temptation here is not so much to provide sustenance for a hungry body but to overthrow the created order to meet his own needs.

 

Of course, we cannot reflect on the temptation to turn stones into loaves without comparing Jesus’ refusal here with his subsequent proclamation of himself as “the Bread of Life”. In the years ahead, the Son of Mary will clearly demonstrate his ability to transform the material world at the service of others. The first of his many signs was the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana and on at least two occasions small amounts of food were to become the nourishment for thousands. “The refusal in this case is not a refusal to give a sign to others, since Jesus was alone. It seems only to be an example of his moral courage and dedication, as he began a life in which he did not spare himself but would give up anything for his cause – including his life” (E.P. Sanders).

 

In each case, as Jesus responds to Satan he does so, not in his own words, but in those sanctified by Scripture. “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”: in choosing that sentence from Deuteronomy Jesus does not speak in the first person. He does not say: “that is not the way I choose to do things”, but rather, “this is not according to God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures”. As with everything in Jesus’ incarnate life, he points away from himself and towards his heavenly Father. The prayer he offers before his betrayal sums up his attitude: “If you are willing, take his cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42).  As Jesus explains the miracle of the loaves to those in the synagogue at Capernaum he says: “as I, who am sent by the living Father, myself draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me”. He is willing to go without food himself in order that is brothers and sisters should be nourished: “it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. Out in the Judaean wilderness, the Son of God refuses the easier option – which is all to our long-term benefit.              

                                                                                            

Christopher Colven