Jesus “fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came to him and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:2-4)
Using our imaginations, we can expand slightly on Matthew’s brief account. Imagine the tempter’s argument going something like this: “Of course you’re hungry. After so many days of fasting and prayer, who wouldn’t be? If you’re God’s Son, why not just command these stones to become loaves of bread? After all, this ministry is going to be difficult, and you’ll need your strength. Do you really think God wants his beloved to walk around hungry? You deserve something to eat.”
Jesus’ response makes clear that there is more at stake here than physical hunger and the bread that satisfies it. He grasps the essence of this temptation: where he directs his ultimate longing and how he will use his power. If he makes bread the ultimate object of his longing, he is letting his human weakness get in the way of his relationship with God. If he uses his power as God’s son to turn stones into bread, he is using that power in a self-serving way. Jesus recognizes he has been given power to carry out his mission, not to satisfy his physical hunger.
Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is fundamental to his life and essential to his ministry. It is a critical preparatory step, an intense wrestling with his identity as the beloved Son of God. His temptation is an encounter with the cosmic forces of good and evil in which he is tempted to turn away from his mission and use his relationship with God in a self-serving way.
As we reflect on this first temptation, we are confronted with the realities of our humanness – hunger and thirst, vulnerability and powerlessness, fear and loneliness, ache and need. In response to this temptation, we are called to reject the self-serving uses of power and focus our longing on God and the Word of God.
We all have intense longings. We long to be safe, to be protected from harm, to be shielded from life’s unpredictability. We long to belong, to be freed from our fear of abandonment, to be part of a caring circle of friends. We ache to be loved just as we are, cherished for our uniqueness, treasured as the very one we are. We long to make a difference, to contribute something worthwhile, to leave something valuable as a legacy. We thirst for meaning and purpose, for some understanding of the why of life, for a way to make sense of our experience. We ache to encounter God and to develop a deep and personal relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.
In this first temptation, Jesus is called to wrestle with the true meaning of his identity and call. Like Jesus, each of us is gifted with a marvelous uniqueness, an authentic identity in God. Finding that uniqueness and living it out may be the most difficult challenge of our lives. When our humanness and vulnerability loom large, it is all too easy to settle for being less than we are called to be. During this Lenten season, God invites us to recognize that our unique identity and ultimate calling are rooted in discipleship. Lent calls us to deepen our prayer and urges us to open ourselves to God. It calls us to discover our true identity in God and surrender in prayer.
As we reflect on this temptation, we are confronted by deep and unfulfilled longings, hungers that are difficult to name. When we are in the grip of these longings, it is easy to lose perspective and look for fulfillment in all the wrong places. As we see how Jesus responded to this temptation, we begin to own up to the power of our longings and the way they shape our lives. We are urged to join him in centering our longings on God and the Word of God. His example reminds us that our true identities can only be founded in God. Centuries ago, St. Augustine said it well: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” What Jesus’ first temptation makes clear is that God and only God is the authentic fulfillment of our longing.
Questions to Ponder
- What temptations distract you from focusing your longing on God?
- Are you tempted by food, possessions, sexual desire, power, wealth or something else?
- How can you redirect your longings to focus them on God and the Word of God?
Invitation to Prayer
Jesus, you are God’s compassionate presence. You know my deepest longings, what I ache for in my heart of hearts. You know how intense these longings are; help me to focus them on you. I am so easily swayed by temptation, chasing after things that fail to satisfy. Help me recognize that my deepest hunger isn’t about food, won’t be satisfied by achievement or recognition and doesn’t require the approval of others. Keep me true to my deepest longings and help me focus them on you alone. Give me the wisdom to know, as Augustine knew, that you have made me for yourself, and my heart will be restless until it rests in you.