The first Sunday of Lent takes us to the temptation of Christ in the desert. It’s a tremendously rich reading. I will not give you Dostoevsky’s reading, but if you have not yet read his “Grand Inquisitor,” promise yourself that you will.
The Temptation is a fine reading for the first week of Lent, because it introduces fasting, then goes deeper. The second sentence introduces Christ’s forty-day fast, and then quickly moves on (with one of the great understatements of world literature: “afterwards he was hungry”). It introduces that fast by saying that, deeper, it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness – not only to fast, but to be tempted by the devil. The fast is needed, but it is about something much deeper.
The devil offers three temptations. The first is bread – an appropriate temptation for someone who is hungry. The third is to be king of the world. But the second is funny: to cast himself from the temple and be caught by angels. It is not as tempting a temptation. What is going on here?
One answer is in the Biblical quotations. To the offer of bread, Jesus responds with a quotation from Scripture about Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Jesus defeats temptation by relying on Scripture – and what Scripture teaches him is to rely on Scripture.
One way the second temptation is significant is its use of Scripture. This time, the devil too quotes Scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” There is a saying, “the devil quotes Scripture,” and it seems to suggest that we should be cautious about quoting Scripture.
Indeed we should – but Jesus keeps doing it. Jesus’s response to the devil quoting Scripture is not to give up on Scripture, but to prove that he knows it better – by quoting it back. Jesus does not deny the devil’s quotation of the Biblical teaching that the angels will care for us. He only denies its particular
application: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Jesus overcomes the devil by knowing Scripture better.
Then comes the devil’s final attack. The temptation is the greatest – to receive “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” – but this time the devil does not bother quoting Scripture. Jesus showed in the second temptation that he will win at that game.
There’s a note of desperation in the third temptation: the devil asks Jesus to “prostrate yourself and worship me”; not going to happen. Jesus has already defeated him, in the Scriptural contest of the second temptation. And Jesus defeats him a final time, by again quoting Scripture: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve.”
With this Biblical citation, two things happen. The devil slinks away. And the angels come to minister. That’s an interesting detail: the devil was right, when he quoted Scripture, about the angels taking care of him. There was just a bigger Biblical context that the devil was missing.
It’s a contest of Scripture.
Jesus’s first Biblical quotation contrasts bread with the word of God.
Fasting is an emptying out – but we empty ourselves so that God can fill us. We fast to remind ourselves of our deeper hunger, for God.
In the desert, Jesus empties himself so that he can be filled by the encounter with God in the Word. In the traditional practice of Lent, we empty ourselves by fasting so that we can encounter God in prayer and our neighbor in almsgiving – or rather, so that we can encounter Jesus in both: when we give alms to the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you have done it to Me.”
Do we really need fasting in order to have this encounter?
The other two readings are about original sin. “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death . . . . Sin was in the world” until “the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” We need to be saved.
One detail about our reading from Genesis 2: the tree of life is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Watch how the reading talks about “the tree in the middle of the garden.”)
God gives them the food they need. But immortality is not something to be grasped at. God does not want us to be ignorant – but we can never be self-sufficient. We must always be hungry, waiting for God to fill us. Our temptation to be full of earthly food covers our temptation to forget God.
The only goal is to encounter God. But to do that, we need to struggle with sin, face temptation, empty ourselves, and know hunger. Without fasting, we don’t get to that real encounter with Scripture, with prayer, and with almsgiving.
In what ways do you find yourself too full to hunger for the word of God?