In each cycle of Sunday readings, the First Sunday of Lent has a Gospel reading of the temptations of Jesus. This year the Gospel is Matthew’s version. Usually we emphasize the temptations themselves. “If you are the Son of God command that these stones become loaves of bread.” “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down [from the parapet of the temple.” “All these [kingdoms in their magnificence] I will give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
Equally important, however, are Jesus’ responses to the tempter. He replies to each temptation by quoting the book of Deuteronomy. In order to appreciate these responses one must realize the centrality of the book in the Jewish tradition. Deuteronomy is the much loved biblical expression of the Mosaic Law and the yardstick by which a devout Jew measured his love and service of God. The tempter recognizes Jesus as a devout Jew in both love and service of God, but he is not yet willing to acknowledge Jesus special place in God’s plan and begins two of the temptations with the phrase: “If you are the Son of God … .”
Since Jesus is hungry from his 40-day fast; he needs food, but the temptation is about more than food. Satan implies that Jesus should take care of himself first. Jesus counters with the first quote from Deuteronomy. “One does not live by bread alone but from every word that comes from the mouth of God.” His own physical satiation at the end of his fast is not nearly as important as his discovery of spiritual nourishment given by the word of God.
In the second temptation, Satan wants Jesus to exercise his own powers or at least force God to save him from destruction as he throws himself from the parapet of the temple. Jesus responds by saying, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” If Jesus were to perform the suggested deed, he would certainly become a wonder worker and a celebrity. This response once again puts God at the center rather than personal fame.
Finally, Satan tempts Jesus to become like God by ruling all the kingdoms of the earth in their magnificence. Jesus just as firmly as before rejects this temptation by quoting from Deuteronomy the book of the law. “The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” He rejects human power and places such power at its source, the Lord God.
By looking carefully at Jesus’ three Deuteronomic responses to the temptations we get a sense of Jesus’ commitment to being a Messiah characterized as the one who does the will of the Father. In each response to Satan’s temptation Jesus counters with a statement that emphasizes the centrality of God in human existence. As the church moves more deeply into the Lenten season, make God the motivation for any Lenten observance.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.