What is ultimately at issue in Christ’s temptations, according to Pope Benedict XVI, are false images of God and man.
A traditional reading of the temptations is to see each one concerning a virtue and its corresponding vice. The first temptation, involving bread, might seem to represent gluttony. The offer of all worldly kingdoms then might be a temptation to pride as is the devil’s suggestion that Christ should cast Himself off the roof of the temple.
Benedict helps us to see what is really at stake here is the whole understanding of who man really is and what his right relationship is with God.
Using Benedict’s dictum as a guide, each temptation can be viewed as a rejection of a false image. Following the order of the temptations in Luke, let’s take the first one:
He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over He was hungry.
The devil said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone’” (Luke 4:2-4).
On the level of human nature, the devil is operating within a materialistic understanding of human nature: man is a beast who craves material goods for his sustenance—whether bread to feed his body or other material goods, such as money or possessions to feed his Freudian lust for physical pleasure. For the Church Fathers, this is what happened in Eden: rather than their spiritual natures elevating their bodily natures to the contemplation of the eternally divine, Adam and Eve let the lower rule the upper—in a perversion of the natural order.
Christ, in His response, affirms a different view of man: as a compound being who yes, indeed, has bodily needs, but who also subordinates those to spiritual desires. Matthew gives us the rest of the quotation from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
It is by the word of God—ultimately the Word of God—by which man is ultimately nourished.
This temptation also entails a rejection of a false image of God—specifically of Christ Himself. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict explains,
Is there anything more tragic, is there anything more opposed to belief in the existence of a good God and a Redeemer of mankind, than world hunger? Shouldn’t it be a first test of the Redeemer, before the world’s gaze and on the world’s behalf, to give it bread and to end all hunger? (Jesus of Nazareth, 31).
Of course, Christ in His ministry did feed the hungry and we are called to follow His example. But more than the bread of the earth, Christ came to bring down bread from heaven. There is a hierarchy of goods—and one is infinitely superior than the other. It is this order of the good that the devil seeks to overturn. In the process, we would end up seeking God as a means rather than an end. Or, as Benedict puts it,
When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely those more important things that come to nothing (Jesus of Nazareth, 33).
We see a similar pattern in the second temptation—again following the order in Luke—in which Satan presumes to offer all the worldly kingdoms to Christ in exchange for worshipping him. But this time what is at stake is more than just the offer of merely a political organization. What the devil is presenting is a false image of man as chiefly motivated by what atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would call the ‘will to power’—to be overlord over his fellow men.
In rejecting this false image, Christ affirms a different one:
Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written:
‘You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.’”
This is a vision of man as a humble servant of God—one entrusted with dominion of the earth only as a form of temporary stewardship in the service of the One whose dominion it truly is.
In a world in which he believed God had been killed, Nietzsche said man had effectively become God. In this worldview, man was not called to worship another. Instead his only real choice is be the consummate narcissist in worshipping himself. It is this perversion of the natural and supernatural order of things that Christ denies in this temptation.
Also at work in the second temptation is a false image of God. Again, the devil conceives of God as only as a means to an end, which in this case would be worldly power. Of course, Christ did come to proclaim a kingdom of God. But His kingdom was not of this world—quite the antithesis of what Satan is suggesting here.
In a sense, this pattern continues to play out in the remaining temptation. Once again God is being relegated to a secondary role as a provider of a material good—in this instance, bodily security and integrity—when Satan taunts Jesus to jump off the roof of the temple.
In the first and second temptations, Christ denies that man is either a Nietzschean overlord or a Freudian pleasure-seeker. He also rejects a false conception of God as merely a means to an end—a provider of other things that man seeks.
Christ, as God-made-man, was uniquely suited to this dual task of rejecting false images of both God and man. It’s why we have gospels accounts of the temptation of Christ and not, for example, John the Baptist. This is something only Christ could do. And it is most fitting that his public mission of redemption should begin by a restoration of the image of God in man that was distorted when sin first entered the world, in the Garden of Eden.
And for us, then, the temptations do not only provide us with a model for how to act—what virtues to cultivate, what vices to shun—but also hold up for us the true images of man that we are to be and of a God we are to seek for His sake alone.