Jesus faces God’s enemy and ours, the one who has hated us from the beginning.
Gen. 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Ps. 51:3-6, 12-14, 17
The Gospel reading begins with the phrase, “At that time,” to describe this scene of Jesus’ temptation by the devil. At what time? In the previous chapter, Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan River, even though John protested. Jesus insisted that He be treated like all the others there seeking a renewal in their relationships with God. When He came up out of the water, a Voice from heaven spoke, saying, “This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well-pleased” (Mt. 3:17). It was on the heels of His public solidarity with sinners and His Father’s expressed pleasure in Him that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
This would be a strange order of events if we didn’t understand that just as Jesus identified Himself with His brothers in baptism, He was also identifying with them in facing the test of His love for the Father. Our First Reading recounts the original test of man in the Garden of Eden. There a “cunning” serpent questioned the authority of God’s Word. “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees of the Garden?” We are surprised that God allowed His enemy into the Garden in the first place. Clearly the serpent wanted the humans dead. Through lies (“You will certainly not die”) and distortions of the truth, he seduced them into sin. Why would God give His enemy this opportunity?
We can’t fully answer that question, but we do know that God made man in His own image and likeness, so man would be free and would have to choose to love and obey His Creator or not. The serpent’s temptation forced that choice, but the need for the choice was always God’s plan. Making a free decision to love God is part of what it means to be fully human.
The man and woman chose badly, but the serpent’s choice to tempt them ended even more badly. In the next few verses of Genesis (not in today’s reading), we find that God’s punishment of His enemy would come from the very kind of flesh and blood upon whom he had preyed. “A woman and her seed” would someday appear on the horizon of human history. “He will bruise your head [a fatal wound for a serpent], and you shall bruise his heel [painful but not mortal for a man].” There would be another time of testing of man by God’s enemy, but this time, the enemy would be defeated.
Thus, our Gospel passage begins, “At this time.” The time for the showdown has arrived. This was God’s timing, not the devil’s. It was the Spirit who led Jesus out for this battle. See how the devil is unable to lie and distort God’s Word in this temptation, although not for lack of trying. Jesus faced every attack by reciting Scripture, cleaving wholeheartedly to God’s precise words (as Adam and Eve had not done). The forty days of fasting prepared Jesus to be entirely focused on being God’s Son in God’s way, through the appearance of human weakness and complete dependence on His Father. In the end, He was able to say to the devil, “Get away, Satan!” All the bluff and cunning of the tempter fell to dust as Jesus resolutely refused to turn away from serving God, no matter what the cost. He had taken His first, irreversible step towards the Cross.
The psalm is a plaintive cry for God’s mercy—a recognition of the devastating effect of the fall in the Garden. King David wrote this psalm after his sins of murder and adultery. David was Israel’s brightest star, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:13-14), yet even he fell victim to the rebellion that lurks in our hearts and makes us so vulnerable to the Tempter. Jesus, the new and eternal King of Israel, makes God’s mercy abundantly available to us. He is the answer to David’s prayer and ours: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
In the Second Reading, St. Paul explains what the two accounts of temptation mean for us. Adam’s transgression meant death for us all. The choice he made was for himself and all his children. Are we tempted to think that isn’t fair? If so, we need to read on, because St. Paul shows us that just as Adam’s disobedience, in which we had no personal part, was counted for us, so Jesus’ obedience, in which we likewise had no personal part, also counts for us. Sometimes we’re tempted to think we should each be given our own shot at obedience, that we could perhaps have done a better job than Adam. That could be dangerous, however. If we refuse to let another’s behavior count for us, what happens if, in our one moment of glory, when we must choose for or against God, we botch it like Adam did? If he could fail, so could we. If we refuse to let another’s behavior count for us, then Jesus’ obedience won’t help us at all. We are left with our own choices and no chance for redemption. God’s way is much better!
Possible responses after the lectionary readings:
Jesus, lead me in the way of obedience, which always disrupts and defeats the devil.
Lord, help me use the forty days of Lent to strengthen me against my enemy.
Thank You, Lord, for breathing Your own life into man.
Help me resist the lies of the tempter, who suggests I can do better without You.
Remind me that the beautiful, good things of this world should lead me to, not away, from You.
I am utterly dependent on You for mercy and forgiveness.
It’s pointless to pretend I haven’t sinned—“I acknowledge my offense and my sin is ever before me”
Please give me a “willing spirit,” as mine is so often unwilling.
Thank You, Lord, that Jesus undid for me the damage done by Adam.
Help me remember that Your grace is more abundant than sin.