In the Gospel reading , Jesus is tempted in the desert by Satan (the name Satan in Hebrew means ‘adversary.’) As many commentators have written, the three temptations can be understood as temptations to security, power, and status. Jesus refuses to turn the stones into bread because he realizes that material prosperity is not the greatest good. Instead, he recognizes his utter dependence on God. Satan also tempts Jesus to see ministry in terms of political power. In Jesus’s day many expected that the Messiah would be a king who would end oppression and bring world peace through his political reign. Satan offers this option to Jesus, if only Jesus will bow down and worship Satan. Jesus responds that God alone is worthy of worship, as the only true power. Last, Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself off the temple to see if God’s angels will rescue him. Perhaps he plays upon Jesus’ own human desire to know if God really will save him in times of distress, in the midst of doubt as to what his upcoming ministry might mean. Jesus responds that it is not right to test God. In all three instances, Jesus emphasizes his utter dependence on God, rather than attempting to take on characteristics of God. Johannes Metz in reflecting upon this passage says that it shows Jesus’ utter fidelity to us, to the Incarnation, to stay with our poverty rather than escaping it for the fullness of divinity.
Of course, the evil one’s power is always that he tells a half truth (and the words that Satan speaks are quotations of Scripture to back it up, to boot). It’s true that we ought to pay attention to issues of material poverty and work to end them: for example, it is important to care for food insecurity in our neighborhoods and in the larger global context. Political solutions to social problems can also be helpful: working for peace and justice often require it. Even believing that God will safeguard us with his angels in times of adversity is itself not bad. However, these tell only part of the story, because they leave out God as the ultimate source of our healing, as the ultimate desire of the human person.
Jesus’s response to Satan every time is to emphasize that we are small and that our human dependence is on God alone. Jesus takes up a ministry not of a rich person who helps out the poor, but as a person of few material means who is in community with those who are poor in many ways (and have much to give in other ways). When he heals others, he frequently asks them not to tell anyone (although they mostly don’t listen to his request.) Jesus experiences in the Garden at Gethsemane fear and doubt, in an utterly human way, yet still completely abandons himself to trust in the Father. Jesus stays small in privilege, power, and status, because he knows that it is in staying empty and dependent that God can work in and through his humanity. As Metz says, in resisting the temptations, Jesus stays with us.
As a meditation for Lent, we can each ask: Where in my life do I try to remain secure instead of allowing myself to be vulnerable? Where do I compete for power instead of embracing my powerlessness and creatureliness? Where do I seek status rather than choosing the lowliest place in order to be in true community with other persons?