In today’s Gospel, Matthew announces that, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” The familiar temptations are enumerated: turning stones into bread, giving homage to Satan in exchange for power, and tempting God by means of a foolhardy action.
With each of Jesus’ replies, Matthew charts out possible routes that we might take in facing our own temptations and trials. Our temptations, like those of Jesus, are always aimed at getting us to deny who we really are. The first is to live only on the level of the external – on bread alone. The second is to embrace the power and glory afforded by certain positions or offices – our little kingdoms of operation. The third is to tempt fate by overlooking our limitations, and thus to believe we can do or be more than we can or are.
The message Jesus gives us is that, although external temptations may be strong, we owe allegiance first of all to the ‘within’ of ourselves. The ‘without’ or externals are what others may esteem, but to measure our self-worth by what is considered important to others is to be disloyal to ourselves. What others esteem may not always fit our true identity. Such an attitude or behavior puts God to the test, for the Divine One tries incessantly through the small, still voice within to make us aware of all that has been planned for our happiness.
These temptations are relentless, and it is a constant struggle to withstand the satanic attempts of the ‘without’ to govern our lives. Although Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ temptation is dramatic, our own temptations tend to be more subtle. They come in the form of needs: the need to be center stage, to be liked and affirmed by others, to be important in the lives of others, to appear to be caring persons, to accomplish something of worth in the eyes of others. None of these things express who we really are. In fact, they hinder us from finding ourselves: that person loved by God at the center of our being.
Sometimes, to make the liturgy come more alive, I try to see if it relates in some way with my experiences. Reflecting on this particular liturgy, I recall what Morehead Kennedy said in an interview after his time of captivity as a hostage in Iran: “When you’ve been through a death-threatening experience, you are suddenly confronted with your real self.” We go through life chasing after a person who never really exists: our idea of ourselves. His advice was, don’t try to chase after an idealized self; instead, come to terms with the person you really are.
On this First Sunday of Lent, we find Jesus doing exactly that when he was tempted: staying with who he really is inside. And so it can be with us. Everything we need to be a follower of Jesus is within ourselves. Let us ask Him to help us tap into these riches so that we, too, can come to terms with our real selves. Since we know God wants us to have happy hearts, it follows there are good things in store for us.