Lent 01, Year C-2010
- Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Heb. 2:18)
The Israelites, according to Dt. 8:2, were led by the Lord their God all the way in the desert for forty years so that they might be humbled and tested by him. And Jesus, according to today’s gospel reading, “was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.”
In their hunger and thirst, the Israelites did not remember that the Lord had redeemed them from their oppressors through miraculous signs and wonders (Ps. 78:42-53). Thus forgetful of God’s power, the Israelites grumbled and quarreled, so sure they were that they would either starve to death or die of thirst in the desert (Ex. 16:2; 17:1-3). All they could recall was the pots of meat, around which they sat, and the fish they used to eat without cost, and their cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (Num. 11:5).
Jesus, on the other hand, did not let his hunger get in the way of being mindful and trustful of God. Obedient to the Torah’s injunction to the Israelites to remember that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders, as today’s first reading has it, Jesus affirmed God’s every word as the more important source of sustenance than bread, the word that is near and is in one’s mouth and heart, says today’s second reading (Dt. 5:15; 8:3). And if our first parents’ succumbing to the temptation is any indication, indeed having everything one needs to eat does not guarantee satisfaction.
Nor does control of all the kingdoms of the world with all their attending power and glory, as Jesus pointed out when he refused to sell his soul to the devil. For Jesus and all faithful and practicing Jews, after all, only One guarantees long life, well-being and prosperity in a land flowing with milk and honey, only One is deserving of the offering of firstfruits, of worship and service, with one’s whole heart, soul and strength, everywhere, at all times and in every manner, namely: the Lord their God, the one Lord, encountered by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is in their midst, who is neither to be forgotten as the Lord who brought them out of Egypt, the house of slavery, nor to be put to the test the way he was put to the test at Massah (Dt. 6:1-16).
If in the Desert of Sin, the grumbling and the quarreling reflected despair, at Massah and Meribah the quarreling and testing indicated presumption, the other sin against hope. The Israelites attempted to force God’s hands. Presuming on his protection but in their own terms and not in God’s terms, they challenged the Lord to prove he was in their midst. They understood God’s protection as meaning deliverance from every affliction; they saw no divine meaning or purpose at all in the hardships they were enduring. They thus failed miserably the test of affliction intended to determine if they were ready or not to keep the Lord’s command and “to show that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”
Jesus, for his part, refused to tempt the Lord and challenge God’s providence even if this meant being hungry, suffering all kinds of affliction, and taking the path leading to Jerusalem and ultimately to the hill of crucifixion. He surely was quite familiar with the stories in the Torah about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and their encounter with God precisely when they were most vulnerable, when their backs were against the wall, when they were not just sitting around enjoying themselves in their family circle and their comfort zone (see chapter 38, “The Lineaments of the Divine Encounter” of Alan Lew’s One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi [New York: Kodansha New York, 1999] 254-263).
Successful—unlike Adam and Eve and a long line of their descendants—against the devil, Jesus now reveals himself as the model and leader those tempted like us are to look up to, “the new Israel who lives the word of God, … does not challenge God’s promises, and … adores and serves God alone and not the world,” who “rejects in anticipation the temptations to which His Church will be submitted” (see J.L. Mckenzie, “Temptation,” Dictionary of the Bible' [Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1965], 878-879).
The Church, then, should not expect either herself or Jesus to change stones into bread for the hungry. She must, first and foremost, be genuinely dedicated to the word of the Lord her God who hears the cry of the poor. Such dedication should inevitably lead to assistance of the poor in every way, by herself and by others (see P. Coste XII, 87).
The Church cannot seek for herself the kingdoms of the world and their power and glory; she must be content with her being powerless and put to shame for being foolish. As Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., continues to put it in “An Upside-Down Sign: The Church of Paradox”:
- The Church will find her greatest vitality when she is at ease among them
- [the “crucified peoples”], at the grassroots, where they suffer. The measure of
- the Church’s strength is not her political influence, nor her prestige in any
- given era, it is her ability to live in solidarity with the powerless. Her
- pre-eminent weapons will not be her influence in the corridors of power;
- her strength will be the word of God, as it proclaims the truth, and the witness
- of sacrificial love, as it proclaims the abiding presence of the crucified Lord.
The Church cannot put the Lord her God to the test either. She is, after all, the body of Christ, given up for the forgiveness of sins, along with its blood, his life being given as a ransom for sinners.