This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 4:1–13:
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. 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 on bread alone.” Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.
Have you ever noticed that there’s something compelling about the number three to people? Even apart from its theological import, where it is often called a number of perfection or completion, the number carries weight that surpasses its literal value. For instance, in the business I’m in — punditry — I often find that when people can’t supply data, they will substitute at least three anecdotes in its place. One anecdote may be a fluke, two a coincidence, but three suggests a pattern in support of an argument. Anything over three may help reinforce the presumption of a pattern, but at a certain point the repetition becomes tedious.
Or for that matter, it applies in comedy as well. How many people walk into that ubiquitous bar? A priest, a minister, and a rabbi, right? That gives us the opening, the set-up, and the payoff. And usually a heck of a laugh, too.
Theologically, the perfection represented by the number three is repeated throughout the scriptures and in other teachings. The Lord visited Abraham in the form of three visitors. We pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and Jesus rose on the third day. Peter denied Jesus three times, and Jesus asked him later if Peter loved him three times. Readers can probably recall many more examples, while noting that I just broke the three-times rule here myself.
If three is a number of completion, then what is being completed in today’s Gospel? It is the path of the children of God, which Jesus repairs in persevering through these temptations. Each of these three temptations caused mankind to fall, starting with Adam and continuing through the Davidic kingdom of Israel. To each of these temptations, Jesus balks by proclaiming the word of God back to Satan, specifically from Deuteronomy. These were the instructions given to the Israelites for the path of salvation from sin, the Word which Jesus made flesh in order to complete humanity and heal us from our attachment to sin and rebellion.
But let us ask another question: why did Jesus participate in these temptations in the first place? He certainly had no need of Satan or his false promises of wealth and worldly power, the very temptations that derailed the Israelite kingdoms. Read through these temptations while keeping in mind that they’re being offered to the Son of the Creator, and they suddenly look tawdry and laughable. Jesus inherits all this and more anyway. Plus, as the Son of God, Jesus had all of the authority to not just establish a just kingdom to command obedience, but also to bind Satan as well.
Jesus wasn’t interested in commanding obedience in that manner, nor did He see us as subjects to rule and enslave. Jesus came to free us from enslavement, not from Roman oppression but from the flaws in our own nature that makes us slaves to our own egos and material desires. In order to do that, Jesus had to show that humanity had the capability of defying those forces and the evil that Satan represents to make a free-will choice of loving the Lord. Jesus struck a blow against fatalism, nihilism, and despair by willingly assuming the burdens of our incarnation and completing them into divine worth.
Not only do we have Jesus as an example of the possibilities, we also have Him as our personal savior as we stumble toward completion ourselves. We call out to Jesus when we fail, when we lack the stamina to resist temptation in order to borrow strength from Him. As Paul writes to the Romans in our second reading today, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The refrain from our responsorial psalm is exactly that prayer: “Be with me Lord, when I am in trouble.”
Jesus came to complete humanity, and He remains present to complete each one of us who calls on Him. Those temptations should look tawdry and laughable to us now that Jesus has exposed them for what they are. And what are they? I’ll give you three guesses …
The front-page image is “The Temptations of Christ,” a 12th-century mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.