Why was Jesus tempted? Matthew, Mark and Luke place the temptations between the Baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At the Baptism, Jesus has been confirmed as the Father’s Son as the Holy Spirit rested upon Him, anointing Him before His mission. He is the Son. He is the anointed One. Why this period of trial? The Gospels state that “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1).
The temptations are addressed to His Sonship. The devil repeats, “If you are the Son of God.” Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., observes: “The devil challenges his filial status, exploits his hungry situation, and seeks ultimately to thwart his role in salvation-history.”
The first temptation is to use His power for His own bodily comfort. The second is to force the Father’s hand, displaying Himself in an extraordinary way. The third is to compromise the means to bring about the kingdom, even to adore the devil. Jesus chooses fidelity to the Father.
Fitzmyer summarizes the temptations: “The three scenes then depict Jesus as the Son of God obedient to his Father’s will and refusing to be seduced into using his power or authority as Son for any reason other than that for which he has been sent.”
In our lives we have moments in which our temptations seem very strong like a rushing streams of water. Those same temptations continue throughout our lives, in a quieter way like small streams, at times under the surface.
Throughout His ministry, His being the Son, the anointed one, will be disputed. His authority to teach and His right to heal will be challenged. He will not be accepted, even by the people of His village and by members of His own family.
The temptations run through Jesus’ ministry to use His power to prove Himself, to crush His opponents, to force acceptance. He will not work mighty deeds in Nazareth because of their lack of faith. As He dies, the temptations continue: “If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross… He saved others. He cannot save Himself” (Mt 27:40, 42).
St. Thomas Aquinas explains: ““Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, not by powerful deeds, but rather by suffering from him, so to conquer the devil by righteousness not by power” (3a. 41, 1, ad 1).
What about ourselves? Jesus models our experiences. As He picks up His Cross, so He calls us to “take up [our] cross and follow Him… to lose [our] lives for His sake and that of the Gospel” (Mk 8:34-35).
Thomas Aquinas tells us that “Christ wished to be tempted that He might strengthen us against temptations” (3a. 41, 1). He strengthens us by making us aware that temptation or trials are not out of the ordinary. At times, our defenses against temptation are undermined because we think that the temptation indicates our real desires.
The Council of Trent uses the word “concupiscence” to affirm that “an inclination” to sin is not sin itself: “… there remains in the baptized concupiscence of an inclination, although this is left to be wrestled with, it cannot harm those who do not consent, but manfully resist by the grace of God…This concupiscence … the Catholic Church has never understood to be called sin…( Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 791).
St. Thomas reminds us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. Thomas says: “the Holy Spirit exposes to temptation those whom He had filled” (Commentary on Matthew).
Whenever we try to do something good, sooner or later, difficulties emerge, perhaps the technology on which we depended breaks down or our efforts bring us into tensions with others. As often as not, the difficulties arise from ourselves. We want things to be the way we want them, now!
A basic temptation is to resist the movement of the Holy Spirit, just as the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s plan.
The American crooner, Frank Sinatra, was known for his song, “I did it my way.” According to Thomas, when we are open to the Spirit, we do it His way: “For men are led by the Holy Spirit, when they are moved by charity in such a way that they are not moved on their own initiative but by another; because they follow the impulse of charity: ‘The charity of God drives us’ (2 Cor 5:14) (Commentary on Matthew). Rather than use force, Jesus brought change by His patient endurance.
St. Thomas notices that Jesus is tempted after the Baptism. We might think that the Baptism and anointing should come after the temptations. Jesus is tempted because He is the Son of God, because He is the Lord’s anointed.
Thomas explains the reason: “We may be warned that no one, however holy, may think himself free from temptation… He was tempted after Baptism.” Surely, it is a surprise to each of us to discover, after we have somehow dedicated ourselves to God, perhaps through a conversion experience or entering a religious community, that temptations continue. Thomas recalls the Book of Sirach: “When you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (Sir. 2:1).
After Catherine of Siena was clothed with the Dominican habit, she spent three years in prayer and fasting, alone in her room, leaving only for Mass. Rather than experiencing spiritual consolation, her small room became a battlefield where she was taunted by temptations, especially lewd apparitions of demons. Repeatedly she threw herself upon the merciful help of God, affirming, “I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In one of her letters, Catherine recalled that Jesus appeared to her after these trials. She asked Him where He had been in her temptations. He told that He had been with her and the sign of His presence was that her will resisted the temptations.
Catherine came to understand that these temptations were actually God’s way of making her draw closer to Him. She tried to teach this to others, as she did in her letter to a monk in prison: “Think that the goodness of God permits the devils to molest our souls in order to make it humble and to recognize His goodness, and to run back to Him into His sweet wounds, as a little child runs back to the mother” (Letter 4).
Catherine became convinced that following Christ had to involve temptations and struggles: “You, my soul, as a member, ought not to pass by another way than your head. It is not right that under the thorned head there are delicate members” (Letter 38).
She came to see that, in their struggles, people grew in virtue: “With what does purity prove itself and with what is it acquired? With the contrary, that is with the annoyance of impurity… Through the contrary of the virtue, the virtue is acquired….in many storms and temptations” (Letter 211).
According to Thomas, one of the reasons that Jesus underwent temptation was, “To fill us with confidence in His mercy.” Thomas refers to the Letter to the Hebrews, “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
Through Jesus, we become the sons of God and we are given the Holy Spirit. In our experiences of temptations, we are joined with the power of Christ in His temptations: “The sons of God, having the Holy Spirit, are led into the desert to be tempted with Christ” (Commentary on Matthew).
Jesus, as He was tempted, saves us from our temptations: “For He willed to be tempted, in order that, as He overcame our death by His, so He would overcome all our temptations by His “(Commentary on Matthew).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/