March 6, 2022
Sister Mary Glenn, OSB reflections on the scripture readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
When I was around 14 years old, my uncle, a Benedictine priest, gave me the book, Spiritual Combat, a guide to the struggles of the spiritual life. It was written at the end of 16th century and was popular because it described the spiritual journey as not just a battle with external forces but rather as an interior one, in which we become aware of our basic selfishness, and work to overcome it. Developing a strong will is how we combat the temptations that face us daily.
This description of the spiritual life as a battle or a combat, is very familiar to those of us who were raised in the traditional Catholic and Protestant worlds, before the 1960s. We are called to strengthen our wills, through penance, to do God’s will.
We can apply this idea of a spiritual battle to Jesus’ temptations, when he was alone in the desert. All the commentaries on this scene point out that the Scripture quotes used here are found in the book of Deuteronomy and reflect the struggles of Israel in the desert to put their trust in the Lord, who had rescued them from slavery. It is the communal dimension of “temptation” that I would like to focus on and ask how can we understand this story, in the world we live in?
In the first temptation, Jesus is invited to change the stone from what it is meant to be – just a stone – into something it is not meant to be. This reminds me of the human compulsion to reshape the earth to serve our needs instead of experiencing ourselves as living in respect and harmony with all of creation. Yes, stones are useful building materials, but they are also weapons. And now that we are able to destroy the integrity of the stone with big machines the temptations have become more insidious. By drilling through layers of rock, we have fuel for cars, planes, and trains and the plastic products that are smothering the earth and sea. We can also change how water flows by building concrete dams. We can cut down a tropical forest in a few days and disrupt the oxygen that the planet breathes. All this disruption happens because the essence of the stone – our earth – has been manipulated because of what we think we need.
In the story, Jesus refuses to shape the earth for his personal needs and instead reminds us that we do not live on bread alone. Our power to meet our material needs must also include a reverence for the earth and its systems. How do we recover that reverence? We could do what Jesus did: go to the desert under the impulse of the Spirit and wait for that Spirit to reveal itself. Only a contemplative mind and heart can discover how to cope with the dilemma that we find ourselves in.
The other two temptations have to do with our false ideas about the Divine Mystery as one of power and domination. Human beings are irresistibly attracted to power because deep down we know that we have none – we are not in control of our destiny. Yet we keep dreaming that if only the right person was in power (someone a lot like me) we could be led to the promised land of peace and prosperity. One of the insights into the mystery of Christ, after the Resurrection, is that Jesus, the human being, impelled by the Spirit, surrendered himself to the powers of this world. The Divine had become powerless.
The temptation to test God’s promise is linked to our image of power. When we are frustrated that our efforts have not created a better world, we throw up our hands and blame God for not rescuing us from our stupidity. Jesus reminds us not to keep testing the Divine Mystery with our complaints.
How do we face our false ideas about God? Again, we could go to the desert, under the impulse of the Spirit, and pray to be given an open mind and heart. Can I put aside my comfortable ideas about God and open myself to a new Revelation?
Our Lenten journey may sometimes feel like a lonely battle with our selfishness, but the story of Israel reminds us of the way are in this together, that our temptations now are global and that we can face them together in the way that Jesus did: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days.”
We have nothing to fear during these Lenten days because that Spirit abides deep in us as individuals and as a Christian community.