HOMILY for the 1st Sunday of Lent (A)
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).