Facing and overcoming temptation. Homily for 3/10/2019

Deut 26:4-10;  Ps 91;  Rom 10:8-13;  Lk 4:1-13

On the first Sunday of Lent each year, we hear the familiar story of the temptation of Jesus. And there are several reasons for this annual reading: 1) to remind us that Jesus Himself practiced 40 days of prayer and penance. During these 40 days of Lent, we, too, are meant to go deeper in prayer, and to temper our earthly pleasures in order to strengthen our resolve to follow Christ more closely. 2) To show us that the devil is real—he tempts even the Son of God Himself. Scripture tells us that “the devil is prowling like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1Pet5). Our governor’s recent comments about infanticide, and the very fact that 44 U.S. senators (including the two from Virginia) voted against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act show that the devil is very active in our world. We also need to acknowledge the existence of hell and its eternity. Hell is the sad and lamentable state of eternal separation from God (CCC1035). And those who scoff at the existence of hell and the devil give him greater ability to prowl and devour. The devil’s “delay tactics” are very enticing—he tells us to push off our prayer time, and to delay our conversion from a life of sin. But eventually, there will be no more time or possibility to repent. St. Paul said, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2Cor 6:2).  

            3) We learn from Jesus how to conduct ourselves in temptation. It’s curious that Jesus “was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” This phrase helps us to reflect on the nature of temptation, and especially the 6th petition of the Our Father: ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ “The original Greek means both ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation.’ God doesn’t actually tempt us; in fact, He wants to set us free from evil. We’re asking him not to allow us to take the way that leads to sin” (cf. CCC2846). On the other hand, temptations can be helpful for our spiritual growth because they make us stronger. Temptation teaches us to know ourselves and our sinful inclinations, and to give thanks to God for His goodness and mercy (cf. CCC2847). Although Jesus didn’t have to undergo these temptations, He was giving us an example to follow, teaching us to have confidence in God our Father. And because Christ was tempted, He is “able to help those who are being tested…” (Heb 2:18). Jesus didn’t trust in earthly riches or glory, nor did he perform a miracle (although He could have). Later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Father didn’t take away the suffering from His Only-begotten Son. But He did send an angel, similar to the protection promised in today’s psalm. So God still takes care of us, even if He doesn’t answer our prayers exactly as we might expect.

            The temptations come from three sources: the flesh, the world, and the devil.  The devil first appeals to Jesus’ humanity, telling him to perform a miracle to satisfy a purely earthly desire. But Christ didn’t come to serve Himself. Miracles, for their part, are meant to elicit or reward greater faith, but the devil isn’t interested in that virtue. Besides, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3). We need to become familiar with the Word of God. Notice how Jesus counters all three temptations with the Scriptures, thereby teaching us to do the same. There are still six more weeks in Lent. So during the rest of this season, can we read one book of the Bible slowly and prayerfully, maybe one of the gospels or one of St. Paul’s letters? The Bible possesses a power in itself, because it’s the Word of God.

            The 2nd temptation comes from the world. By offering fleeting images of wealth and glory, the devil tries to distract Jesus from His mission. Jesus will receive power and glory, but from His Father, not the devil. Besides, the devil doesn’t have the authority to give away all the kingdoms of the world. Scripture says, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). Yet, this glorification comes not through riches and earthly strength, but at the cross. Christ achieves definitive victory over sin and death through obedience to the Father—through suffering and death. However, the devil often uses the same enticement for us: material possessions and worldly status. And then he becomes the great accuser when we do fall. Fasting from material pleasures enables us to focus on God and eternal life.

            The third temptation comes from the devil himself and stems from pride—that Jesus should misuse his divine power recklessly. Here, the devil quotes—or rather, misquotes—Scripture, trying to use it to his advantage. The humorous thing is: he chose the wrong passage. Because yes, the angels will guard you in all our ways, but the very next verse (today’s psalm) says that you will trample the viper and the dragon, both symbols of the evil one. And this is exactly what Jesus does in His Passion, Death and Resurrection—He conquers sin and evil. So the devil can misquote Scripture and deceive others, but he will not win in the end. And responding as He does, Jesus uses a delightful play on words: Jesus is God, and “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

            Jesus thwarts all the devil’s attacks, but our passage ends with the ominous words: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” The devil’s time would resurface in the Passion, when Jesus endured the greatest onslaught of evil: the betrayal of Judas, the scourges, the horrible mental and physical suffering. The devil attacks Jesus at his weakest (in his hunger in the desert, and in the Passion). So we have to be alert, especially when we’re weakest. That’s why we should never be on the internet when we’re bored, lonely, angry, stressed, or tired. If we want to avoid sin, then we have to fight against temptation also. St. James wrote, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7). For example, if we’re trying to lose weight, then we can’t have junk food around the house. If we’re having evil or impure thoughts, then we should consider what we’re putting into our heads. We have to “set our minds on the things above and not on things of earth” (Col 3:2). And to be ruthless in avoiding sin. St. Dominic Savio once said, “I would rather die than commit a mortal sin.” How many of us share that outlook, when it’s much easier to commit the sin and then go to confession later? Yes, God is very merciful, but the fight against sin is a daily battle. Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” A more modern translation might be “If technology causes you to sin, cut it off.”

           Two more points about temptation: 1) Temptation in itself is not sin. “The Holy Spirit makes us discern between trials, which are necessary for growth, and temptation which leads to sin and death. We have to discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation” (CCC2847). A fleeting thought that comes to us isn’t necessarily a sin. Do we go back for a second glance? Do we relish in the thought of revenge? It’s what we do with that temptation that will determine sinfulness.  2) The way to lessen temptation is to preempt it. Each day, we face the same three attacks, from the flesh, the world, and the devil: sensual gratification (such as gluttony and lust), greed for material possessions, and pride. But the threefold practice of Lent helps to combat these weaknesses. By fasting and self-denial, we learn self-control against the sins of the flesh. By almsgiving and charity, we learn detachment from material things. By prayer, especially the Scriptures, we learn humility before God and our utter dependence on His grace. So by cultivating prayer, self-denial, and virtue, we begin to root out our predominant faults. Jesus counseled His followers: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Mk 14:38). So the way we pray and sacrifice (in advance) will determine how we handle temptations when they come. We can always rely on the help of God, even in the very moment of temptation. God does not abandon us, but along with every temptation, He gives us the necessary grace to overcome it (1Cor 10:13). We should confidently call on Jesus in time of temptation, and also repeat the holy name of Mary, because she’s already crushed the head of the serpent by her obedience to the will of God. This Lenten season, let’s be aware of the devil’s tactics, and cling faithfully and daily to Christ—who has already conquered temptation, sin, and death—so that we might share fully in His glorious Easter victory.

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