ColumnsSunday’s Word

Tested in the desert

March 1, 2020


Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7

The Garden of Eden

Ps 51;3-6, 12-13, 17

Be merciful, O Lord

Rom 5:12-19

The new Adam

Mt 4:1-11

Tested in the desert


The church year began with a voice crying in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” That was John the Baptist. Now, Lent begins with another voice in the desert, that of Satan, testing Jesus.

In the first instance, Jesus’ calling as the Messiah was outlined, as the voice from heaven (another voice!) laid out its parameters with two allusions to the Old Testament — Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 4:1. The first of these identified Jesus as the coming Messiah, which Israel awaited. The second, however, connected that with the suffering servant of the Lord, a figure of patience and endurance. This Messiah was to be different from the expectations. Many were hoping for a powerful figure, a Messiah who would conquer enemies and replace Judea in the dominant position that they felt it deserved. Maybe a Jewish Caesar, for instance. However, this idea of a Messiah as servant is unexpected, unnerving.

Following his baptism, Jesus moves out into the desert for 40 days. The testing in the desert follows upon the unusual description of the Messiah mission. One can understand it as a time of processing this unusual news. What does it mean to be Messiah as servant, to be king, but as slave, without leverage, without means of coercion? How to be a ruler without the necessary tool of violent coercion?

With that background in mind, we can understand the desert tests as a probe into the meaning of the coming mission of Jesus. In effect, it’s a map for the Messiah.

As well we know, there are three tests. The first concerns meeting immediate needs. Jesus is hungry, but as God’s Son, he should be able to solve that problem with changing stones to bread. After all, the landscape is littered with those stones. In other words, Satan proposes a standard for dealing with problems — direct action by way of a display of power. Alexander the Great, for instance, faced with the conundrum of the Gordian knot, neatly solved it with a sword, cutting it in two. If you are unwilling to take the necessary action, stop pretending to the role of the great king to come.

The second test is for Jesus to throw himself from the temple parapet. With the mention of the temple, we understand that theology is entering the picture now. Action by force is an indicator of divine endorsement of one’s rule. The unlikely proposal of Satan would surely demonstrate God’s support. Literally. Imitating the theologian, Satan quotes Scripture, Psalm 91. But Jesus’ response is equally theological: You shall not test God. Satan’s proposal contradicts that of God for Jesus; false theology.

The third test directly alludes to imperial power. Jesus is invited to imagine ruling all the nations of the world. The only requirement is to bow down to Satan himself. Here we see the temptation implicitly relating empire to satanic influence. The Roman Empire, the actual world empire of their experience, was maintained by an iron fist. The Roman example shows that world domination is accomplished by displays of violent power. They suffered under this reign, this time of subjection. As a recommendation for the Messiah, it would solve the problem of Rome by recreating it in his own image.

With that, Jesus dismisses the dark angel, having survived the tests, able to enter into his mission with his program clarified. The coming Gospel narrative will describe an alternative model for the Messiah. And with it, an alternative vision of power, its uses and its limits. The true power of Jesus will lie elsewhere, in unexpected places. It will involve an openness to the plights and sufferings of many. And it will share in that suffering. It will allow itself to be vulnerable.

For reflection: How do these temptations still affect us?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.