We know that Mark is the shortest of the Gospels and here we are presented with his account of the Temptation of Jesus which is very brief indeed. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have more extended accounts of the Temptation which are broadly similar to each other.
In both accounts Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread and then the devil takes Jesus first to the pinnacle of the Temple and then to a High Mountain for further temptations. Jesus dismisses the devil’s blandishments whereupon the devil leaves him.
In all three of the Synoptic Gospels the Temptation comes Immediately after Christ’s Baptism and before he inaugurates his public ministry.
As always, I like to look carefully at the actual words used because I believe that this can tell us a lot that might otherwise escape our attention. You will observe that the text states that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.
The Baptism of Jesus has just taken place but there is to be no lingering on the banks of the River Jordan basking in the affirming words of the Father, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’ Many translations state that the Spirit ‘immediately’ drove Jesus into the wilderness. Or sometimes this is replaced with ‘at once’. This is a good instance of St Mark moving rapidly from one scene to another in his Gospel.
The interesting word for me though is where it says that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus into the wilderness. This makes it clear that the initiative comes from God. From this we can understand that right from the very beginning of his ministry there is to be confrontation between Jesus and the powers of evil.
The purpose of this going into the wilderness is to be tempted and again we see that this word is often rendered as ‘tested’. In Matthew and Luke we are told of specific temptations but not here in Mark; he seems to imply that a battle between Jesus and the forces of evil has begun. Of course, Jesus confounds the devil in the wilderness but we are in no doubt that the devil will make further appearances in different guises throughout Jesus’ ministry.
Mark also tells us that Jesus was 'with the wild beasts and the angels looked after him.’ I imagine that many of Mark’s early readers would have picked up an allusion to the wild beasts some of them might have to confront in a Roman amphitheatre in times of persecution. Like them they surely hope that, as with Jesus, the angels would protect them.
Then Mark swiftly moves on to the actual beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he enters Galilee and announces to the people that the favourable moment has arrived and begins to preach the Good News.
We always begin Lent with an account of the Temptation of Christ and as we begin this period of austerity and penance we ought to consider how we deal with temptation in our own lives. We realise that the temptations that Christ experienced in the desert are quite different from the temptations we ourselves experience.
Although we may have made decisions to give up sweets or sugar or alcohol, or perhaps we have resolved to attend mass on a particular weekday or say extra prayers or undertake some fasting, even with these voluntarily penances we will inevitably experience the temptation to give them up.
Now you might consider that the temptation to eat a few sweets is pretty low grade as temptations go; but it can be an indication of how we deal with bigger temptations. Bigger sins such as infidelity in marriage, watching inappropriate content on the internet, theft, lies and so on need to be resisted.
But if we find ourselves failing to keep our minor Lenten resolutions then it will obviously be much more difficult to keep on the straight and narrow when it comes to these much greater things.
In the moral life habit is everything. It is important that we train ourselves to keep our Lenten promises. It is vital that we set personal standards and make the decision not to deviate from them.
If we get into the habit of telling lies or gossiping we soon grow accustomed to these things and then we find ourselves believing that these minor things don’t matter. Unfortunately, what then happens is that we are tempted by greater things, and because we have easily given way in comparatively minor matters we find it hard to resist these new and greater temptations.
We call this self-mastery. If we get into the habit of controlling ourselves and exercising discipline in small things we will find it much easier to resist greater temptations.
One of the most important aids to resisting temptation is prayer. If we are constant in our daily prayer we will experience closeness to God and in itself this will help us to resist temptations when they come along. Prayer is the foundation course that we all need to lay in our lives so that we are spiritually strong enough to withstand temptation when it arises.
Temptation must also be positively resisted and this needs to be done promptly, the instant the temptation arises. The easiest way to do this is to immediately dismiss the thought from our minds and straight away to start thinking about something more wholesome. Evil can only be fought with good and so substituting a good thought for a bad one will be an effective way of resisting temptation.
We should never forget to give thanks to God once a temptation has been successfully resisted. We know that we could not resist without his grace and so we must thank him and this has the extra effect of strengthening ourselves against future temptations.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we need a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. If we hazy about this and get confused we will easily fall into the trap of thinking that some bad things are actually good and this will cause us a great deal of difficulty in life.
What is good comes from God and what does not come from God is to be avoided. We are told in the first chapter of Gospel of John to walk in the light. So, in our lives we avoid what is shameful and relish those things that we can be proud of. We shun the darkness and walk always in the light of the Lord. In this way we will know that our actions will always be good and decent, honest and truthful, and that we will not have succumbed to the wiles of the devil and all his agents.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket