“Brothers and sisters, let us guard ourselves and be attentive to the temptation of the Father of Lies and Division, the master of separation that, tricking us into searching for a given good or answer to a specific situation, ends up fragmenting the body of the Holy People of God. As an apostolic body, let us walk together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”
— Pope Francis
Letter to the People of God in pilgrimage in Germany
Last Sunday’s Gospel reading was one of my favorite Scripture passages: the Temptation of Christ in the desert. This scene is imbued with so much wisdom that I would argue it is proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration. No mere human could have devised a story like this, because it demolishes our human thought processes.
When Jesus is baptized, He does not proceed to begin His ministry right away. Rather, He goes to the desert to undergo a sort of “purification.” Of course, since Jesus is perfect, He does not need purification. But just as Jesus was baptized without needing its grace, He underwent this process of purification; more for our sake than His.
Jesus goes into the desert and remains for forty days, mirroring the forty years that Israel spent in the desert. Here, Jesus will succeed where Israel (or rather, we) failed. While wandering through the desert, the people of Israel complained to God about not having bread. Jesus says that man does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God. While Israel tempted the Lord with their demands, Jesus refuses to do so. Israel bowed to the golden calf, but Jesus refuses to give worship to anyone or anything but God alone.
These temptations in the desert present a pattern, one that I have noticed, sadly, even in Catholic circles: the temptation to make our faith too mundane. To turn rocks into bread is to make our faith all about producing material wealth and wellbeing. We cast ourselves from pillars, hoping God will catch us, when we bargain with God or try to tempt Him to help us achieve our worldly goals. We give in to the temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the Earth when we vainly search for worldly power.
More traditional or conservative-minded Catholics accuse the Church’s progressive wing of giving into these temptations. It is indeed true that many progressive Catholics will fashion our religion into a kind of political program, designed exclusively to achieve social justice (in the purely material sense of the word). Many popes, namely John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, have repeatedly warned against the dangers of turning the Church into a mere NGO. Our faith is not to be de-sacralized, nor its most fundamental purpose of saving souls downplayed.
However, I think conservative Catholics also give in to these temptations. Frequently they also seem to distort our faith into a political organization. They use Catholicism to advance capitalist policies that allegedly promote greater wealth. Or they reduce the faith to simply campaigning for a particular candidate in order to achieve secular power. When the faith does not accommodate to their objectives, they lash out against it, going even as far as attacking the Vicar of Christ himself.
Understanding the temptations of Jesus is an antidote against turning the faith into an ideology. As I have written several times before, our two last Popes have warned against this very sternly. It is significant that Jesus did not begin His ministry until he triumphed over these temptations. It is impressive that the Catholics who talk the most about Jesus’ Kingship are the ones least likely to understand the lesson that their King tried to teach them: His Kingdom is not of this world.
In fact, Jesus was killed precisely because He failed to meet Israel’s expectations of a secular Messiah. This is why the mob voted to release Barabbas instead of Jesus. “Barabbas” means “the Son of the Father” in Aramaic, mimicking Jesus’ Sonship of God. Barabbas is a counterfeit Jesus, who apes His Messiahship in a de-spiritualized way that people are willing to follow, because he promises them the world without asking for anything but their support in return.
Even Jesus’ closest disciples had to be taught repeatedly that His mission was not the kind of political liberation they were expecting, but something much deeper. And Judas, who later betrayed Him, criticized Jesus for wasting the perfume the pious woman had offered Him, instead of selling it and giving the money to the poor.
When He was crucified, His enemies mocked Him by saying “If you are the Son of God, do this thing we think is fitting.” “If you are the Son of God” echoes the temptations uttered by the Devil. Many seem to think that if Jesus does not act in a certain predefined way, then He cannot possibly be the Son of God. If He does not act in an intelligible way–according to our standards–then it’s He who is wrong, not us.
In the Gospels, we witness Jesus repeatedly being misinterpreted and misunderstood when He failed to fit into the political molds to which the people of His time were accustomed. Hence Pilate’s perplexity. These ideas were shackles in people’s minds that did not allow them to appreciate God’s higher wisdom, which transcends the limited boundaries we want to place on it. These are the temptations of the desert. The Devil wants Jesus to fall into the same traps that everyone else does. We have been conditioned to accept them as a kind of ontological fatalism. This is why Jesus’ ministry had to begin with the conquering of these temptations: His entire ministry was to be a sign of contradiction against these predefined ideas. By rejecting these temptations, Jesus allows “the God of surprises” (as Pope Francis calls Him) to shine through our narrow understanding of reality.
This Jesus is indeed a God of surprises. When the Magi discovered that a new King of Israel was born, they went first to Herod’s palace, expecting to find Him there. How surprised were they to know that the King of Israel had not been born in the royal palace, but in a manger in a stable on the outskirts of a little town! Similarly, how puzzled must the Apostles have felt whenever Jesus rebuked them for expressing their views on what they were expecting the Messiah to do, when these expectations were taught to them from young age?
And yet, these surprises are integral to the history of salvation. No mere mortal could conceive that God would act in such a way, subverting every single one of our human conceptions of power. I am positively certain that, had Jesus not taught us this, we would not have been able to arrive at these conclusions on our own. It is simply antithetical to the way we are conditioned to think. It’s no wonder that the Catholics who are more enraged by Pope Francis’ concept of “God of surprises” also tend to be the more ideologized ones.
Does this mean that we, as Catholics, should not engage in politics? Should we remain in a state of political quietism, while others transform society for the worse? Not at all. But power does indeed corrupt, so a Catholic who decides to become politically active should be willing to change himself before changing the world. He or she should be constantly vigilant about these temptations. He or she must undergo a purification in the desert before beginning this activity, thereby following the example of Jesus. And it would be wise for that Catholic to return to the desert time and again, to actualize this much needed purification of the self, so needed for any political project to bear good fruit.
I hope that throughout this Lent, Christians will meditate on this passage of Scripture, and begin the long-overdue purification of our faith from the ideologies that are prevalent today.
[Image credits: “The Temptation of Christ by the Devil”, Joseph Barrias, 1860]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.