A reflection on the readings for March 6, 2022 – The First Sunday in Lent.
Many of us know the story of Doctor Faustus, written in 1592. In the early version of the legend, Dr. John Faustus, called Faust, has turned his back on God, and decided not to be called a Doctor of Theology, but rather a Doctor of Medicine. He has studied for years, but is dissatisfied. Faust turns to black magic to call the Devil, and the demon Mephistopheles answers his call.
Using Mephistopheles as a messenger, Faust strikes a deal with Lucifer: he is to be allotted 24 years of life on earth, during which time he will have Mephistopheles as his personal servant and the ability to use magic. This will enable him to be successful and mesmerize the world. However, at the end of his life he will give his body and soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time damned to Hell. This deal is sealed by a contract written in Faust’s own blood. Mephistopheles, of course, uses his tricks and lies to keep him from accomplishing much of anything during the time he is given. Faust wastes all opportunities with the trivial indulgences offered by Mephistopheles. Faust tries to revoke his pact under the burden of growing disgrace and the realization of his own damnation, but Satan wins out. In the end, he dies a horrible death and taken to hell.
Faust sold his soul to be like God. He sold his humanity to the devil, sacrificing it to be a pawn of Satan. This is what has come to be called the “Faustian Bargain.” He wanted to be godlike. This is exactly what the devil in the Gospel of the day (Luke 4:1-13) tries to do. All that the devil wants from Jesus is for him to deny His humanity.
We can recall that when Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan, the Father declares, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Father loves His incarnate Son, the Son in all His humanity. This humanity is what Satan challenges in the Gospel of the day. The devil keeps telling Jesus, “You are not human; you are God, the Son of God. Exercise your power as God.”
Jesus entered not only the desert, but all that is human. He is lonely, unguarded in the vastness of the desert, and powerless. Like any human, He is hungry after 40 days of fasting. It is embarrassing to be so common and so small. This introduces for the devil an opportunity for the first of his temptations. To the devil, unmet desire, such as Jesus’ very real hunger for food, is an unnecessary aberration. It is not human. To the devil, immediate gratification of hunger is part of being human: “So change the stone into bread,” he suggests. “You are the Son of God. You are not merely human; use your power to feed yourself. Deny your humanity. Be the God that you are.”
But for Jesus, to be human is to be hungry, to delay gratification until the angels bring food to Him. To be human is to be lost in the desert of emptiness, loneliness, and powerlessness. He would not deny His humanity because, “One does not live on bread alone.”
The second temptation is to rule over the whole world. Just as for Faust, the payment for this authority is to give worship to the devil. After showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” the devil promises him glory and authority. “It will all be yours,” the devil says. Fame. Visibility. Recognition. Clout. A kingdom to end all kingdoms, here and now. The implication is that God’s Son need not labor in obscurity. To be the Son of God is to be in glory, in the limelight, visible, applauded, admired, and envied. In the realm of the devil, God never abandons us to a modest or insignificant life.
But, for Jesus, to be human is not to sell one’s soul to the world, seeking riches, glory, and power. To be human is to throw out the devil’s lie that earth belongs to him. To be human is to not worship the power and wealth but to worship the Father and serve Him alone. To be human is to wait for the Father to grant Him power, glory and authority. The Son of God would indeed have authority over the kingdoms of the earth, but his authority would come from God.
The third temptation is to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and to show that the Father would send His angels to save Jesus. There is a rabbinical saying, preserved in the ancient Pesiqta Rabbati (§ 36) that reads: “Our teachers have taught, ‘When the King, the Messiah, reveals himself, he will come and stand on the roof of the Temple.’” The devil is asking Jesus to be the Messiah without undergoing His Passion, death on the cross and Resurrection. In tempting Jesus, the devil actually quotes Psalm 91, which promises angelic protection to those who are faithful to Yahweh.
The devil asks, “Why should we suffer, especially the Son of God? Why should God suffer?” In the devil’s logic, suffering is unwanted and unnecessary. It is therefore not human to suffer on the cross. “Deny the human suffering, accept that you are the Messiah and you don’t need the cross,” he suggests to Jesus. But Jesus would not deny His humanity. He would not test the providence of the Father because ”You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12).
All the temptations are challenging Jesus to give up His humanity and claim that He is the Son of God. The temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is repeated here: “Deny you are human and be the God that you are.” The primordial questions are: “Can you be fully human? Can you exercise restraint? Abdicate power? Accept danger? Can you bear what it means to be mortal?” Yes, Jesus would accept His humanity. He would choose emptiness over fullness, obscurity over vainglory, vulnerability over demanding that God rescue Him from suffering.
For us, the problem with the temptation story is that it seems unreal, far removed from our experience. The devil does not appear to us and transport us from place to place. The temptations we experience are often not so clearly recognizable. The choices we face are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse or good and better. Most of the time, our temptations do not give us clear choices. Yet to be human is to battle with unclear choices and messy issues. To be human is to deal in confusing gray areas, not only in black and white. To be human is to depend on the providence and wealth of the Father, yet not always expect God to save us from human suffering and pain.
There are certainly clear temptations, described in the Gospel, that we face: to give the place of God to something or someone else; to act as God; to forget our human identity as sons and daughters of the Father; to attempt to use our religion for personal gain; to try to be successful rather than faithful; to be dazzled by the riches of the world; to make compromises when we are called to stand firm; and, to avoid the path of sacrifice and suffering.
But to be victorious over our temptations is to embrace all that is human, broken, weak, dependent, lonely, vulnerable, and powerless–just as Jesus did. To be human is to rely on the Father like Jesus did. Lent is a time for us to embrace all that is human. Human and hungry. Human and vulnerable. Human and beloved of the Father.
Image: “Jesus Tempted,” from “Scenes from the Life of Jesus,” 1905. Accessed via the Library of Congress.
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.