Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
As soon as we go to school we are confronted with evaluations of various kinds: spelling tests, math tests, English tests, history tests, P.E. skills tests, I.Q. tests. When we have our annual physical we have blood tests and stress tests and breathing tests (at least if you’re above a certain age!). In California our automobiles are subjected to smog tests, and so on and on.
Human life is full of tests. What are they for? Obviously they are necessary in order to know something that otherwise would be hidden or unknown.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the immediate end or purpose of temptation (which is fancy word for testing) is knowledge. When the devil tempts or tests us, it is in order for him to know what he otherwise would not know. Now, what could that be?
Certainly he knows that we are weak and fallen; after all, it was his tempting that led our first parents to sin. So our weakness and passions are not something he needs to be informed about. He knows that we have in us the seeds of the seven capital sins of pride, anger, envy, greediness, lust, gluttony, and laziness. He doesn’t need to check out whether we are subject to these defects and the passions that lead to them and flow from them. He does not get any special delight in seeing us enjoy some sinful pleasure; if anything, this annoys him, since he hates our pleasures, which, even if we misuse them, still come from God and show that in some way we want to be happy. He wants none of that for himself or anyone else.
The devil tempts us—hold on—because he is desperate. As Our Lord says, “He knows his time is short” and he is eager to drag as many as possible into hell with him and his other cohorts before the final judgment. The one thing he cannot know for sure is the actual condition of a soul: whether the soul is in God’s grace. He can see the external actions of a person, he can even see the contents of his imagination and his feelings, but he cannot see the true condition of the human will before God.
This means that he just is looking for evidence that the particular soul will belong to him forever—but he cannot know for sure, ever.
Therefore he is like a desperate, needy person who longs for affirmation and reassurance without ever being certain. Such a person is always reaching out for evidence that what he hopes for will be true. Thus we can see that the devil’s temptation of human beings is actually an indication of his weakness, and not at all of his strength.
So, when we are tempted, we should be aware that there is a reason for our temptation that has nothing directly to do with us. The Evil One simply wants to accumulate evidence for his own bitter consolation that we will belong to him in his insane, envious contest with the God who made us. This shows us that even more important than resisting temptation (and resisting temptation is important for we love God) is a constant confidence in God’s power and mercy. We have to think to ourselves as we pray, “Even should the devil tempt me and I fail, I will still turn to God for pardon and mercy. I shall make a good confession and a new start, even if I have to do it again and again.”
This is the way we do battle as Our Lord taught us. The devil could find none of the usual evidence in him that he would sin. This was a man unlike any he had encountered before Adam before the fall. He was already unnerved by Christ’s mother Mary, and now he needed to know just who he might be. Our Lord gave him no information. The devil would have known that he was a mere man, if the Lord had given in: indeed it would be clear then that he was not the Lord at all. But the Savior did not satisfy the devil’s curiosity, and the Gospels tell us he went away to await another opportunity.
Thus we should take great confidence from Our Lord’s own temptation. We are tempted in him, and we should say to ourselves “I belong to Christ who was also tempted, and Christ knows my destiny and calls me to eternal life in him, so I am not afraid of this temptation, but put all my trust in him for my perseverance!”
Soon on Holy Thursday we will see the scene when the devil returned to try and test the Savior, when he struggled in the Garden of Gethsemani. On that occasion, he saw all our sins, and they made him suffer unimaginably, and yet he did not despair, because his knowledge was of his ultimate designs in our regard, even our everlasting happiness.
So let us put all our confidence in the Lord who does not need to test us, since he already knows what the devil cannot know for sure: that we belong to Christ, both now in this time of trial and temptation, and forevermore. Amen.