End Lent Where It Began: With Christ in the Desert

Lent ends the same way it begins, with Jesus overcoming our “hunger for sin” — the threefold concupiscence of the lust for bodily desire, greed and pride.

Entering into the plight both of Israel and humanity, Jesus’ temptations in the desert can be understood along the lines of the threefold concupiscence.

The first temptation of Jesus is hunger, as the Devil seeks to entice him to turn stones into bread (see Matthew 4:2-3), reminiscent of lust of the flesh. The second and third temptations are harder to correlate as precisely, but they clear fit the general picture. The temptation to throw oneself down from the pinnacle of the Temple is described as a matter of “testing” God (see Matthew 4:7), which in context is a matter of vainglory — the temptation to use his divine authority to “show off,” as it were.

The last temptation (that is, in Matthew — it’s the second temptation in Luke) is to receive the glory of all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus will worship Satan (see Matthew 4:8-9 and Luke 4:5-7).

In other words, in one way or another, Jesus’ second and third temptations concern vanity, power, and glory.

All three temptations of Jesus, therefore, can be understood with reference to the desires of the flesh, power/vanity, and glory — and as such, parallel the language of Genesis in 3:6 and John’s threefold concupiscence. They certainly match humanity’s experience of being beset by lust, greed (which is closely tied to vanity and power, as we seek to accumulate assets and prestige), and pride.

Jesus Invites Us into His Life and Shows Us the Way

Jesus exhorts us to three time-honored spiritual practices which directly target this toxic human predicament.

First, Jesus calls us to fast (see Matthew 6:16), directly countering the lust of the flesh. Our addiction to pleasure starts in the womb; hence, it makes sense, even naturally speaking, that we would need to bend this back occasionally in order to restore a healthy balance. This is all the more true theologically, in light of the full reality of sin and its power over our lives.

Second, Jesus calls us to give alms (see Matthew 6:2), directly countering the lust of the eyes. As any vice is overcome only by practicing its opposite virtue, so too here: by giving away money and possessions, we begin to undo our deep attachment of finding security and status in money and possessions.

Third, Jesus calls us to pray (see Matthew 6:5), directly countering our pride.

The best self-diagnosis of whether we are sincere and authentic followers of Jesus, or whether we just happen to be fans of his who enjoy talking theology and ecclesial politics, is whether or not we make regular time for prayer. Generally speaking, when we get busy, this is the first thing to go — it’s so easy to not have time. But we have to ask ourselves: what are we making time for? In my experience, while I can say Jesus is the most important thing in my life, the true brass tacks answer is more clearly given by what consumes my mental and emotional energy, my time, and my money. In this sense, the old adage is true: everybody worships something — everybody has a matter of ultimate concern. My time, mental energy, and money are perhaps the most honest indicators of what this truly is for me.

By praying regularly, I am doing what I would do if I sincerely believed in our Lord. By doing so on a habitual basis, my faith grows leaps and bounds over time. Conversely, even a theologian can spend his or her days researching, writing, and lecturing about God — even over Sacred Scripture — without actually talking to God, that is, without really praying. The tragic result is an inevitable slow withering and erosion of one’s faith. For talking about God is no substitute for a living relationship with him.

Jesus Fulfills the Story of Israel and Humanity

As devotees of The Bible Timeline know well, Jesus brings Israel’s story to its eschatological climax. But Israel’s story is part of a larger whole; in fact, Israel’s story always embodies humanity’s story. As we have said, Jesus relives and recapitulates both the story of Israel and humanity. By considering Jesus’ threefold command to fast, give alms, and pray in light of the threefold concupiscence of sin (and its parallel in the garden), we can see how Jesus is restoring our broken humanity. And not only restoring what was lost, Jesus elevates us to share in his divinity (see 2 Peter 1:4 and CCC 460).

 

Tags

Author

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.