The temptation of Jesus in the desert, after his baptism in the Jordan River, shows his human side as much as any other gospel story. Yes, He is the Son of God, a voice from heaven proclaimed him God’s Son in the waters of the Jordan. He died and rose from the dead, he is “God from God, true God from true God,” but Jesus was also human.
We may tend to see him only as divine, unlike us: a miracle worker, an assured teacher, a master of circumstances, someone above it all, but we’re told in scripture that Jesus was “like us in all things except sin.” An earthly life was challenging for him as it is for us. Life was always challenging for him as it is for us.
Luke’s gospel, following Matthew’s gospel, shows us the humanity of Jesus in the temptations he faced in the desert, and these same temptations were there throughout his life. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, a challenging place for human beings, where you can get tired and hunger, where you struggle for footing and wonder where you are. The desert is the place where human weakness shows.
Jesus faced three temptations in the desert, our gospel says. One temptation was to think you’re the master of creation. “Turn these stones into bread,” Satan says to him, the Son of God can do that. But if you are truly human–and we say the Jesus was truly human–you can’t turn stones into bread. You can’t control nature. That means that Jesus, like anyone human, got tired and hungry, could get sick and get old. He needed human support and friendship. Yes, for a short period Jesus worked some miracles, but much of his life, the long years he lived in Nazareth, he accepted the limitations of humanity. He did not escape from being human. He was like us.
The second temptation in the desert was a temptation to control people, to dominate them, to be in charge of them, to make them serve you. “The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant and said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
I’ll make people your servants, the devil said. Jesus said, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Instead of people serving him, Jesus lived for others and gave his life for others. “I did not come to be served, but to serve.”
The third temptation is a temptation to control God. That’s what the devil suggests when he takes Jesus up to the temple and tells him to throw himself down and God’s angels will save him. You can tell God what to do, said the devil. Use God’s power to become powerful yourself. Jesus told him: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In the temptations of Jesus, symbolically recalled in our gospel today, we recognize the humanity of Jesus. He is like us. In his temptations, we can see our own temptations. Just look at how Jesus was tempted and the temptations we face. “Turn these stones into bread.” We would love to snap our fingers and change our lives when they’re not working out to our liking. We would love to be miracle-workers, untouched by sickness or death, having perfect lives, having it all.
“I’ll give you power over people so that they’ll do whatever you want,” the devil tells Jesus. They’ll please you, they’ll agree with you, they’ll like you. How tempting that suggestion is us too.
“I’ll see that God does what you want,” How sweeping that temptation is, but it’s a real danger we face too, that instead of we serving God, doing God’s will and working for God’s kingdom to come, we see God working for us and the kingdom we would like to come.
This gospel is a very symbolic gospel. It not only shows the humanity of Jesus, it shows the temptations all of us, human beings, meet in life. But the gospel wants us to see something more. Jesus did not come just to show us what it means to be human, he came to help us to be human. He did not give into temptation, the human temptations he faced. He delivers us from temptation. He lives in us and works with us and sustains us and helps us regain our strength again and again.
Just as the people of Israel were sustained on their way through the desert, Jesus sustains us.