The African lion and the wild cat look so much alike, yet they are different. An ancient African theory explains it this way. The same lioness gives birth to numerous cubs some of which are truly lions at heart and some of which are not. How does the mother lion know which is which? Months after the birth of the cubs, just before they are weaned, the mother lion leaves the den and then, in an unsuspecting moment, she jumps into the den with a thundering roar as if she was an enemy attacking the cubs. Some of the cubs stand up and fight back the presumed enemy while others flee the den with their tails between their legs. The cubs that hold their ground to face the danger prove themselves to be real lions. Those that run away prove to be mere wild cats, false lions. As testing distinguish true lions from the false so also does it prove true Christians from false ones.
Under the old covenant God subjected His people Israel to testing in the desert. They failed that test, which made a new covenant necessary. In today’s gospel reading we see Jesus the bearer of the new covenant being subjected to testing again in the desert. He stands his ground and gives the enemy a good fight, thus showing that he is truly the Son of God. Immediately before the Temptations of Jesus, Matthew has the story of the baptism of Jesus in which a heavenly voice declared of him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). As he leaves the baptismal waters of Jordan to embark on his public ministry as the Anointed Son of God he had to go through the test. No child of God can go without trials, because this is the means to distinguish between a true and a false child of God. As Ben Sirach advises, “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing” (Sirach 2:1).
Somehow we can understand, and are more comfortable with, the idea of testing or trial than with the idea of temptation. The fact, however, is that testing or trial or temptation are one and the same thing. In fact they all translate the same Greek word peirasmos. When we see the situation as coming from God, who would like us to pass the test, we call it a test or trial. And when we see it as coming from the evil one, who would like us to fail, we call it temptation. But both trials and temptations are experienced by us in exactly the same way: as a situation where the principle of evil (the devil) and the principle of good (the Holy Spirit) in us are vying for our allegiance and whichever one we vote for wins and becomes the master of our lives until we can reverse the decision.
Jesus is given three tests. The first one, to turn stones into bread, has to do with how we use our God-given gifts, talents and abilities. The temptation is for us to use our gifts to make a living for ourselves. But Paul tells us that spiritual gift are given to the individual “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Jesus would later on in his ministry multiply bread to feed others. But he would not do it to feed himself. Do we see our talents and abilities, our jobs and professions, as a means to serve others or simply as a means to make a living for ourselves?
In the second test Jesus is tempted to prove that he is God’s son by jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple and letting the angels catch him as was promised in the Scripture: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91/90:11). Though Jesus fully believes the word of God, he would not put God to the test. This contrasts sharply with the case of a college student in Nigeria who claimed that he was born again and to prove it he jumped into the lion’s cage in the zoo because the Bible promises that nothing can ever harm God’s children. Maybe his soul is in heaven today but his body provided a special lunch for the hungry lions that day.
In the third temptation the devil promises Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth if only Jesus would worship him. Jesus wants the whole world to acknowledge him, of course, but would he achieve that by worshipping a false god? Can we pursue our goals by any means whatsoever? Does the end justify the means? Jesus says no. He remains steadfast and faithful to God, rejecting the short-cuts offered by the devil. In the end he attains an end more glorious than that offered by the devil: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
Today, let us realise that as God’s children we too are under constant testing. If you do not know it, then try to answer these questions: Will you keep believing in God whether or not you get that one thing that you have always been praying for? Would you still believe that God loves you if you or your loved one contracted a shameful disease that has no cure, and God does not give you healing in spite of all your prayers? Do you sometimes put God to the test and say: “If you do this for me, then I will serve you, but if not, I will have nothing more to do with you.” Jesus shows us today that to serve God is to surrender ourselves to Him unconditionally and in all situations.