It is the subtle way in which temptation resembles truth that gets us. For people who have made a fundamental choice to accept God’s invitation to orient their lives toward the divine love, those things that are blatantly evil do not hold allure. They are easily recognizable as wrong, and it does not take much effort to reject them. The real temptations are the ones that are just close enough to the truth that they appear good and beneficial.
The author of Genesis captures this sense in the etiological account of how sin entered the world. The serpent, the mythological embodiment of temptation, is described as the most cunning of all the animals. It is able to twist the truth just enough to plant seeds of doubt and open the way toward rationalization. At first the woman responds to the serpent by correcting the false version offered by the tempter, as she accurately conveys God’s instructions. The tempter proceeds, oh so cleverly, to erode her fundamental orientation toward God and succeeds in getting her to shift her focus. Instead of seeking the divine giver, she now grasps at the enticing gifts.
The devil’s tactics in the Gospel are very similar. Jesus has just had a powerful experience, at his baptism, of being filled with the Spirit and knowing in a profound way that he is God’s beloved Son (Mt 3:17). It is this very sense of his identity that the tempter tries to undermine. First, the devil holds out this seductive image: surely the beloved Son is entitled to have all his hungers satisfied. Quoting Dt 8:3, Jesus instead focuses on his hunger for the word of God. Throughout the Gospel, we see him feeding God’s hungry people with both physical and spiritual food (Mt 5:1–7:29; 14:13-21; 15:32-39; 26:26-30).
Next is the temptation to believe that if Jesus is truly the beloved Son, God would never let any harm come to him. God’s angels would swoop down and rescue him before any danger could befall him. Again Jesus turns to the Scriptures, which enable him to recognize the falsity in the claim of the tempter. A third time the devil tries to derail Jesus’ centeredness on God as the source of all power and the one deserving of worship. Yet again, Jesus clings to the word of God to overcome the wiles of the tempter.
Finally the devil departs when Jesus commands, “Get away from me, Satan!” But not for long. The temptations circle back again and again, as variations on the same theme. Midway through the Gospel we again hear Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan!” (16:23), when he is tempted by Peter to reject suffering as integral to his identity as beloved Son. Right to the end, as Jesus is dying on the cross, the devil’s words are echoed by the passersby: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (27:40). The chief priests, scribes and the elders chant the same: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to, for he said, ‘I am God’s son’” (27:43).
Finally, the bandits who were crucified with him taunt him the same way (27:44). Yet again on the cross, Jesus turns to the Scriptures and prayer to stay solidly grounded in his identity as God’s beloved Son. The words of Psalm 22 sustain him through the challenges that try to undermine his expectations of how God would care for him. The final verse of today’s Gospel assures us that just as God’s angels accompanied Jesus in his ordeals, so we are never abandoned in times of trial.