Lent is a time to prepare for spiritual transformation, whether this will be signified by the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil or by other rites and signs of conversion. But in order to prepare for transformation one must turn back to God. This is not easy, and those who have turned back to God sometimes feel the mysterious tug of evil, simultaneously so repellent and attractive.
In Exodus, the people of Israel, while enslaved in Egypt, turn to God in their suffering: “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (2:23-25). In Chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses presents this same event to the people at the end of their long journey from slavery and wandering in the wilderness, recalling that “when the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” The starting point for the liberation of the Israelites is the cry to God. There were, though, numerous temptations throughout these 40 years, during which the Israelites, including Moses personally, stumbled. But Israel continued to get up and turn back to God.
Jesus, on the other hand, is presented in Luke as offering perfect resistance to wilderness temptation. Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days, to be tempted by the devil,” a time period meant to recall the 40 years the Israelites, led into the desert by God, stumbled and grumbled while wandering. The temptations the devil presents to Jesus in Luke’s narrative mirror realities that tempt us all. The devil tempts Jesus during his fasting with bread, the promise of earthly power and glory, and his own self-reliance by reciting words from the very source to which Jesus will turn to resist them—God’s word.
Each time Jesus is tempted he turns to Scripture and finds his spiritual sustenance in passages precisely from the time of the Israelites’ wandering and stumbling. When tempted by bread, he cites Dt 8:3, where Moses explains that reliance on manna taught the Israelites not to rely on bread alone but to be fed “by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” When offered power and glory if only he would worship the king of this world, Jesus turns to Dt 6:4-13 to stress the unique worship of God. The devil then cites Scripture back at Jesus (Ps 91:11-12), challenging and taunting him to put God to the test, to see if God is truly there for him. Jesus resists the temptation to use Scripture not as a sign of dependence upon God, but to satisfy his doubts. He cites Deuteronomy a third time—“do not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:16)—exhibiting his willingness to wait on God’s plan and not to substitute his own schemes, a lesson drawn from the wandering of the Israelites in the desert.
Jesus’ unique character and being allow him never to turn away from God, even in the face of stark temptation. He grounds his defiance of the devil, though, in the example of the lessons learned through the failings and persistence of the Israelites. They both become for us perfect models. The fact that the Scripture passages cited by Jesus all come from the time of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert indicates that those lessons ought to remain a model for us, as they did for Jesus. In the face of temptation, one turns away from sin and turns back to God. One turns back to the events in which God raised up and sustained those who stumbled; one turns back to the Scriptures, which tell us to cry out to the Lord.
Spiritual transformation, though, is tricky business, and we may wish that our cry to the Lord would stick and that temptations and our willingness to indulge them would finally end. Yet our own stumbles, like those of the Israelites, make us no less worthy to call on God and turn back to him, again and again. John W. Martens