The fasting of Lent likely made practical sense in the past, when food supplies were limited. On any given day, a town’s marketplace had staples for a day or maybe two. Gluttons with money could easily deprive others of necessities. If all were to eat, all had to exercise restraint. In the springtime especially, when winter stores were depleted but new crops had not matured, fasting was necessary. Springtime hunger was part of the natural order of life, and many concluded thereby that it was God’s will.
You will call me, “My Father,” and never turn away from me. (Jer 3:19)
What is God’s dream for you?
Which of your talents or resources can you turn over to serve that dream?
Modern technology and farming practices ensure that people in the developed world have an uninterrupted supply of food. This has obscured an important aspect of Lenten practice. In fasting, we no longer accommodate ourselves to God’s will in a way that ensures enough food for all. In fact, Lenten “fasting” can come to serve our own will. We might have good intentions—trying to give up vices like smoking or excessive online entertainment—but the deeper meaning of Lenten fasting, to follow the will of God, is lost.
In our Gospel today, Jesus sharpens our awareness of true fasting. Satan tempts Jesus three times to use his divine gifts to serve himself. Three times Jesus responds by placing himself and his gifts at the service of the Father’s mission. Taking his example, we can use the fasting, prayer and almsgiving of Lent to serve whatever mission God has given us.
Matthew’s Gospel this week contains a subtle but important theological point. In Jesus, Israel—and by extension, all humanity—fulfills its side of the covenant. Matthew uses the desert setting to evoke Israel’s time in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. At Sinai, God called Israel to be a divine child, and Israel promised to abide by God’s will in all things. Matthew believed, as did many in his day, that no generation had lived up to this promise completely. In ways large and small, Israel had fallen to Satan’s relentless testing. God’s mercy is abundant, and Israel was always given another chance, but even after centuries, the covenant remained unfulfilled.
Jesus passed the test. At every turn he resists the temptation to use his power for himself. Each response to Satan represents a surrender to the will of God. “If I am going to eat, it is because God gives the food. If I am going to fly, it is because God will lift me up. If I am going to rule, it is because God will set me on a throne.” Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses his God-given power in exactly these ways but always for the service of the Father’s mission and never for his own gain or glory. In Jesus, Israel becomes the child God hoped for.
What Jesus shows us this week is that God’s will must be paramount in all things, even those over which we feel control or autonomy. During the season of Lent, we fast, pray and give alms not to become better people, but to remind ourselves that our gifts and resources come from God and are meant to be spent in the service of others.