In the previous article we reflected on the “times of emptiness” that precede the entrance of God in the lives of those destined to be His friends. The catch was scarce for Peter and his fellow fishermen until Jesus finished weaving the lesson they had to learn. Then everything changed, Jesus instructs them to cast their nets and the resulting catch is greater that any of them had expected.
Notice now how the Lord instructs Israel in this passage of Deuteronomy. The Israelites have wandered for forty years in the wilderness, and they are now preparing to enter the Promised Land. This is a good scripture to consider during Lent because one generation of Israelites have wandered apparently aimlessly for a long time while they learned to trust in God with their eyes shut. If we consider Israel as a body we would see that the old members who did not trust God were left between Egypt and the Promised Land. For them that “time of emptiness” consumed their lives. When these words of Moses were pronounced the surviving generation are getting ready to take Canaan and transform it into Israel.
Israel means “The fight belongs to the Lord,” a supreme lesson of confidence in battle condensed in one word. It is interesting to consider that Israel was the name given to Jacob, a play of words on the word “trickster,” literally meaning “He grasps the heel, the supplanter.” Jacob had to learn to trust in God instead of trusting in his own devices. He died an exile in Egypt but his many descendants, the tribes of Jacob, are now returning to Canaan after growing strong through trials and adversity. Before they cross the Jordan though, they must endure temptation. The parallels are fascinating. At the end of this passage there is a call for mercy when God says: “And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” The Lord invites the people to be generous with those who keep the sacred duties (the Church) and also with “the sojourner.” Israel has an opportunity to be merciful with the foreigner passing by, or those forced to seek refuge among the blessed people of God. This reminder happens often in the Old Testament and it is always tied to the dispensing of more blessings to the believers who must remember, “we were brick makers in the land of Egypt” and “my father was a wandering Aramean.” The people of God must imitate and be an instrument of God’s mercy.
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” Deuteronomy 26:1-11
The Message of Salvation to All
The following text is from St Paul. He reminds us of the generosity of God by pointing at the greatest gift we receive from Him: our faith through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The blessings originally bestowed on Israel are now freely available to the whole world, Jew or Greek, woman or man, rich or poor. Like in the case of Jacob/Israel, the name of Jesus contains the meaning of His mission: “Yeshua, the LORD is salvation.”
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” — Romans 10:5-13
The Temptation of Jesus
To lead us into the final Promised Land, the Kingdom of the Heavens, Christ must show us by example how to endure and survive the perils of the journey. In fact all of the patriarchs and heroes of the Old Testament are models of some of the qualities of Jesus, each one a lesson for us who must live at the end of the age.
Our first lesson is baptism. Jesus comes to John the Baptist to begin his ministry on earth by the Jordan River, the same river the Israelites had to cross to get to the Promised Land. In fact the crossing of the Jordan by Israel prefigures the Christian Sacrament of Baptism. Examine carefully what happens.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
First, Jesus humbly submits to baptism by John although Jesus is a perfect person who needs no cleansing or repentance because, as John the Baptist himself recognized, Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Heavens are opened showing that those who follow Jesus into this “crossing the waters” will be able to follow Him to Heaven one day. The impossible task of “ascending to Heaven” described by St Paul in Romans 10 is now an invitation.
Then something even more amazing happens, the Holy Spirit descends on Him like a dove. Now the word “dove” in Hebrew is יוֹנָה (pronounced yoh-náh) which connects this scene to the prophet Jonah, a holy man who was used by God to prefigure Jesus’ resurrection! Remember that after Christ’s resurrection, in the Pentecost, God made the Holy Spirit descend upon the whole Church reunited in the “upper room” which is itself a figure of the heavenly destiny of the militant Church. But what really impresses me is the end of the scene.
God talks in a thunder and says: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Remember David, the man “after God’s own heart”? That is of course a man “well pleasing to God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22) Well, the name of David in Hebrew means “beloved” דָּוִד so this phrase could also be roughly translated as: “this is my son David, who is after my own heart.” The whole scene is a mysterious sign confirming to the wise that this man is the Messiah, the Son of David who comes to claim his throne promised to his ancestors in ages past. Yet even the wisest in Israel could not possibly imagine that their future King, the Messiah, had to endure a life of trials and temptation just like King David. They do not know that He is from Heaven, voluntarily exiled among sinful men to complete the most important mission in History: the redemption of the human race.
And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’” And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. — Luke 4:1-13
Now the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness so He can be tempted by the devil. This contains three basic temptations which we can consider at a time. The first is hunger because Jesus was fasting for forty days, just as the Israelites were eating manna in the wilderness for forty years. Hunger is one of the most powerful urges. It is at the center of human survival instincts. After forty days one can imagine Jesus’ body sending a strong signal “find something to eat, death by starvation is near!” The devil suggests to turn some stones into bread but he adds a challenge: “if you are the Son of God …” That implies that ‘perhaps Jesus is only a pretender who is not divine.’ The devil appeals to pride, he demands a personal sign of authenticity just as the Pharisees would demand later during Jesus’ ministry. (Matthew 16:1-4) But Jesus answers partially quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 which is a reminder of Israel’s experience in the wilderness.
“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
At the end of the age, when Jesus has almost finished fixing this troubled world, God promised that there will be hunger — not for bread — but for the Word of God:
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land — not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 8:11)
Satisfying hunger in this case represents the seeking of pleasure as a way of life. During this Lenten time, we can meditate on how “the Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness,” a place where it is hard to find anything to please the senses. The mortification of our sensual appetites is thus presented here as a source of life. Later on Jesus will chastise those who seek Him “to be filled with bread” (John 6:26) and will urge his followers to seek “the Bread of Life” that is Himself, the Logos, the Word of God. (John 6:35-40) We must hunger for Jesus, He is our manna, our “bread of Life.”
In the second temptation the devil takes Jesus up to a high place and shows Him his possessions, the kingdoms of the Earth. Those are all the kingdoms that were and will be except the Kingdom of God. The devil’s deal is simple: “I will give you this if you worship me once.” Those kingdoms may have been presented as attractively as the devil could but he knows very well that they are an empire of dead people, carcasses moving about waiting for the hour of death. Those kingdoms also have a limit in space and time, they are only of this world, and they are tied to futility. They will come to nothing one day when the Kingdom of God comes. (Isaiah 40:15; Daniel 2:44) Jesus rejects this not-so-tempting offer of kingdoms filled with slums and dead people. He reminds the devil of the First Commandment in Exodus 20:3 repeated in Deuteronomy 6:13.
From that high place the devil takes Jesus even higher, to the roof of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This is a very useful image because it reveals the true aim of the wicked. See a very clear progression: in the first temptation he intends to desecrate the body and mind; in the second temptation he aims to sever the relationship of man and God; in the third temptation the devil wants to use man to desecrate the Temple of the Almighty. It is a crazy path because it cannot possibly succeed. Yet it is useful for us to see his intentions and understand how he will try to corrupt the Church, the temple of God, because he could not corrupt the Heavens.
We must understand though that his efforts may succeed with some individuals, even with members of the high hierarchy, but God will turn all that around and the result will be a cleansing of the Church that will make her even more holy. Just as the Israelites left a disobedient generation in the wilderness, before crossing to the final Promised Land, the Church must be purified in the crucible of persecution and other temptations. We are protected, God cares for us but we must trust in Him even if we falter under our own Cross. We do not demand special signs nor we do put God to the test to “make sure” He won’t fail. We trust with all our heart even beyond the edge of the cliff, even in the middle of the wilderness. Temptations and trials will come to an end one day but once we are done with them, the mercy of God and His love know no bounds with those He loves. That is why this scripture ends with such a wonderful image: “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to Him.” (Matthew 4:11) No matter how bitter the test, angels are waiting at the other side. Trust.
My Refuge and My Fortress
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
For He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
— Psalm 90 (91)