First Sunday of Lent: Testing or trusting God?

First Sunday of Lent: Testing or trusting God?

Tonight, at Mass & Vespers in Oxford, the Blackfriars schola will sing ‘Ne irascaris, Domine’ by Byrd. The motet has been pre-recorded specially for Godzdogz. 

Every year, on the First Sunday of Lent, we hear the account of Jesus being tempted in the desert.  This time, it’s from the Gospel according to St Matthew, and the passage is probably very familiar to you. But the temptations might seem a bit odd and even disconnected from our own daily lives. Who among us is really tempted to turn stones into bread, to jump off large religious buildings, or to conquer the world? Well, sometimes conquering the world does sound like an attractive idea! But under the cold light of day, such dramatic notions are alien to us. They must have deeper levels of meaning, and you can explore them in many places, including previous posts on this blog!
But there is another strange and striking aspect that suggests we need to find a deeper meaning: I mean, the shortness of the dialogue between Jesus and the Devil. We hear Jesus quote Scripture, but no further explanation is given. For example, in overcoming the second temptation, which is to throw himself from the top of the Temple and experience a miraculous rescue, Jesus replies that one must not put God to the test
I can easily understand why we shouldn’t be testing God all the time, as this would suggest an immaturity of faith and a deep insecurity on our part. But don’t we have good reasons to test God some of the time, especially when we feel we are the ones being tested by the difficult struggles in our lives? What I mean is, when life is putting us to the test, isn’t it legitimate to ask God for help, to tell God to share some of our struggle with us, and so to put God to the test in return? After all, we are supposed to ask God for things, even small daily necessities. ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ Why didn’t Jesus ask for bread in the desert (or, since he is God, just create bread on the spot)? Why didn’t he ask his Father to provide him with his ‘daily bread’, as we do in the prayer that Jesus himself taught us?
You may have noticed that I’ve transposed the command about testing God from the second temptation (jumping off the Temple) to the first temptation (making bread). But I have good Scriptural reasons for doing so, and I think we should explore the underlying unity between the three replies given by Our Lord.
To find this unity we have to delve into the Old Testament. In the episode immediately following the Temptation in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will preach to the crowds the Sermon on the Mount, where he is revealed to be a new Moses. Indeed, he is the divine Lawgiver. And this fact has already been shown in the desert, where the parallels with Moses are clear. Moses had fasted forty days and forty nights on the mountain of the Lord, just before receiving the Ten Commandments, or ‘ten words’ (Ex. 24:18, 34:28). Jesus, the new Moses, is undergoing his own period of fasting and trial, before going to the people of Israel to preach the words of God. Here in the desert, he reveals his mastery of the Word of God, because he is that Word, he himself is the fullest revelation of God.

Poussin, Moses striking water from the rock

 In his second reply, Jesus says, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”‘ (Mt 4:7) He is quoting from the Torah: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.’ (Dt 6:16) And why is Massah cited as the archetypal place of testing and disobedience? We need to look at that passage in Exodus (17:2) to find the answer: ‘they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”‘ This immediately follows the episode of the manna and quails in the desert, when the people grumbled against Moses and against God, demanding to be fed. And God provided a feast in the desert. So God sometimes provides despite our putting him to the test.

There is an historical Psalm which summarises this whole episode very well:

Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
He smote the rock so that water gushed out

and streams overflowed.

Can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?”
(Ps 78:17-20)

 And here is the odd thing: are we being told that asking for daily food was an offence against God? That can’t be quite right, since Jesus tells us to pray, ‘Give us today our daily bread’ (Mt 6:11). Moreover, Scripture tells us that God provides ‘bread to strengthen man’s heart’ (Ps 104:15), and that ‘every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights’ (Jas 1:17).

The answer is provided when we look behind Jesus’ first reply in today’s gospel. In refusing to create bread, he refers to another passage in Deuteronomy (8:3), which teaches total reliance on God alone, explicitly in the context of asking for daily bread. ‘He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’

Poussin, The Jews gathering the Manna in the Desert

And here we see the link with Jesus’ third reply, too. Total reliance on God alone means trusting him as the Author of Life, who in his Providence cares for us with an infinite love. Jesus tells the Devil, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ (Mt 4:10) We must love and serve God wholeheartedly. We must trust him, not test him.

This is not an option. It is absolutely required by the commandment to love God and serve him alone. The command not to put God to the test, which we read a moment ago, actually comes in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, in the context of what Jesus would later tell us is the greatest commandment of all, that is, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ (Dt 6:5, cf. Mt 22:37)

In putting love at the centre, we see that Jesus’ three replies to the Devil are a seamless whole. They are underpinned by the same logic. We can and should ask our daily bread from God. Our request is not a test but an act of trust. It is an act of love. And this means that we have to accept those times when we don’t get everything we want. There is a time for feasting and a time for fasting. In his own fast, Jesus shows us how to trust the Father. And that is exactly what Lent is about.

Matthew Jarvis OP

Fr Matthew Jarvis is currently studying Patristics at the Catholic University of Lyon.

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