First Sunday of Lent: Testing or trusting 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:
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.