The Temptation of Christ

If we are serious Catholics, we must recognize that our Faith calls us to acknowledge a much-disliked and disputed doctrine: the Fall. The teaching, in the words of Paul, is that “By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).

The doctrine of original sin says that what is wrong with the human race is something like a birth defect. Our fallenness consists not of something Adam and Eve gave us, but of something they didn’t give us: a relationship of union with God that should have been there but isn’t. The result is that we are born with a hole in our soul where God should be, but isn’t.

How our race got this way is recounted in the tragic story of Genesis 3. An enormous number of people still imagine the Fall was basically tantamount to the discovery of sex. This naive Pleasantville version of history fancies Eve got in touch with her sexuality, seduced Adam and that God (ever the prude) got mad about this display of animal passion and threw them out. A quick reality check, however, shows the folly of this. For God is the character in the creation story whose first command is an enthusiastic “Be fruitful and multiply!” If God is so hung up on sex, He has a funny way of showing it.

Nope, the problem in Genesis is not sex, it’s Pride. Adam and Eve fall prey to the central lie of the Serpent: “Eat this, it’ll make you gods!” and they, being good consumers, buy it hook, line, and sinker. They gulp down the lie and discover the “wisdom” that they are but dust.

The devil, being a liar, tries the exact opposite tactic with God incarnate in Matthew 4. Just as he tried to get our First Parents to deny their creatureliness and be gods, so he tries to get God to deny his deity and settle for being a creature. Three times he says to Jesus “If you are the Son of God…”

As with Eve, Satan makes his first appeal, not through sex, but through the stomach. He tries first to get Jesus to turn stones to bread. (It is, by the way, notable that food, not sex, is regarded in Scripture as centrally significant in the fall (the Apple), in temptation (stones made bread) and in redemption (the Eucharist). But then food, not sexual pleasure, is the most fundamental sign of our dependence. Without it, we die. If it is a poisoned Apple, we grow sick. If it is the Bread of Life, we live.)

Failing this first temptation, Old Scratch turns up the heat. If a full belly won’t do the trick, what about fame and the chance of a guest shot as “Amazing Messiah Man and His Death-Defying Temple Jump”? The devil even makes an appeal to Scripture this time, assuring Jesus that this isn’t really about self-aggrandizement. Nosiree, it’s noble and pious, doncha know.

Still no dice.

So Satan pulls out the stops. Here is a Son of Adam. So the Sinmeister falls back on the tried and true and makes a naked appeal to the root of Adam’s fallenness: Pride. He offers to make Jesus King of the World with all the gold, guns and girls he could ask for. It is a classic Faustian bargain: Jesus’ soul in exchange for everything a selfish soul could want. “Think of the good you could do with that sort of power,” whispers the Tempter, “What will be accomplished by this futile course of action?” Poverty-stricken, hungry, obscure, living a zillion miles from the bright center of the Empire, faced with the certain knowledge of an arduous and lonely future capped by an incredibly painful betrayal and death at the hands of the Best Authorities, Jesus nonetheless refuses.

In so doing, he signals the first break in the monotony of human history since the fall. For here finally is Man and God in union: Someone who actually lives out the command of Deuteronomy to “Do homage to the Lord your God and adore him alone.” (Deut. 6:13). In contrast to Adam, who sought to be God and found he was dust, the Son of Man seeks to be dust for us and is revealed as God so that “as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Roman 5:19).


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