Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflects the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly matters in human life. At the heart of all temptations is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.
Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover to speak for true realism: what’s real is what is right there in front of us – power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.
God is the issue: Is he real or is he not? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence. What must the Savior of the world do or not do? That is the question the temptations of Jesus are about.
Jesus “fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt 4, 2). In Jesus’ day the number forty was already filled with rich symbolism for Israel. First, it recalls Israel’s forty years’ wandering in the desert, a period in which the people were both tempted and enjoyed a special closeness to God. The forty days and nights also remind us of the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai before he received the Word of God, the Sacred Tablets of the Covenant. They may also serve as a reminder of the rabbinic tale of how Abraham spent forty days and forty nights on the way to Mount Horeb, where he was to sacrifice his son, and how during that time he neither ate nor drank anything and nourished himself on the vision and words of the angel who accompanied him. The Fathers of the Church, stretching number symbolism and regarded ‘forty’ as a cosmic number, as the numerical sign for this world. The four “corners” encompass the whole world, and ten is the number of the Commandments. The number of the cosmos multiplied by the number of the Commandments becomes a symbolic statement about the history of this world as a whole. It is as if Jesus were re-living Israel’s Exodus, and then re-living the chaotic meanderings of history in general; the forty days of fasting embrace the drama of history, which Jesus takes into himself and bears all the way through to the end.