It’s not often that we benefit from the devil’s actions, but this Sunday’s gospel reading shows him doing us a great favor. Indirectly, by trying to goad Jesus into several acts of selfish pride, we actually learn important lessons in prayer. Jesus’ 40 days in the desert turned into a master class in prayer, and the devil’s temptations provided high-resolution illustrations.
The temptation in each case is designed to appeal to mankind’s tendencies toward gluttony, greed and pride.
“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 with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone,’ the devil stated. Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Weakened as Jesus was by 40 days of deprivation, the devil’s invitations to enjoy a full meal, some luxury and a bit of catering were designed to be irresistible. Instead of being led into temptation, however, this experience gave Jesus the raw materials to teach humanity how to pray. “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil” not only became the closing of the most important prayer of all time, but it gave humanity the recipe for talking freely, directly and intimately with Our Father.
After the last temptation of Christ in the desert, not only did Jesus remind Satan that we should never put God to the test, but he taught all of humanity to ask God to spare us from the kind of testing he knew we couldn’t survive alone. Following his time in the desert, Jesus never performed a miracle without praying first. He knew the source of his power and wanted all witnesses to know it too. That includes us.
Our first and second readings prove the long tradition Jesus was following, dating back to another trial in the desert when Moses lead the Israelites out of slavery (Dt 26:4-10):
“When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and he heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.”
Paul echoes the scriptural call to prayer in his letter to the Romans (Rom 10:8-13), reminding them and us:
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. … Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The message of Lent is “Prepare through prayer.” That’s what Christ did for 40 days in the desert. Following that, through the miracles of his public life, he taught us that nothing great can happen without a good soul searching. After all, that is where you will find God.