Jean-Marie Faux, SJ
The Gospels tell us that after his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the devil. Matthew (4, 1-11) features a triple temptation and a threefold response by Jesus. By reading this story today, at a time when we keenly perceive the excesses of our civilisations and the threats they pose to the future of our world, it seems at times that the temptations closely reflect such abuses, and that the answers of Jesus, in their simple wisdom, show the way how to deal with such threats and abuses. His responses open a path of life.
”Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The desire to have, to possess and still to possess more is a permanent temptation of humans. We can state that neo-capitalist globalisation finds its engine here. The desire, implemented, widens the inequality between regions and within each country, between rich and poor, and it depletes the planet’s resources.
”Man shall not live by bread alone.” Jesus’ answer reminds us that there are other things in life than those that can be bought. It is an invitation to what we might call the choice of voluntary simplicity. Such a choice of moderating our needs, which indeed requires an asceticism, remains primarily a positive choice: to rediscover the human realities of relationship, grace, of a simple life, and, by force of this recovered taste, to withstand the pressures on the environmental and to reinvent other ways of living.
”Throw yourself down from the temple.” To be able to do everything, always to push back the limits of human knowledge and power; the warning signs are multiplying today. Not only does our greed exhaust the limited resources of our planet, our rash boldness threatens it.
”You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Jesus leads the human being back to truth. All that is scientifically and technically feasible, is not in the same way good; technical capacity is not the absolute criterion of human action. Beyond a simple caution, what arises is the question of meaning. Jesus’ response may evoke the discussion about sustainable development or, more radically, prosperity without growth. The distinction between what is possible, beneficial, and necessary and what lies beyond the possibilities of the world and destroys it, engages our political responsibility which itself is based on the social engagement of all citizens. It operates ultimately on the level of fundamental life choices, of what we might call spirituality.
”All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” The last temptation is one of power, of omnipotence. The tempter presents himself as the world’s master, who disposes of all kingdoms. To worship him would mean ultimately to worship power itself, the supreme idol. Precisely here we find an idolatry, the most dangerous of all.
”You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Jesus’ response puts the human being in the right place. Whatever his rank or the extent of someone’s power, the earth does not belong to the powerful. Created by God, the world is entrusted to human persons. All power is primarily a task, a responsibility to serve the common good. The management of the common good is a political task and political power receives its legitimacy from the citizens’ vote, as its decisions are to be citizens’ will. However, the common good cannot be determined by the modes of democratic choice, whether for any specific society or for society globally. In this way, we are led back to the most precious dimension of ourselves, to our consciousness. The idolatry of power is confronted with the responsibility of human consciousness.
In rejecting the threefold temptation to have, to act omnipotently, and to dominate, Jesus reveals the truth of human existence. The contemporary reading we have proposed for this story implies our responsibility to find new ways of living and governing: voluntary simplicity, the stewardship of human knowledge, the acceptance in solidarity of the common good.
Jean Marie Faux, SJ, born in 1923, is a team member of Centre Avec, a Jesuit research centre for social sciences in Brussels,Belgium. He was Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Institut d’Études Théologiques in Egenhoven-Leuven and Brussels.