When examining the temptations that Christ faced in the Desert we must consider how the devil was attempting to deceive and attack Christ. We sometimes read these temptations in a very superficial or worldly sense, but fail to examine the deeper and more profound implications. I would like to reflect on one particular temptation that Christ faced, and that is turning a rock into bread.
We all know that Christ was being tempted in the way of food because he had been fasting. But should we not go a bit deeper into this reflection than mere hunger? First of all, why was Christ fasting in the first place? What is the point of fasting?
According to the opening prayer during Ash Wednesday we are armed with the weapons of “self-restraint.” In a nutshell we are learning how to say “no” to our desires. But this seems prudish and repressive to most. Could it possibly mean all of that, or is there a deeper meaning to fasting that few realize. Many see fasting as an outdated archaic practice, but in other facets of their life where they fast from other things than food it is quite practical. Some people attend a gym, experiencing a certain amount of pain that enables their health to be maintained and to develop. That pain, or act of self-denial is similar to that of fasting. Fasting inordinately (starving oneself to the point of death) is likely not the reason why Christians fast; rather it is learning to build up interior muscles that are able to later deny irrational desires. In other words, when we are developing an ability to say no, we end up being spiritually liberated to say “yes” to something good.
Only perceiving the “no” of fasting will likely lead to a daunting exercise that seems to have no real point. But we ought to emphasize that our ability to say “no” is univocally giving us the capacity to say “yes” in a meaningful way – and it is this principle that makes love genuine.
But if a person were to only perceive food to be what man hungers for, and gluttony to be the enemy he would have an incomplete picture of the spiritual meaning of this temptation. He would be led to believe that the greatest good is to make sure that all poor persons are fed, and that this is the resolution to all the world’s problems. While seeking the temporal needs of the poor is most certainly a Christian theme, we must regard the words of Christ in this sense to add caution: “Man does not live on bread alone.” You notice that Christ is not speaking only of Himself, but directly applying it to others. How we view ourselves affects how we view others. Therefore the devil definitely seeking to attack Christ’s ministry here, by first getting Him to seek earthly bread before spiritual goods.
If we are enslaved to worldly goods, thinking that our happiness can be contained within them alone, we develop a temporal notion of utopia, and concern ourselves with structures and governments, and activism, while being entirely blind to conversion and the inner-man. To think that a structure can bring peace to the world is no less silly than building a tower of Babel to cross the great divide between heaven and earth.
The darkened mind of an individual has begun to assume that through such activism and structures man will overcome his corrupt activities; but so long as man’s heart is ruled by greed, it won’t take very long for him to realize that a structure that supports the poor, run by the greedy, will end up reversing over time the very goals they sought to achieve.
None of this is to say that adequate structures (political or otherwise) must not be created, but it is to suggest that more primary concerns are involved before we do the work of Christian humanism. Politics is not the lens through which we judge injustice – rather it is one of the many tools we utilize to bring about conformity to justice. But politics and temporal efforts are limited, which is why our saviour, when tempted to become a king of many nations, declined. He understood that the problem in the world was not reducible to politics and structures, but required faith to truly redeem mankind’s ensnared soul. Christian humanism first recognizes the spiritual poverty of man, that if he has no love, he has nothing. That is to say that if the world is well fed, comfortable, rich, and not found wanting in any temporal sense, yet doesn’t have love, it is horrendously poor in the things that matter.
Christ taught us that the poor will always be amongst us. This of course was not meant to mute or detract from those organizations that seek to feed the poor and hungry. Rather, it is in this recognition that the poor will providentially belong to history in every generation as a means to save the rich person’s soul. God has permitted evil, such as the marginalization of the poor, to provide a means for the rich to deny themselves. If man was distracted by a worldly type of utopia he may grow numb to the inner-voice that cries out, “My heart is restless until it rests in the Lord.” Out sinful nature is often left suppressed or dormant when we live in comfort, and thus is rarely given a chance to be redeemed, if we stay within such a lavish prison cell.
This is why the Church has perpetually criticized Marxism which has an entirely superficial attitude towards the redemption of manknind, placing before him apolitical structure that originally seeks to snuff out all religion to numb the very conscious desire for eternal happiness. When man thinks that he will find a full and complete happiness on earth, he is eventually run into the ground with despair, since all the corruptible goods he holds to for happiness naturally fade away. He is holding on to vanity, to “air” that is rather vacuous. Mankind needs to cling to the spiritual goods that endure, ready to leave behind all possessions, not merely for the sake of serving the poor, but for the sake of entering into the Kingdom, where no idolatry of worldly things will be found so that we may possess, absolutely, the vision and divine substance of God.
Here we develop a distinction between voluntary poverty which is modeled after Christ, his disciples and the Religious brothers and sisters who have accepted such a call, versus the imposed poverty that is always the result of a moral corruption and negligence. Voluntary poverty works to evangelize the masses because it asserts vividly that happiness need not be found in the worldly mindset, but is found when we sacrifice all things for God. This places a vivid sign of contradiction to the world who has become addicted to money and power, and honour and pleasure. This is why it is vital for such religious persons to smile, to demonstrate their own joy, so as to be an effective sign for peace in the things promised to us by God. On the other hand, we do not wish for the religious to demonstrate such a demeanour if it suggests condoning the evil that surrounds them. They also need to be a voice of discontent with the evil and injustice throughout the world, and especially in the Church. It is a tough balance of course, and it is certain that we need to bare with one another patiently in this regard.
Therefore, it is by clinging to the words that come from the mouth of God that we find true peace and redemption, and it is out of that peace and clear conscience that we begin to serve the poor in their need. I would like to add that the preferential option is for both the young and the poor – there is no distinction made between them, because they are both in a state of dependency with which this preference has been drawn up; recognizing that if others depend upon us, it is the result of a responsibility we have as human beings who do not live in a spiritual isolation from one another.
Returning back to the first temptation, we realize that the temptation in this particular episode reveals to us that the Devil was doing more than merely tempt the fleshy desires of our saviour, but rather to change the very mission of Christ from a Divine-Mission to a worldly mission. The Evil One wanted to derail Christ’s agenda by replacing the Bread from Heaven with ordinary bread. Of course this would be incredibly tempting, who would not want to resolve world hunger by one simple miracle? But Christ understood a deeper and more profound hunger which insisted upon tolerating the evil of world poverty for a time to bring about the nourishing of the souls of those who sought out God. This in no way, again implies that we must not serve those in need, those who are poor, but it reminds us that to do this without love, without the very presence of Divine Love, is to accomplish nothing at all. It also makes sense out of how these temptations prepared Christ for His ministry. After all, it was after he fed the thousands that they got excited, wanting to make him a worldly King, uniting the two temptations together, whereby the masses themselves thought that their salvation was rooted in a political saviour who could keep them well fed.