Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted there by the devil for forty days. During that time he ate nothing and at the end he was hungry. Then the devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Scripture says: Man does not live on bread alone.’
Then leading him to a height, the devil showed him in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, ‘I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms, for it has been committed to me and I give it to anyone I choose. Worship me, then, and it shall all be yours.’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’
Then he led him to Jerusalem and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said to him, ‘throw yourself down from here, for Scripture says: He will put his angels in charge of you to guard you, and again: They will hold you up on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’
But Jesus answered him, ‘It has been said: You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Having exhausted all these ways of tempting him, the devil left him to return at the appointed time.
Each year, the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent recounts the temptations of Jesus in the desert. St. Luke’s temptation narrative plots the course of Jesus’ ministry. At question is the nature of his mission: what kind of Messiah will he be? Satan attempts to detour Jesus from the path of suffering to one of earthly power (4:6) and sensationalism (4:9-10). His final effort to tempt Jesus brings them to Jerusalem (4:9), which anticipates Passion Week and the defeat of sin by the Cross.
The duration of Jesus’ fast is forty days. Luke seems to affirm that it was absolute, i.e., that Jesus abstained from all food and drink for forty days and nights. The number 40 is symbolic of probation and testing in the Bible. It is linked with the flood (Gen. 7:4), Moses’ fast on Mt Sinai (Ex 34:28), Israel’s journey in the desert (Deut. 8:2), Elijah’s fasting (1 kings 19:8), and Ninevah’s opportunity to repent at the preaching of Jonah (Jon. 3:4).
The first of Satan’s temptations was directed against Jesus’ flesh; the second sought to ignite pride; the third to stir a passion for power. All three failed as Satan was yet unaware of Christ’s divinity. “To return at the appointed time” (4:13): The devil’s defeat is as yet incomplete. He will continue fighting against God’s kingdom and will again tempt Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is depicted in the opening scene of The Passion of the Christ. Luke’s Gospel makes a number of references to the influences of evil, especially on the night of the Last Supper “Satan entered into Judas” (22:3) and “this is the reign of darkness” (22:53).
Allegorically, according to St. Ambrose (Commentary on Luke), Christ goes into the wilderness to rescue humanity from its exile in sin. Since the great fall recorded in Genesis, humanity has languished in the desert of spiritual death, cut off from paradise. Christ pursues humanity in the desert to wrest it from the grip of evil.
Just as Jesus’ 40 days in the desert served as a preparation for his mission, ministry and suffering it serves as a model for the way in which our Lenten journey can be a time of or spiritual renewal and preparation for true Christian discipleship.