It’s nice to be a priest on Valentine’s Day. It’s very economical. It hasn’t always been that way.
The number three has a very prominent place in the Gospels. Jesus rose from the dead on the 3rd day. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Jesus later asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” to the point of exasperating Peter, causing him to say to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” These are known as Peter’s three confessions of faith drawn out of him by the Risen Lord, overturning his three denials. And the conversation ends with Jesus saying to Peter three times, “Feed and tend my sheep.”
There were three places where Jesus received nails through his body when crucified. Scripture tells us it took Jesus about three hours to die once on the Cross, with his death taking place around 3:00 in the afternoon before sundown. So, there are lots of three’s used for both symbolism and reality.
But all these differ greatly from today’s three; the three temptations of the devil directed at Jesus. Peter certainly had the devil in him when he denied knowing Jesus in the presence of his accusers: ‘You’re one of those Galileans who is with him.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” “I am not!” “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Peter denied it. “That was my twin brother, not me!” Lies, lies, and more lies. Then the cock crowed. The Devil had a victory. But Peter, unlike Judas, repents and finds forgiveness with his Lord and Master. Peter had a Lent, whereas Judas did not. The head Apostle threw the Devil out of his soul. Even though the Devil came so close to sifting Peter like wheat, he overcame the Devil by being open to God’s mercy and grace. A good spiritual teaching for all of us this Lent.
But this three today is on a whole different level. This is like Coke vs. Pepsi. UPS vs. Fed-Ex. Red Sox vs. the Yankees. This is an encounter in the desert between two big wigs, where what takes place is so far above our spiritual pay grade. Yet, it is also very, very close to us.
The Devil’s first attempt is to corrupt Jesus through his hunger pains. Not eating for 40 days in the desert will create hunger pains. Jesus basically tells the true Corrupter that there are many more foods to enjoy besides bread. Man does live on bread alone. God’s generosity is bountiful and varied.
At the heart of this temptation by the Devil cast upon the Son of God is the Devil’s wickedness of directing his first attention at our weak spots. “Go after them where they hurt the most! Are they dealing with anger issues? Let’s see if we can get them to lash out and become violent, and make a bad decision that can alter their life for the worse.” Or, married couples who desperately want children who are unable to have a child. “Let’s see if we can get them angry at God for refusing them the gift of a child.”
We don’t always have to be on the top of our game when it comes to loving God perfectly. He knows, he understands, and he forgives. God loves us unconditionally. But we can at times have spiritual amnesia when addressing the imperfections of life. Guess who is the root cause of them? Guess who is the root cause of abortion? Guess who is the root cause of gangs that upset neighborhoods and cause fear and all kinds of mayhem, like that insurance commercial? It’s not the Creator of the world. It’s one of his fallen angels. It’s the Corrupter who attacks our apparent weaknesses in order to create a greater separation between us and God’s love and mercy.
The second temptation addresses worship. Jesus’s response to the devil connects worship to service. You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.
We serve our brothers and sisters in the Lord, as well as those who do not know the Lord, because we worship the one true God. Service to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the dying, and those struggling with addiction is bonded to our worship of God alone. And if you find yourself worshipping any persons, be them athletes, someone who holds political office, or even your spouse, that’s an unhealthy way of relating to another person. There’s a great difference between love and worship.
Worshipping the devil, and there are those who do, leads to eternal damnation. There’s no other way to put it.
The third temptation is about protection. The angels will guard you and protect you if you throw yourself down. The only person in the Gospel who throws himself down is Judas. He refused God’s free gift of mercy.
Who is our protector? The instinct is to think we can protect ourselves. That’s a false and dangerous instinct. This temptation is not about physical protection. That the angels whom God created can somehow protect Jesus physically if he jumps off the parapet. That’s called a crock of chili. When did the angels start protecting God? It’s God who protects the angels. If this temptation was about our physical protection, then Jesus would not have died on a Cross. God would not have allowed the body of his Son to be crucified by evil men.
The devil here is chasing after our spiritual protection, namely, the angels who did not join him in his rebellion against God. We’re all going to be thrown down, meaning we’re all going to die in the body. But the devil wants us to doubt that God will protect us and wrap us up with his angels, especially at the end when we’re thrown down into a casket.
Please never doubt God’s continuous protection, especially his final protection at the end.
This set of three, the 3 temptations, is on its own level. Between the Source of all love, and the source of all evil. Yet, it’s very close to us. It’s personal for us. Continue to choose the Source of all love. He’s someone we can trust.