The Threefold Temptation of Christ, St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1471–79

Translation of the Epistle to the Corinthians

Brethren: We exhort you that you receive not the grace of God in vain. For He saith: In an accepted time have I heard thee, and in the day of salvation have I helped thee. Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation. Giving no offense to any man, that our ministry be not blamed: but in all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distress, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labors, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity, in knowledge, in long-suffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Ghost, in charity unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God: by the armor of justice on the right hand and on the left: by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report: as deceivers and yet true, as unknown and yet known: as dying, and behold we live: as chastised and not killed: as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing: as needy, yet enriching many: as having nothing and possessing all things.

Translation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew

At that time Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He was hungry. And the tempter coming said to Him: ‘If Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.’ Who answered and said: ‘It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the Temple, And said to Him: ‘If Thou be the Son of God, cast Thyself down, for it is written: That He hath given His angels charge over Thee, and in their hands shall they bear Thee up, lest perhaps Thou dash Thy foot against a stone.’ Jesus said to him: ‘It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ Again the devil took Him up into a very high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, And said to Him: ‘All these will I give Thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me.’ Then Jesus saith to Him: ‘Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve.’ Then the devil left Him; and behold angels came and ministered to Him.

Transcription of Sermon

In the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Amen.

As is custom, we begin our Lent with Christ in the desert for 40 days. 40 has a particularly powerful meaning. We see that throughout Scripture; 40 days of the Flood for a purification of the world. They were 40 years wandering in the desert. Our Lord spending 40 days in the desert. Moses on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days. There were 40 days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. And so, it seems that in 40 days something is purified. And may that be our hearts and our minds in these 40 days that stand before us.

Right before this Gospel, Christ has been identified as the Son of God. And as soon as this manifestation of His divinity is made at the baptism of Christ, next step is it says, we see these two passive verbs; He was impelled, He was pushed out by the Spirit into the desert. So, our Lord is making Himself absolutely docile to the movements of the Holy Spirit, in His sacred humanity, and allowing Himself to be pushed out into the desert in order for – what? – to, again the passive verb, to be tempted by the devil. So, He’s in this passive mode, which is not passivity but rather docility.

And we see some interesting usages of names in this scripture. Names in Hebrew and in Greek are interesting things especially when they are titles. Often what they would do, the Hebrews and the Greeks, they would take a verb, make it into a passive participle, and then it becomes a form of a title. And so, it describes an action but then the action is identified with the person’s identity, the nature. And so, God is called ἐλεήμων (eleḗmōn); the One Who Has Mercy. We see this in the case of the Blessed Mother, which is called κεχαριτωμένη (kekharitōménē) by St. Gabriel, You Who Have Been Filled with Grace; Graced One. When God reveals Himself, it’s יהוה‎ (YHWH) it’s the One Who is Being.

I bring this up because we see three different titles that our Lord uses, or that least the Scripture Writer uses to describe the evil one. There’s διάβολος (diábolos), we get the word devil from that. Διαβάλλειν (diabállein) means one who throws things apart. So, he’s the destructor. He tears things apart. He confuses. We see this already in Eden when he’s throwing apart the plan of God by whispering into Eve’s ears, causing division. He sows discord. So the very name is that one who casts things apart. And then there’s another title that is used for the devil called πειράζων (peirázo̱n), one who tests, one who tempts, one who draws us away from the good. He turns us from the will of God and points us in another direction; perhaps our passions, perhaps our self, perhaps calling us to not trust in Him. And if we think about it, every temptation, at the end of the day it’s an assault on trust in God. ‘Whose will do I want anyway?’ He puts us at odds, when we listen to him, he puts us at odds with One who loves us so much. He makes us doubt.

Lucifer (detail), Franz Stuck, 1890

In fact, reading some Midrashic commentators on Original Sin, these ancient Hebrew writers, mention that when Satan says, You will be like gods, what he’s doing is he’s sowing, he’s fomenting, a distrust in the ears of Eve by saying that you will be like God;  ‘Just like the one who gave you these unjust commandments, because He was just like you until He ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And He’s insecure. He’s afraid that you will become like Him and find out his nasty secret.’ So, this was, this was an interpretation that some of the ancients gave to the Fall. Another title is Satan. שָׂטָן (śāṭān) means accuser, right, one who certainly will remind God of our failings at the moment of our death, but he’s also one who reminds us of our failings, but outside of the context of God’s mercy. That’s why he is an accuser bringing up forgiven sins, basically saying, ‘Who do you think you are? You’ve done so many horrible things you really think you can be good? Maybe you want to question the validity of your confessions. Maybe you’re really not forgiven. You don’t feel forgiven do, you?’ He knows how to weasel his way into little crevices of our psychology, of our memory, and he brings up half-truths. I say half-truths because perhaps some of the things he accuses us of are real but out of the context of mercy, that that’s not the full story. If I’ve confessed, I have no right to go back and question forgiveness. To question God’s forgiveness after being forgiven is yet another insult against His Divine Mercy.

And so, the accuser wants us to doubt. He wants to attack trust. ‘You’re not worthy of His love. You’re hopeless.’ He seeks to aggravate our sense of shame. Notice too, the trajectory before the temptation he’s saying, ‘You know these rules are too much. The rules of God, the rules of the Church, they’re inhuman. What’s so big about doing this or that?’ But then as soon as we fall, he says, ‘Look! Look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done.’ Whereas our Lord, how different is the voice of our Lord. Before temptation, during temptation, our Lord is saying, ‘You know what’s going to happen. Don’t do that. You’ll be sorry.’ And if we fall, He says, ‘Come back to Me. Come back to me.’ As long as we’re in this life, He doesn’t hold it against us 


Because He is goodness itself and goodness is expensive, goodness shares itself. So, the Law of Being is that things affect other things according to their nature. In our Lord’s case, He shares His own life. Because goodness is expansive, He shares his own life. He shares His own nature with us. Imagine, in baptism we received a participation in Divine Nature. Not in the Mormon sense that we become gods; just like God was, kind of like that original temptation, that you will become like God if you eat the fruit that I was referring to before, but rather, so it’s not that we become divine by essence, we become divine by accident, by participation. So, you maintain our human nature, which is elevated through super-nature in order to become inheritors, in order to become adopted children of God. Whereas the devil has, even though he is by nature still ordered towards the good; imagine the violence he’s continually doing against himself, that by nature, he was good and remains good by nature, but he militates against his own nature against his own being ordered towards the Father. That’s why he can never ask for forgiveness because he’s constantly doing violence to himself. He’s the victim of his own father wound, self-inflicted. And Christ, the Word made flesh, what does he say to the devil, It is written. Γέγραπται (gégraptai), it is written. So, it’s written, that verb γέγραπται (gégraptai), it is written is what’s called the perfect tense, which means it was an act that was done in the past, but perdures into the present. So it was written and remains written. What God has spoken is true, will always be true. He doesn’t fail. And He is the Word made flesh.

And in the weakness of His human nature that He took upon Himself to save us, He further weakens it through 40 days of fasting. And so, hunger is the humiliation that manifests the Word’s consistency with Himself. To be God’s Word, in human form, means to continually drink – to drink in every word that comes from the mouth of the Father. As Jeremiah says, I found your words and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and delight in my heart. What does our Lord do in each one of these tests? We call them temptations, we call them tests. I doubt that our Lord was tempted in the way that we’re tempted like there was some sort of pull like ‘I would like to consider that.’ He was so configured in His sacred humanity, so configured with the will of the Father, that He didn’t have an interior dialogue, ‘Do I fall, or do I stay faithful?’ He was, He didn’t go through those machinations like we do. So, temptations is a proper word, but it’s also a test, it’s a trial. It is a test that, of course, He would pass. And how does He do it? He quotes Scripture. Imagine, the Word of God quoting scripture, the power that that has.

The early Desert Fathers would call this ἀντιρρητικός (antirrhetikos). Ἀντιρρητικός (antirrhetikos) is taking a word from Scripture and using that to rebuff a temptation. One Desert Father, he’s not a saint. He had some problems, but most of his writings are really good. Evagrius Ponticus. He has a collection of about 600 of these Scriptural passages that we are supposed to say, according to the nature of the temptation. I would have a hard time remembering which one. I mean, as soon as a stupid thought comes to me, which one of the 600 am I supposed to recite? That would probably be a little challenging, I imagine. Unless you just live in the desert, and you’re just a Desert Father, that’s all you got to do.

Well, my minuscule mind would just settle with one word, which is the word Jesus, God saves. With that we’re fine. When we turn to the Holy Name, we utter that Holy Word, the Holy Name of our Lord and Savior, it’s not a magical charm. We don’t use it superstitiously. We’re invoking one that we love. And more importantly, we’re invoking one who loves us and saves us. And when we say His Name with devotion, there is a form of presence of our Lord that wasn’t there before I said His Holy Name. It’s almost like a spiritual communion. So beautiful things happen when we reverently, piously, trustingly, lovingly call on His Holy Name in the moment of temptation. And when that becomes our first response, our temptations are no longer an inner dialogue of ‘Will I fall or will I not fall’, our temptations become tests that we pass and become a necessary part of the path to holiness.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Georges A. L. Boisselier, 1903

It’s our Lord, and only our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who can restore us to the Father from whom we’ve been alienated by sin. And He wants to do this. And through this divine filiation, our baptism, our return to grace in confession, we are declared children of God. And when we’re distracted, when we’re asleep, the Father still looks down on each one of us, ‘Behold, my child, in whom I’m well pleased.’ Our response to temptation ought to be a trigger so that our response to it is a renewed act of loving trust in our Lord. And in that way, our passions, disordered as they are, our temptations, as strange as they may be, become our salvation.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Amen.

— Fr. Ermatinger