What is the meaning of life? If Transfiguration Sunday is when the Church each year makes its universal declaration about the final dignity, honour, and destiny of the human race, here in the wilderness temptation is where it makes its most deliberate statement about the meaning and purpose of human life. Man shall not live by bread alone. At the beginning of Lent the Church invites us to step away from the blinding light of the Holy Mountain and follow Jesus onto a desolate battleground, where, in a forty day fast before the beginning of his public ministry we watch as the Spirit-empowered servant of God enters a struggle to establish the meaning of human life. This was the opening battle in the war for humanity’s soul.
This morning we shall look briefly at the first two temptations. This evening we shall attend to the third.
THE FIRST TEMPTATION
In the first temptation Jesus is tempted by hunger. He is tempted before his public ministry has even begun to turn away from the cross and to use his powers in an arbitrary way, to exempt himself from the common human condition into which he has just been baptized.
For the Gospel writers the wilderness, that great howling waste known in Jesus’ day as the Devastation, frigid by night, a shimmering furnace by day, a land of blistered and peeling limestone where the sound of the horse’s hoof rings hollow on the lifeless ground is an image of the world and of the soul of man shorn of all meaning.
For forty days Jesus struggled with the meaning of his baptism and the gravity of his mission in this hellish place and fought off the demonic temptation to turn away from his vocation. In those days he ate nothing, such was the intensity of the struggle, and he was starving.
And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
‘Not by bread alone.” This may be the most memorable statement against reductionist philosophies ever made. In the wilderness Jesus is engaged in a spiritual battle for the soul of man. What is Man? Does he have a soul? Is the human mind capable of finding truth, apprehending beauty, distinguishing good from evil? Is he made for God or is religion a degrading myth and superstition?
If Luke lived in an age where for all practical purposes, from the perspective of Empire, human life, ordinary daily human existence counted for little as far as the powerful were concerned, we live in an age where theoretically, for many of our writers and thinkers, human life is similarly devoid of meaning. The human brain, we are told, has evolved to maximize opportunity for genetic survival through efficient access to food and sex. And so man is reduced to one or the other of these simple material drives, or to some other simple single dimension.
“The question of the purpose of human life,” writes Freud, “has been raised countless times: it has never received a satisfactory answer…”. The one dominating theme that unites the great variety of competing modern philosophies is this settled conviction that science has eliminated all possibility of the human mind ever again supposing that its sense of meaning in plumbing the depths of this mysterious world is valid. As Freud so dismissively put it with respect to religion: ‘The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.’ And what he says about religion, many in our day will say about art and poetry, metaphysics and morals. What decides the purpose of life is simply, Freud says – reductively he might as easily have said-, is simply the pleasure principle. For Freud, as for so many other self-consciously modern thinkers, the world is not friendly to our presence in it and the mind is not to be trusted.
THE SECOND TEMPTATION
Jesus disagrees. Had the devil been listening, he would not have bothered with his second temptation. Because the meaning of human life cannot be reduced to self preservation, Jesus was never going to accept the offer of a demonic will to power, a naked desire for personal glorification at the expense of all the others.
It is not that Jesus is ignorant of our need for bread. He will feed the hungry for whom he came to give his life. He will take pity upon the hungry and the sick. He will see in every man, woman, and child a child of God and here in the desert of unfaith and doubt he will commit himself to the defense of their dignity and worth. He will forgo his own material needs just because their material needs are so exigent, so overwhelming. He will not turn stones into bread to feed himself precisely because his destiny is to feed those women and men whose final end is to glorify God.
Human beings, for Jesus, are not slaves to be ruled. They are not stateless persons without rights or claims. They are not enemies. They are not mere machines, they are not computers made of flesh, they are not the mere products of a meaningless, accidental evolutionary process, the throwaway survival machines of so-called selfish genes. They are, all of them, children of God. They long for, they reach out to God. Just so, their bodies must be fed and their dignity preserved. 5,000 shall feast on loaves and fishes multiplied, and all humankind upon his body and his blood, and all shall live from the very words of God.
But those for whom the will to power has become paramount, this becomes the very thing they must deny. They deny the inherent dignity of man and they trample upon his rights. Practicing various forms of philosophical or scientific or psychological reductionism, they deny that human beings are more than animals that must be fed – if you want to keep them working – or indiscriminately starved – if they have merely become inconvenient. Anyone can be declared a stateless person, something sub-human, someone you can rob, or starve, or lie to, use, ignore, or overlook and underpay.
Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Himall the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish”.
How many men and women in our time have aspired to this, the naked exercise of power with only the devil to answer to?
We cannot – no human group, government, or institution could long maintain and defend the dignity and intrinsic value of all human life, if it cannot at the same time point to its ultimate meaning and direction. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” is the Church’s ringing declaration against every philosophy or human authority that attempts to reduce or erase from memory the reality that man’s search for meaning is meaningful and that it is and must be oriented to a transcendental reality beyond the pursuit of material gain or power.
Jesus has defeated the human temptation to believe the lie that life is empty, the product of blind chance or a bad joke, the temptation to believe that adversity cannot be overcome nor pain and sorrow give way to joy.
Sigmund Freud notwithstanding, man’s search for meaning has received a satisfactory answer. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God.