Since I was ordained a priest almost 15 years ago, one of the temptations for me has been to wish that God would do more spectacular things through me, which would convince people of the presence of God. I believe that God does extraordinary things through the priesthood, such as becoming present in each mass in the bread and wine, but as you know it happens in a very humble and hidden way. It is not spectacular and if you don’t believe in it, then it just seems to be some kind of a strange religious ritual. So why doesn’t God do something more spectacular every once in a while to help people believe?
The account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is really the explanation as to why God doesn’t do more extraordinary signs and wonders to convince us of his presence. This is an extraordinary story because it must have come directly from Jesus himself, since no one was with him during this time of temptation. At some stage he must have told his apostles what happened there and what he had to go through.
Jesus was about to embark on his public campaign to teach people about God and to win people over for God. Now for any campaign you must choose the weapons you are going to use. Jesus must have been aware that he had extraordinary powers, or otherwise Satan wouldn’t have tempted him to use them. There would be no point in tempting any of us to throw ourselves down from a great height or to turn stones into bread, because we couldn’t do it anyway. So this must have been a very real temptation for Jesus, to misuse his power.
The first thing he was tempted with was to find satisfaction in material things. ‘Give people the material things that they want and they will love you.’ In this case it was bread to a man who was starving. But Jesus said, ‘No. Man does not live on bread alone.’ The human being is not satisfied by material things. Jesus was saying, ‘I am not going to try and win people over by offering them what they want.’ We are much deeper than that and we can only be fully satisfied by God because we are spiritual and not just physical.
The second temptation was to compromise with evil. This is a huge temptation for most people. When you hear people say ‘the Church needs to get with the times’ this is often what they mean. The Church needs to ‘adapt’ (compromise) some of its teachings to the more difficult moral demands of our age. It is always a temptation for me as a priest to water down the teachings of God so that they are easier to swallow. But that is not what we are asked to do. And when Jesus was tempted this way he rejected it outright. He was being tempted to compromise with evil just a little bit, so that it would be easier for people to be convinced. But right is right and wrong is wrong. We must not compromise on the ways of God. Yes it is more difficult, but if it is the truth then it is better to struggle with it than to try and change it to suit ourselves. The teachings of God don’t need to change; we are the ones who need to change.
The third temptation was to work signs and wonders for the people. ‘Throw yourself down from the temple; since God will save you.’ If he started doing this then no doubt he would have thousands of followers in no time. But Jesus also rejected this, because he knew that the way he had to take was the way of service and the way of the cross, which would win people over heart by heart. You cannot buy love, as you know, and that is why Jesus chose the more humble way, and left it open to us to see what God offers us and then to freely choose to follow him or not.
Jesus was tempted to ‘bend the rules,’ to settle for less. But he resisted these temptations even though they must have really been tempting for him to choose. We are continually presented with similar temptations; the temptation to reject the parts of our faith that don’t suit us: ‘Just take the easier parts, let others worry about the difficult parts’. But that is not what God asks us to do. The Lord says, ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). It is not an easy path that leads us to God, but it is the most worthwhile path that there is. What could be more worthwhile than to follow the one path that will lead us to total fulfillment. There are many other ‘lesser’ options, apparently easier ways, but they don’t lead to God. This is why Jesus was quite definite in his teaching. If you want to follow me, this is the path you must follow. It is the path of trying to live his teachings, even though we are continually hearing the voices that say, ‘It’s too difficult. Don’t bother.’ We say we believe this teaching is from God and so the challenge is to take it seriously, even if it doesn’t always suit me; even though I won’t always understand it.
In many ways I would still love it if God worked spectacular signs and wonders now, so that people would be easily and quickly convinced. But that is not how God works, and I think it is good to remember that. The Lord knows what He is doing and He puts it to us continually to follow him freely. No one is going to force us.