For a moment let us consider the first temptation Jesus faced after His baptism. Both Matthew and Luke tell us that it was over bread. Jesus had been fasting for forty days and forty nights and, therefore, He was hungry. We can easily picture the scene. The stifling hot desert air, Jesus emaciated and pale, the Tempter whispering, “Go ahead, do it,” while arousing Jesus’ senses even further by faking the aroma of freshly baked bread. Suddenly the stones do seem to be round loaves! Jesus rubs His eyes at the false vision and resolutely utters His rebuke, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (1).
What is going on here is more than meets the eye. The devil is not only suggesting that Jesus satisfy His hunger, but that He should do so in a manner contrary to His creative power. Think about it. Do you ever pop a rock into your mouth, chew on it a bit, and swallow? Of course not, rocks are inedible substances! So to affect the sort of change Satan is proposing—hard stone into soft bread—nothing of the stone can contribute to the inner meaning of the bread, which is food, nourishment. The stone has to totally give way to the bread and hence be annihilated in the process. We might respond, “Who cares?
Look, it’s only a rock,” but Jesus cares. As God, He has assigned a “place”, or nature, to everything He has created. Even a lowly rock has its special niche in the universe: unchanging and solid, it stands for “strength,” “durability,” “reliability.” As such it is even used as a metaphor for God: “I love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge” (Ps 18:1-2).
In this temptation, then, we get a glimpse into Satan’s warped way of thinking. You can almost hear him muttering to himself: “Who does this over-pious Jew think he is? Another annoying prophet like Moses, who also fasted for forty days and forty nights? How obnoxious! Let us put him to the test.” (2). Very cunningly, the devil laces his poisonous attack with the obvious and legitimate need of Jesus’ body for food: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3). The strategic error in such a move seems lost on Satan. If Jesus is merely a man, He is powerless to do what Satan has proposed. On the other hand, if Jesus is truly “the Son of God,” His creative power is unlimited. He can bring forth bread without the aid of any pre-existing material, so why would the cheap thrill of annihilating a stone appeal to Him? But Satan is not worried about such minor details. The point of this temptation—or any temptation, such as the two which follow—is not that Jesus should enjoy a nice meal, or win the adulation of the crowd, or adopt a cozy lifestyle for Himself as Lord of this world, but that, in one way or another, Satan should get what he feasts on: that cheap thrill of destroying something good and beautiful, here not a trifling rock, but the precious sanctifying grace inundating the soul of Jesus. Satan wants Jesus to commit a sin, a mortal sin. Why? So he can exult once again that he, Satan, is “like” God, hence “the Son of God.”
If this latter statement sounds jarring to our Christian ears, it should! But remember, Satan is no Christian, but a murderous liar (Cf. Jn 8:44). As a demon he believes in God, but it avails him nothing as he “shudders” before the face of God’s omnipotent power (Jas 2:19). Though he may accept the fact that a “son” is like his “father,” soon lust for power takes over: if the Father—here God, Master of the universe—is omnipotent and absolutely free, then the Son of God, likewise, is omnipotent and absolutely free. But if the Son is to be truly “absolutely free”, then He needs to be independent of the Father, independent of any constraints, such as a Truth which imparts meaning and order in the universe. Therefore, Sonship is not proved by living in intimate union with the Father, drawing one’s life from the Him, but by asserting oneself against and above the Father, who is viewed as a rival for power and freedom. If the Father creates, that is brings forth something good, let the Son of God prove Himself by “uncreating”, or destroying that good. And if that corrupted good can be in another person who accepts his lies, all the better! For then he, Satan, will have his own “son” breathing forth his “spirit” of rebellion, making him an even better rival of the God he so hates. What a perverted sense of divine filiation! “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! … You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high … I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High’” (Is 14:12-14).
Now we can grasp the deeper significance of Jesus’ rebuke. He, as the Incarnate Word, is rejecting a chaotic world view centered on an extreme egotism and opening for us the path to true likeness to God: faith. It is by taking in the Word of God, “chewing” on it, freely adhering to the truth it reveals, that one comes to life—an abundant life, eternal life.
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the gift of the Eucharist. God’s Word is spoken—and through a miracle, and not some kind of magic trick—one substance is fully changed into another. The bread is “sacrificed”, yet does not lose its inner meaning and hence the “accidents” are left in place for our senses to see, touch and taste. It does not become less of a food, but a far more exalted kind of “bread”: the Sacred Body of Christ! It is not annihilated, but ennobled to the highest! And so all becomes united in one act of divine love—Christ, His Mystical Body and the good things of the earth which God has created for our nourishment and well-being.
It’s easy to see that stones and bread are two different substances. It’s harder to grasp a more subtle distinction such as that which exists between the two sexes of the human race. We may even question if such differences are important. Are not both men and women created in the image and likeness of God? Are they not, therefore, equal in dignity? It only seems just to promote equality between men and women in every sphere of human endeavor, and all the more so because of a “second-rate,” or derogatory, attitude towards women which still persists in many cultures today. But unless such efforts are grounded in a proper theological perspective, they will not be very successful. For example, I have sometimes heard it said in a sermon that God, if He wanted to, could have become incarnate as a woman instead of as a man. Sounds good—isn’t God omnipotent? And what the priest is trying to say is commendable: “Ladies, you are of equal value to any man.” But think about it. What message is he really conveying? “Ladies, look, there was a fifty-fifty chance that your sex would be selected for the Incarnation. However, you lost out to a guy. Too bad!” It’s something like flipping a coin—it could have gone either way—and guess which half of the human race lucked out? We are back to a chaotic world view, to an arbitrary choice not based on any particular reason … which makes God what? A Father to be loved? Or a Master to be feared?