Youth Conference in Buffalo - September 14-16 Event Info

The Third Temptation of Christ

“Once more, the devil took Him to the top of an exceedingly high mountain, from which he showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, and said, ‘I will give you all these if you will fall down and worship me.’” -Matthew, 4: 8-10


For a good man, the most dangerous temptations are those that appear to be good, for he will not be drawn to that which is plainly evil. It is overbearing kindness, not cruelty, to which he will be susceptible; or to take on another’s burden when it is not his office to do so; when it would take from the other man, not only his burden, but the opportunity for spiritual growth that may be offered him through bearing it.

Such imprudent action may arise from too much reliance on self and not enough trust in God; from believing that we can arrange matters according to our own wisdom and so set the world in proper order. But it is not the world that needs to be set in order, but the hearts and minds of men. Goodness arises from within, not from without.

But the allure of external reform is ever before us. It appeals to our desire to act, to exercise our power, seemingly for a noble end. But this exercise of power is impatient for specific results, for that which we can determine on our own. We do not want to wait on God, but rather to force a quick conclusion that appears desirable to us. As I say, it is not a temptation to evil, but to that which appears to be good. Perhaps this is another way of understanding the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

When we contemplate Our Lord’s third temptation in the wilderness, we may rush to a superficial understanding, forgetting that Jesus was not only man but God. A man might be tempted to worldly power, but not He who made the world, for all is already in His power. Our Lord came into this world for one reason only: to do His Father’s will. Whatever temptation He may have suffered could only have been one to depart from this will in some way, not to do evil or to seek personal glory, but to accomplish good in a manner not ordained by the Father.

Now, we are told by Jesus that His Father’s will is our sanctification. His Son became man to accomplish this sanctification. There was, there is, in the heart of Jesus a consummate love for souls that we can barely begin to appreciate. But we can understand through our limited appreciation that Our Lord’s temptation can only have been rooted in His love for us. To know that He could rule the world and so establish a social order that might further our sanctification may have been what the devil presented to Him. It was not a temptation to power, but to love. Yet, such love would not have been directed into the channel carved out for it by the Father. Jesus rejected it in favor of the Father’s will: “The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve.” (Matthew, 4:10)

Had Jesus yielded to the temptation to seize the kingdoms of the world and to try to bring about our salvation through their governance, He would have been worshiping satan, or so the passage indicates. How so? Governance is external. It establishes laws to which we must conform or suffer penalties. Jesus did not come to work through law, but through grace. He did not come to ordain a social order through statutes, but to bring about a revolution in the spirit through grace. Our sanctification must work from the inside outward. Governance can only work from the outside and may not, indeed, cannot reach the inside in any radical way.

If governance, if the law, were sufficient for our sanctification, Moses would have been sufficient and Jesus need not have taken flesh and dwelt among us. The third temptation in the wilderness appears to have been a temptation to use law, the governance of kingdoms, to do the will of the Father, that is, to bring about our sanctification. That Our Lord rejected it should demonstrate to us that our salvation cannot be obtained through any arrangement of the social order, through any good governance, no matter how good it may be.

But the third temptation still presents itself to us, and many yield to it. “Social justice” has become the overarching theme of the Church in our time, and such justice is understood as an arrangement of laws and policies that are presumed to favor a more equitable distribution of worldly goods. Why should our sanctification be tied to any program of economic and political reform? It cannot. We cannot be sanctified – grounded in Divine love – through any external apparatus, but only from within, from an inflowing of transforming grace. And grace transforms the individual. It can only work in the personal soul, not in any system or structure.

Pope John Paul II was sadly given to refer to “structures of sin,” as though sin could be attributed to something external to the human will. The phrase implied that sin could be eliminated or at least palliated by removing or reforming certain “structures.” What were these “structures”? Their specific nature was often left rather vague, but the West and capitalism were frequently cited in their connection.

The idea grew among the hierarchy that the Church’s mission had to do principally with addressing these “structures,” that is, attacking free markets and favoring an expansion of government power over national economies. Such power was, presumably, to be used to make life more pleasant for the masses by securing for them goods and services at the expense of profits for entrepreneurs. The mechanism for a better life for the many was seen as increased taxation and regulation of the private sector. Government expansion became integral to the vision and mission of “social justice.”

But there are no “structures of sin.” Sin is personal. A society is a collection of individuals and “society” has no real being, except as verbal shorthand for the body of men living within certain borders and claiming citizenship in a particular nation.  This is why “social reform” is meaningless in terms of salvation. To believe that government can change the hearts of men and turn them away from pride and greed and cruelty is to believe in an illusion. The overarching nature of a society arises from the individuals contained in it. It is people who shape the laws and customs that define a culture. If that culture is to change, the people must change.

To blame certain unnamed people for visiting injustice upon others by their support for “structures of sin” is of little benefit to anyone. It is nearer to recognition of the truth that it is people who commit sins, not social mechanisms, but it is a pointless exercise in self-righteousness. And it also tends to fall back upon attributing the cause to its effect. When Pope Francis, for instance, blames arms manufacturers for wars, he comes closer to identifying individuals as the perpetrators of what he wrongly considers absolute evil, i.e. war, but he confounds the instrumental cause with the agent. When people intent upon violence cannot obtain guns, they will use knives or clubs or acid or vehicles.

The Church has become accustomed to use its spiritual office to insert itself, rather ineffectually, into economics and politics. But the more it does so, the more it loses its ability to carry out its primary mission: our personal sanctification. No arrangement of laws or economic policies will accomplish this mission. Such things are rather an expression of the dominant beliefs of the group of people from whom they arise and for whom they become the norms.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

It is to fortify the bridgehead of good and to uproot the corner of evil in the hearts of individuals that the Church exists, for our salvation depends upon our sanctification. The third temptation Jesus faced is what the Church faces now: the illusion that good can be imposed from without. Were the kingdoms of the world in the hands of good men, and their laws just, evil would not be rooted out of its corner on these accounts.

Time and grace work hand in hand in every soul. The things that will lead to our sanctification in the end may appear ruinous to us in the present, for we cannot see what God sees, nor do we understand how seeming evil can be pressed into service for actual good. How many times has apparent misfortune moved a person closer to God? How many times, if we had had our own way, would arrogance and indifference to others have grown in us?

Would a society in which goods were distributed more equitably be one conducive to our sanctification? If everyone lived in a garden suburb and had a fulfilling job, would that lead to an increase in Divine love? We have no reason to think so. On the contrary, the more pleasant our life becomes, the more content we are to forget about spiritual things and to settle down in this world as though it were our home. I often heard as a child the old saying: “Sometimes God has to knock you down so that you know to look up.” The present Vatican and many bishops and clergy appear to want a world in which no one gets knocked down.

Satan said that the kingdoms of the world were in his gift to distribute to whoever would worship him. Was he telling the truth? We can never take him at his word, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But in this instance, he appears to have said something true.

Worldly power relies ultimately upon force, that is, the threat of violence. How many of us would willingly pay the taxes the government demands were it not for the fact that if we refused, armed agents would come to our door, take us from our home, lock us in a cage, and then drag us before a judge who would order the confiscation of our property and the loss of our freedom? We often forget that civility is a fragile facade liable to be shattered by the iron fist of authority, should that authority be opposed. 

That the Church should direct so much of its teaching these days to social justice, with government as its guarantor, can only play into the hands of those who would control others through the exercise of power backed by the threat of violence. The seeming good of a better world through economic and political power is a temptation from satan.

Our Lord said that only God is good. Government is not good. Economic policy is not good. Social justice is not good. All of these things can be instruments that help us toward God, but precisely how they do so is not known to us and, therefore, cannot be prescribed by us. If we love God, then all will work together for good.

The government that tortured and killed Our Lord could have been in His power, had He willed it. Jesus could have been the king of kings in worldly terms and used His authority to enact just laws and ensure that all men obeyed them. But, then, He would have had to rely on the threat of violence, for that is the way laws work. And no man can become sanctified through fear or force, but only through freely chosen love. So, Our Lord did as His Father willed. He declined power and shouldered the cross. He placed Himself under the law so that love could rise above the law.

The Church is in danger of succumbing to satan’s temptation. It stands in the desert and satan is holding out to it the false glory of the kingdoms and saying, “Come, take your place at the tables of power. Make this a better world. Talk about money and the distribution of wealth. Forget about personal sanctity. That is a selfish escape. You have a duty to social justice and you must enjoin this duty upon all who follow you.”

Let us pray for those facing this temptation. And let us not succumb to it ourselves.

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