by Father Mike Stubbs
In our day, people are more likely to fast for health reasons than for religious purposes. They may be preparing to undergo surgery or some other procedure which requires an empty stomach. Or they may be dieting to lose weight.
But 2,000 years ago, fasting formed an important part of religious practice. The early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. They chose those days to distinguish themselves from the Jews, who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, according to the first-century document, the Didache.
Fasting often accompanied prayer. The life of King David offers a good example of that. When his son was sick, David fasted while praying for him: “David besought God for the child. He kept a fast, retiring for the night to lie on the ground clothed in sackcloth” (2 Sm 12:16).
Accordingly, when Jesus enters into the desert for 40 days, it sounds appropriate that fasting should accompany his prayer. As Sunday’s Gospel reading tells us: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry” (Lk 4:1-2).
Jesus may have intended his fasting to reinforce his prayer. At the same time, it naturally weakened his body. He was hungry. The devil seized upon this as an opportunity to tempt Jesus. The three temptations make up the bulk of Sunday’s reading.
The first temptation directly addresses Jesus’ hunger: “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’” That temptation echoes the Hebrew people’s dissatisfaction with the manna which fed them during their 40-year trek through the desert. They complained, “Would that we had meat for food. We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we see nothing before us but this manna” (Nm 11:4-6).
Jesus responds to the temptation by quoting from the Bible: “It is written, one does not live on bread alone.” Those words conclude a passage that refers to the Hebrew people’s complaint about the food: “Remember how for forty years now the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3).
By his quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy, Jesus makes a connection between the experience of the Hebrew people in the desert and his own experience there. It invites a comparison between the two. By rebuffing the devil’s suggestion that he turn the stones into bread, Jesus has resisted the temptation that had vanquished the Hebrews. He has provided us with an example of withstanding temptation. More importantly, he offers us this insight: Our afflictions are testing us to determine if we intend to follow God’s will.