Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
It begins by stating: “Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights and afterward he was famished.” Sounds like an understatement to me! After forty days without food! So what is the point and why did Matthew have Jesus begin his public ministry in this way?
First, the number forty has special resonance in the Bible and appears often: The flood was 40 days long; Moses and Elijah both fasted for 40 days; Goliath taunted David for 40 days; the three major kings of Israel (Saul, David, and Solomon) each was said to reign for 40 years and the Exodus of the Hebrew people lasted 40 years (as well as Lent lasting 40 days). Forty symbolizes a time of testing, trial, and preparation. In this story from Matthew Jesus is being tested in the desert, land with little vegetation and life, which for the Jews was seen as the abode of demons. Jesus went to where life was at its sparsest to be tested, pray and focus on the Father’s call. The story of the temptation shows the testing and Jesus’ response- a response that could only come from one rooted in prayer.
Second, fasting seems out-dated and anachronistic to us today. Why go without a meal? Why go a day without the ‘news’ or Netflix or candy? How does this help anyone or please God? This is indeed a very pragmatic, American response but its practicality misses the point. Fasting is not about achieving a goal or earning merit but clarity.
Withdrawing from food, or drink or entertainment can make us aware of how much we have while others have so little. Abstaining can allow us to focus our mind on listening to God and others rather than our appetites. Fasting in any form (from food, cell phones, newspapers, movies, etc.) can also remind us that with God’s grace we are more than our fleeting desires; we can control our lives and are not like amoeba pushed to and fro by whims and desires.
Jesus’ fasting was to prepare Him not only for His public ministry but to listen to the Father’s voice. Jesus’ temptation reminds us that we are all tempted but through appeals to Christ we can overcome them.
During this Second Week of Lent let us try to listen to Christ, our family, friends and the poor to hear what is really being said.
Let us also hear the needs of the poor and be free enough to pray and donate to Mission Doctors who listen and bring healing to God’s poor.