The Temptation of Christ,
Painted by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858),
Oil on canvas,
Painted in 1854
© National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness
Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry, and the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’ But he replied, ‘Scripture says:
'Man does not live on bread alone
but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil then took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are the Son of God’ he said ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says:
'He will put you in his angels’ charge,
and they will support you on their hands
in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says:
'You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘I will give you all these’ he said, ‘if you fall at my feet and worship me.’ Then Jesus replied, ‘Be off, Satan! For scripture says:
'You must worship the Lord your God,
and serve him alone.’
Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.
Reflection on the painting
Dutch born Ary Scheffer was a Romantic Art painter during the first half of the 19th century, mostly known for his works based on literature, including the works of Dante, Goethe and Lord Byron. But towards the end of his life, and maybe after a religious experience, he started painting highly religious works, of which today's painting is a good example. The clarity of composition and the direct approach to the narrative of today's Gospel passage make for a striking image. The characters impart emotion purely through easily recognisable expressions and gestures: the devil is promising the world, but Christ points upwards to his Father. Christ is dressed in bright, pure clothes, contrasting with the dark, shadowy figure of the devil. Note the look on Christ's face: he doesn't avoid looking at the devil but faces him directly, looking straight at him and rejecting his false promises.
Power is intoxicating. To be promised riches, wealth, influence and power beyond our wildest dreams would be hard to resist. Yet we are all called to resist such temptations, however small or big they are. Satan's temptations bring us immediately to the core question of Jesus' identity, as he calls into question who Jesus really is, saying provocatively: 'IF you are the Son of God…' Each temptation the devil then puts in front of Christ invites him to turn away from his Father. In the first temptation, Satan promises power; in the second he is testing God's fidelity; in the third all the power and glory the earth can offer is promised. Jesus resists them all.
Everyone is tempted, on a daily basis, however flagrant or subtle these temptations might be. Being aware of temptations is already half the battle won against Satan. Jesus did not defeat the devil by solely staying faithful to his Father, but also by quoting Scripture. One of the devil's achievements in the 21st century is to install in many people the notion that Scripture is not important, and is maybe just some 'nice' literary text from the past. Jesus' answers show how crucial Scripture was for him to battle evil! Scripture is a powerful tool for our spiritual battles.
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