Jesus Didn’t Come To Feed The Hungry
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’s temptations in the desert follow immediately upon his baptism in the
Jordan. That is logical. Jesus has just heard the Father's voice say, “This is my beloved Son.” We can understand why he needed to go apart and pray!
He went out into the desert to wrestle with the truth of his identity and of his mission. We must remember that Jesus in his human nature, in his human consciousness, only had access to his divine knowledge as God in the same way we do: by faith. Although he knew he was the Messiah (his mother told him!), it must have been hard for him to grasp just what that meant—just as it is hard for us to grasp what it means to be the Body of Christ and truly divine, truly sharers in the nature of God, by grace.
The devil seizes the occasion. He suggests to Jesus ways of proving to himself that he really is the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God,” he begins . . .
These words will be echoed down the ages under such forms as, “If the Church really is what she claims to be...” “If Christianity really is the true religion…” Like Jesus, we must maintain our faith in what we are and are called to do, while refusing to make it credible to ourselves or others by adjusting our mission to human expectations and desires.
The temptations Jesus is dealing with here are not just ordinary temptations to do what is evil; they are temptations specifically against the divine level of relationship with God which is ours as Christians, which has been given to us with grace, and against the mission in this world to which we are called and consecrated by our identification with Christ.
As “Master of the Way,” Jesus is also the unmasker of deceit. He not only calls us to conversion and teaches us the true way of life. He also puts us on guard against the illusions which, under the appearance of good, would lure us into detours from that way.
The first temptation is to change the goal of Christ's mission, and of the religion he taught, from the transcendent goal of union with God to the this-worldly goal of satisfying people’s felt human needs on earth. This is a temptation which strikes at the heart of faith, substituting an obvious, human meaningfulness for the mystery of our call to share in the life of God.
“Command these stones to turn into bread,” the devil says. The force of the temptation comes from the fact that Christ's followers do have as part of their mission on this earth the task of “turning stones into bread.” The Christian meaning of work is to make nature serve human needs, to change the wasteland of the world back into a garden of paradise. To provide bread for the hungry—by the sweat of one's own brow—is a Christian value that converts the “curse” of work into a blessing.
To work for a world of peace, justice and sufficiency for all must always be a part of the mission of Christ's Church on earth. But it must not be allowed to become the essential thrust of Christianity, for that would be to turn Christ's religion into nothing but a this-worldly idealism of purely humanitarian concerns. Explicit social reform was not part of Christ's own particular task on earth, any more than it was his task to extend the Church of God to the Gentiles. Those tasks would be taken up by his followers later, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
This mission of Jesus, and of the Church, is to call us unambiguously beyond this world, beyond our felt human needs, to the satisfaction of our deepest (if unrecognized) hunger and thirst, which is for union with God in grace. Christ's religion is a summons, not to deny human life or human needs, but to transcend them.
Jesus answered the devil, “Humans do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Christ's mission, and the mission of the Church, must always be focused primarily on bringing people beyond what they already know and feel a need for, to a hungry knowledge of God as revealed through his word, and to desire for total union of mind and heart and will with him in grace. To let anything else be the ruling goal and focus of our ministry is to falsify the mission of Christ.
It is also a most basic failure in faith. The “way” Jesus teaches is not the way of human reason or of human life alone, but of life on the level of God. To be his disciples means to lift up our thoughts and our desires to a whole new level of existence—a level only Jesus reveals to us.
When we accept Jesus, then, we must accept him knowing that He does not promise to satisfy all of our felt human needs on earth. He does not promise success or prosperity to his followers. He does not guarantee physical healing or even deliverance from mental anguish and emotional disturbances.
Father Walter Ciszek, S.J., testified after spending twenty-three terrible years in Soviet prisons and labor camps: “I learned soon enough that prayer does not take away bodily pain or mental anguish. Nevertheless it does provide a certain moral strength to bear the burden patiently.”
Prayer did not deliver Fr. Ciszek from his sufferings. It gave him courage to rise above them.
And this is what Jesus promises us: not the satisfaction of our felt human needs on the level on which we experience them, but the grace to rise above them, to transcend them; and to find a deeper, ultimate satisfaction in that which alone can satisfy our total human desire: union with God. St. Augustine said it in the name of us all: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O God, and they shall not rest until they rest in Thee.”
The question Jesus asks of all who would accept him is, “Do you want what I came to give? Or would you too tempt me to change stones into bread?”
Question: What do you want your religion to give you here on earth? How are you using it for that?