What’s wrong with turning stones into loaves bread?
If Christ had the power to satiate His hunger in the desert, and doing so was not going to harm anyone, why was it one of the ‘temptations’ that we hear about on the first Sunday of Lent? (Matthew 4:1-11)
Why was it something Jesus refused to do?
The answer lies in a true appreciation of what temptation actually entails.
It seems to me that the best way to begin looking at this question is to examine all subsequent temptations from the perspective of the very first one – Adam and Eve in the garden.
Now this account related in the book of Genesis is one with which I am sure you are familiar, so I am not going to regurgitate it here in ham-fisted fashion like some unprepared homilist.
But it is worth paying very close attention to what actually takes place in the story.
After all, immediately preceding the account of the first temptation and the fall of mankind there stand the accounts of creation.
Again, I am sure you are broadly familiar with how they run – first day, second day, third day and so on.
At the end of each day it says, ‘And God saw that it was good.’
And then, after the final acts of creation is says, ‘God looked upon all He had made and it was very good.’ (Gen 1:31)
Very good – all of it.
Yet once Adam and Eve have eaten of the fruit of the tree, suddenly they perceive evil.
Has that never struck you as odd?
Where did that evil come from?
The answer is stated most succinctly by Dominican Father Simon Tugwell: ‘When man learns from the devil to know good and evil, this involves his coming to see good as evil; there is nothing but good for him to see or know. If he is to know evil, it can only be by a distorted vision of what is good.’
The outcome of the fall is a distorted perception of reality.
What we think we see, what we think we know, might not necessarily be the case.
And so when it comes to questions of temptation, experience teaches us that it often arises in the form of a perceived good.
Like turning stones into loaves of bread if you are hungry.
In the words of Benedict XVI: ‘The moral appearance of temptation belongs to its very nature; temptation does not lead us directly to evil – that would be too clumsy.’
Almost everybody would reject evil if it was demonstrably evil; so it often does not appear in that way.
Temptation often arises as an apparent good.
And this general trend is clear from the account of the first temptation in the garden. When the serpent had his little chat with Eve, what he was exhorting was not something in and of itself wrong or bad – man and woman are meant to ‘be like God.’
After all, we were created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God, so being ‘like God’ is something perfectly appropriate. (Gen 1:27)
But we are meant to ‘be like God’ by virtue of God’s creating us in that way, as a result of our receptivity to grace, not by virtue of some human act of appropriation. We are meant to receive the gift, not snatch it.
What the serpent is really offering is a distortion in the mode of possessing something that is actually in and of itself good.
It is a new concept of ownership that the devil is seeking to instil.
St Thomas Aquinas teaches that the devil could not sin by wishing a thing bad in itself: his perfect nature could only tend to good things.
After all, when God looked upon all He had made and saw that it was ‘very good’ the devil, as a created angel was part of that vista of goodness that God saw.
He was created perfect, and so by nature can only tend towards something good.
However, it’s also obvious that the serpent – the devil – is not cooperating with God’s plan in the garden.
So how do we explain this?
Well, there was a very clever sixteenth-century Dominican commentator on the works of St Thomas Aquinas – Cardinal Cajetan – who explains the situation in this way.
When speaking of the modus operandi of the serpent – the devil – in offering a good, Cardinal Cajetan says, ‘He tended to good proudly.’
What was defective was the manner of his tending towards that good.
As we know, it is not enough to will and do the good; it must also be willed and done ‘goodly’ as it were.
The right thing must be done with the right intention and in the right way.
We must draw a distinction between willing the good in a good manner (which is virtuous) and willing the good in a bad manner (which can be a vice – or sin).
For it does not suffice to wish a thing good in itself: it must be humbly wished.
The reason temptation is so appealing, in many instances, is precisely because it seems to offer some sort of good – and in fact, it does contain some element of the created goodness that is inherent in all things.
Bread is a perfectly good and acceptable thing – ‘man lives not from bread alone’ but he does need bread to live.
It is perfectly good.
And Jesus certainly possessed the capacity to turn the stones into bread – and no one would have necessarily been thereby harmed.
So why not do it?
Because God willed that the stones be stones.
If Jesus were to transform them into bread at the prompting of the devil, then His will would not be in conformity with that of His Heavenly Father.
His will would then be running contrary to the divine plan for the redemption and salvation of all creation.
And ultimately that is what all temptations and sins reveal about ourselves and our attitudes to life: whether we spend our lives saying ‘my will be done’ or ‘Thy will be done.’
And the traditional Lenten penances of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are intended to prompt deeper reflection upon precisely that truth.
They are intended to incite a ‘conversion’ of heart – a turning from a focus on ourselves and our own wants and wills to the divine will, for ourselves and for everyone else.
We are exhorted this Lent to move from enjoying perceived goods – our own time, food and wealth – to an appreciation of the genuine good; love of God and neighbour.
And that is the work of a lifetime, not just Lent.