|Jesus Returning in the Spirit, John Lee Vince|
Eden raised in the waste Wilderness.–Milton
The gospel from last Sunday’s mass in the Roman Rite was Matthew’s account of the temptation of Christ. Its themes are very topical as we enter into Lent and reflect on how we respond to temptation in our own lives. Further, the fact that Jesus was tempted is a key point of his incarnation. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, sees this as central to the efficacy of Jesus’s mission: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Heb. 4:15)
There is, however, probably a nagging thought in the back of many of our minds as we listen to this gospel: was Jesus really tempted in the same way that we were? After all, he was the Son of God. Wasn’t it somehow easier for him? I have heard similar objections to the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception. If Mary was born without original sin, doesn’t that make her assent to Gabriel’s message less powerful? Was she really free to say “yes” if she hadn’t ever experienced saying “no” to God?
Lurking behind such trains of thought is the assumption that freedom primarily consists in triumphing over an interior struggle between good and evil. According to this notion, Jesus was certainly presented with an exterior suggestion to do evil, but he wasn’t free in the same way that we are because he had no internal temptation about whether he should assent to the Tempter’s demands. Or, again following this view, Gabriel’s question to Mary would be a mere formality, because being without sin she really “had no choice” in her answer. Now, the technical term for what Jesus and Mary lacked but what we all have is concupiscence: the disordered desires we have for what is evil, or the conflict of our appetites with our reason and conscience. For example, when you have eaten enough to satiate your hunger but still desire to eat a jelly doughnut, you are experiencing concupiscence. Ultimately then, the idea that Jesus and Mary were less free to make moral choices equates freedom with the presence of concupiscence.
Obviously, there is something wrong with such a view. Sinful inclinations make it more difficult to choose the good, not less difficult. Consequently, concupiscence makes us less free to make good choices. St. Paul evocatively articulates this fact when he muses:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. (Rom. 7:15, 18b–19)If Paul were truly free, he would simply do the good that he really wanted; as it stands, though, he often ends up doing what he doesn’t want. And even when we do the good we want after a struggle against a competing desire to do evil, it is still a struggle, and less free than it would have been had there been no struggle.
This is why in moral philosophy the virtuous person is not someone who always prevails against an inclination to do the wrong thing. This is, to introduce the technical term, “continence”. The virtuous person has no inclination to do wrong. If you desire a jelly doughnut when it would be gluttonous to eat it, and successfully reject the desire, you are continent—and this is a good thing, when it happens! But the truly virtuous person would not even desire the doughnut if he had already had enough dessert.
Now, repeated acts of continence help us approach true virtue, but we all know how difficult—or rather, impossible—it is to be always virtuous in all aspects of our life. We are always running up against the unfreedom of our concupiscence. As Paul says, above, “This I keep on doing”. Hence the true significance of Jesus’s temptation: in him we find the pattern of perfect freedom in the face of temptation. The Sunday liturgy guides us on this point, for the Second Reading speaks of Christ as a second Adam. The first Adam was originally without sin, virtuous and without concupiscence, and he succumbed to temptation; the second Adam succeeded where the first failed.
And what is the Christian message amidst all of this? It is only by joining our lives to this second Adam that we can ever hope to rise to virtue. For the best we can do on our own is a kind of stumbling, halting continence, leading to frustration and ultimately to a tragic compromise about what we are willing to accept as the measure of our freedom. And how terrible it would be if we projected that false freedom back on Christ in the desert!