Of the three temptations, Jesus’ second temptation is in many ways the most difficult to understand in terms of the lessons it holds for us. This second temptation has to be interpreted as a sort of vision, which once again represents something real, something that poses a particular threat to the man Jesus and his mission.
The first point is the striking fact that the tempter cites Holy Scripture in order to lure Jesus into his trap. He quotes Psalm 91, 11ff., which speaks of the protection God grants to the person who believes: “For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest your foot against a stone.”
These words acquire a special significance by virtue of the fact that they are spoken in the holy city and in the holy place (Temple). Indeed, the Psalm cited here is connected with the Temple; to pray it is to hope for protection in the Temple, since God’s dwelling place necessarily means a special place of divine protection.
Where should the man who believes in God safer than in the sacred precincts of the Temple?
The tempter proves to be a Scripture scholar who can quote the Psalm exactly. The whole conversation of the second temptation takes the form of a dispute between two Bible scholars.
The structural question concerning the remarkable scriptural discussion between Jesus and the tempter thus leads directly to the question about its content. What is this dispute about? The issue at stake in this second temptation had been summed up under the motif of “bread and circuses.”
The idea is that after the bread has been provided, a spectacle has to be offered, too. Since mere bodily satisfaction is obviously not enough for people, so this interpretation goes those who refuse to let God have anything to do with the world and with humanity are forced to provide the titillation of exciting stimuli, the thrill of which replaces religious awe and drives it away.
But this cannot be the point of this passage, since the temptation apparently does not presuppose any spectator.
The point at issue is revealed in Jesus’ answer, which is also taken from Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut 6, 16). This passage alludes to the story of how Israel almost perished of thirst in the desert. Israel rebels against Moses, and in so doing rebels against God. God has to prove that he is God. The Scripture describes this rebellion against God as follows: “They put the Lord to the proof by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Ex 17,7). The issue, then, is already encountered: God has to submit to experiment. He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty. If he does not grant us now the protection he promises in Psalm 91, then he is simple not God. He will have shown his own word and himself too, to be false.
We are dealing here with the vast question as to how we can and cannot know God. How we are related to God? And how we can lose him? The arrogance that would make God an object and impose experimental conditions upon him is incapable of finding him. For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp. To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abuse not only God, but the world and oneself, too.
From this scene on the pinnacle of the Temple, though we can look out and see the Cross. Christ did not cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. He did not leap into the abyss. He did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured ‘this leap’ as an act of God’s love for humanity. And so he knew that, ultimately, when he leaped he could only fall into the kindly hand of God the Father.
This brings to light the real meaning of Psalm 91, which has to do with the right to the ultimate and unlimited trust of which the Psalm speaks: If you follow the Will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, God. So even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you, God, whose loving hands are always there to hold you.