[these are year A readings, for year B readings, click here]
At the beginning of the Lenten season we look at the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. A story like our own, and yet unlike. It is like our own in that we are all tempted; it is unlike our own in that we, unlike Jesus, fall short. In this story from Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus being “tempted’ or tested by the devil – the spiritual being who is the representation of all that wishes to oppose God. Jesus faces three temptations – each one somewhat different, and each one having something in common.
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
Before we begin, let’s just set the context a bit: Jesus has just come from his baptism, where God has declared: “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”. The Spirit has descended upon him, and it is said that he was “led up by the Spirit” into this wilderness place.
The First Temptation:
4:3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."
What is this temptation about? Jesus is, quite naturally, probably a fair bit hungry after a time of fasting in the wilderness. Fasting is a difficult spiritual discipline to practice because we are so accustomed to taking care of our physical needs. To intentionally deny our physical selves is at best, (we tend to think), counter intuitive, and often downright unnatural. There are really two parts to this temptation: first is just the temptation for Jesus to break his discipline of fasting – after all, to satisfy our physical selves is the first thing we often think of. The second part of the temptation is to “command” the stones to instantly become bread – to force it to happen, to take a shortcut from the spiritual discipline of fasting and just give in and eat. But there are no shortcuts in the spiritual life.
4:4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Of course Jesus answers by quoting the Scriptures: What we have in Matthew’s gospel is only the first part of the quotation from Deuteronomy. The full quote, as I’m sure you remember (or you can google like I did), goes like this:
“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”
What kind of answer does this give? There is some stuff to flesh out in the full text of the quote, which I’ll probably pursue later. But for now, Jesus is reminding us that we have physical needs (which certainly are important) but we also have spiritual needs. We are body and soul – we are physical and spiritual creatures. To feed only our bodies, without feeding our spirits, is a temptation. This season of Lent invites us to consider how we nourish our hearts, how we “live by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. It invites us also to listen – it is hard to hear the word of God until we still the background noise in our lives. On what do we live?: bread alone, or by the word of God?
The Second Temptation
4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
4:6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"
Now the story gets a little more complicated. The devil takes Jesus up to the Temple, and while there are there he decides to throw in some passages of Scripture as well.
If we consider just the setting for this temptation, it should give us pause. For in the progression of these three temptations, the last is the one about the place of worship. The Temple was the particular place of ancient worship, the place of the Holy of Holies – and yet at the very pinnacle of the Temple, there is temptation. I suspect that things have not changed all that much in the last 2000 years. There is as much temptation in the church as there is on any streetcorner on the Vegas strip – and maybe more. One can always want to use the things of God for one’s own purposes. The church is not immune from temptation, and its offspring – sin. Temptation can take place in the ancient temple and in the sanctuary of the contemporary church. Temptation to both of the other things: failure to pay attention to the matters of the heart, and the desire for power – to have things my way. The church is not immune from all the temptations which beset any other group of individuals who gather together.
But what is the particular form of the temptation here in Matthew’s gospel? Prove that you are who you say you are, and prove something about this “word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. After all, it is written that God will do these things for you.
4:7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
The Third Temptation:
4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
4:9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."
Next we have a temptation to power and authority over others for one’s own purposes, and through wrong means. Power in and of itself is not the temptation. The temptation comes in when one asks: how will this power be gained? What price am I willing to pay to get that power over others, and all the temporary glory that comes with it? “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” The temptation here is told in its largest form – all the kingdoms of the world. But we can all fall into this temptation in our own little worlds – the desire to use power and authority unjustly over anyone in our sphere. The temptation to get and use power over others is of course the opposite of what Jesus exemplifies in his life – instead, as we follow the gospel story, we see that Jesus ends up “powerless” according to the kingdoms of this world, and one of his last acts is of servanthood – as he washes the feet of his disciples. It doesn’t matter how big or small our kingdom is – it might be an empire, it might be an office, it might be a living room – we all are tempted to have unjust power over others.
There is, as well, a second part to this temptation: do we assume that the devil is telling the truth in this story? and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
Is that true? Is it really the devil’s to give away? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”, says the psalm. And Jesus reminds Pilate “you would have no authority over me had it not been given you from above”. So what we have in this temptation is a lie, masquerading as truth. The world is God’s – God is the one in charge here, not the devil. It is a lie – a false promise. And this lie is at the heart of every temptation. You see, temptation promises to deliver something that it actually has no power to deliver. Like the first story of temptation in the garden of Eden, when they were told – you will not die, you will be like God.
4:8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" In Jesus’ answer two things are linked together: worship and service: whatever or whoever we worship will not be told by our words, but by our actions: whatever we serve, that is our god.