Thought for the day
The temptations of Jesus are not at all temptations to this or that sin but rather fundamental options which matter for the direction of his life. Jesus was tempted in the course of his ministry to choose other ways of being God’s prophet, the Messiah or anointed one. In a less obvious way, we too can be attracted by choices which can shape the way our life unfolds. We ask ourselves, what do I live on? What’s my true goal? Where is my nourishment? The human, no less than the Kingdom, is more than food and drink. Only the Word of God truly nourishes and illuminates.
Lord, in you we live and move and have our being and we thank you. Help us to place you and your Word at the heart of all we do and, even more, at the core of who we are. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Testing of Jesus
Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
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.’”
Matthew 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,
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.’”
Matthew 4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Matthew 4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The “Temptation of the Son of God” is found in four documents in the New Testament: in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13) and in Hebrews 2:10-18 and 4:15-16. Mark’s account is quite minimal. Matthew and Luke are very alike, although Luke has a different order (bread, mountain, Temple). The temptations are a literary anticipation of the final disputes between Jesus and the Jewish leadership (21:23-22:46). The hidden conflict is really God versus Satan. What is at stake throughout is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.
Kind of writing
(i) Commonly in ancient accounts, the “hero” is tested in some fashion, before undertaking his heroic role. The test usually foreshadows realities to follow. It is not, therefore, a story about temptation to this or that moral deviation, but rather a testing of identity and role. Given that Jesus is the Son of God, what kind of Son of God will he be?
(ii) Our story resembles the typical manner of “robust” dispute among rabbis of the period. These often argued by firing texts from Scripture at each other.
(iii) It is a symbolic tale, with a deep, non-literal meaning. (This helps us deal with the impossibility of seeing all of the kingdoms from one mountain and with the mild absurdity of Satan “whisking” Jesus hither and thither.)
Old Testament background
(i) Often in the New Testament (and especially in Matthew’s Gospel), it is helpful to keep an eye on any possible Old Testament background to a particular story or scene. “The Temptation of the Son of God” is a good example of this. The biblical citations in the story all come from Deuteronomy 6-8. They thus come from that part of the Pentateuch (the first five Books of the Old Testament) where the people of Israel are about to enter the promised land after forty years in the desert and Moses reflects on their experience of temptation and failure during that very period.
(ii) Even the words used in Matthew reflect Deuteronomy: “led”, “forty”, “wilderness”, “son of God” (meaning Israel), and “test”. There is an implied comparison: historical Israel fails the test in the desert and emerges as unfaithful to the covenant, whereas Jesus, the Son of God, comes through successfully and models the fidelity God desires from us. The second background in the Hebrew Bible is, of course, Psalm 90.
(iii) Jesus also recapitulates the temptations of Israel in the desert: hunger (Exodus 16); testing God (Exodus 17) and idolatry (Exodus 32).
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” (Psalm 78:18–20)
New Testament foreground
The testing recounted in this Gospel exemplifies challenges faced by Jesus in his ministry. It also anticipates the final testing around the cross. The question of “what kind of Son of God?” comes back vociferously at the crucifixion.
Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. (Matthew 27:38-44)
Finally, the sequence in Matthew (different from Luke’s) may anticipate a future pattern in this Gospel:
(i) the multiplication of the breads (Matthew 14:13-21 “bread”).
(ii) the story of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13 “temple”).
(iii) the end of the Gospel, on a mountain (Matthew 28:16-20 “mountain).
So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall. No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:12–13)
Guard against self-deception, each of you. If someone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish so that he can become wise. For the wisdom of this age is foolishness with God. (1 Corinthians 3:18–19)
Verse 1 The desert is more a biblical motif than geography exactly (Deuteronomy 8:2). Being tested was part of Israel’s relationship with God—in reality a testing of their fidelity. The wilderness evokes Israel’s experience in the wilderness.
Verse 2 Forty is an evident echo of the years in the desert (Deuteronomy 8:2) and also of the “heroic” fasts of Moses (Deuteronomy 9:18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8). Fasting, as such, was a practice in Matthew’s community in Antioch—see 6:16-18 and 9:14-15.
Verse 3 The devil is here called the “tester”. Thus, ironically the purposes of the Holy Spirit are being fulfilled. “Son of God” echoes a title of Israel, as a whole, in the Old Testament. The further background here is the story of the manna in the desert. Compare Psalm 78:18-20 above. Will this Son of God come through the testing? Some Jewish expectations identified the Messiah with a repetition of manna in the desert.
Verse 4 The quotation comes from Deuteronomy 8:3, where it gives the reason for the manna in the desert. Providing bread for the hungry is also a teaching in Matthew: 6:11; 14:13-21; 15:32-39; 25:31-46.
Verse 5 The “holy city” is a rare reference, with messianic overtones. The architectural element is called a “wing” in Greek, perhaps providing a link with the citation from Psalm 91:4.
Verse 6 The quotation comes from Psalm 91:11-12. The tempter learns quickly to use Scripture against someone for whom it is the Word of God. The launching of textual “missiles” would have been familiar from rabbinic debates.
Verse 7 Jesus’ response comes from Deuteronomy 6:16. Again, in the background lies Israel’s (failed) testing in the desert. Cf. Matthew 26:36-53.
Verse 8 “To a very high mountain” is added by Matthew and underlines the link with Moses. Again, although some echo of Moses’ panoramic view of the Holy Land may be intended (Deuteronomy 34:1-4), it is not geography which counts. For the real mountain of authority, see Matthew 28:18.
Verse 9 “Homage” to Jesus himself frames this whole Gospel, from the Magi to the disciples on the mountain in chapter 28.
Verse 10 Away with you, Satan! A very interesting phrase, which Matthew alone places here, thus making a dramatic link with the same phrase (Matthew 16:23), when Peter misunderstands radically the kind of Messiah Jesus intended to be: (lit.) Away with you, behind me, Satan!
Verse 11 “Angels” indicate obliquely that some experience of the transcendent took place. Cf. Matthew 28:2.
Pointers for prayer
1. In today’s gospel Jesus is enticed to gratify his own needs, or to perform some spectacular act in public. He rejects the temptation because he chooses commitment to his mission and dependence on his Father over any immediate gratification. We can all be tempted to go for some immediate satisfaction...but is that where true happiness lies? Have you found that sometimes it can be more life-giving to say “no” to your immediate desires for the sake of some long-term goal? What are the goals, aims, values, which inspire you in this way?
2. One way of looking at this gospel is to say that Jesus went into the desert to face his demons. We all have demons we need to face—compulsions, fears, prejudices, anger, and urges that lurk within. It is in facing our demons that we find a way to live a fuller life. Can you recall a time when you grew through facing a “demon” in this way?
Lord our God, in every age you call a people to hear your word and to do your will.
Renew us in these Lenten days: washed clean of sin, sealed with the Spirit and sustained by your living bread, may we remain true to our calling and, with the elect, serve you alone.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.