February 13, 2005

Matthew 4:1-11

4  1 Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert that he be put to the test by the devil. After spending forty days and nights without food, Jesus was hungry.

Then the devil came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, order these stones to turn into bread." But Jesus answered, "Scripture says: one does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city, set him on the highest wall of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for scripture says, God has given orders to his angels about you. Their hands will hold you up lest you hurt your foot against a stone." Jesus answered, "But scripture also says: You shall not put to the test the Lord your God."

Then the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the nations of the world in all their greatness and splendor. And he said, "All this I will give you, if you kneel and worship me." 10 Then Jesus answered, "Be off, Satan! Scripture says: worship the Lord your God and serve him alone."

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came to serve him.

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1 The commentary of this event is partly found in Luke's Gospel (4:1-13).

Jesus is then Son of God in the sense this word had in his time: he is sent as king, prophet and savior and he knows it. How will he live this and how will God act towards his Son? He will be put to the test in the desert. In reality Jesus would undergo this test throughout his ministry: his opponents would ask for signs and miracles, and his own disciples would want him to center more on himself. It is this permanent test that is here presented in a figurative way. The Gospel intentionally places this temptation in the desert at the beginning, and affirms that Jesus defeated the evil spirit before he had begun his mission.

After spending forty days and nights without food, Jesus was hungry. This duration of forty days (which symbolically represents the forty weeks a child remains in its mother's womb in preparation for a new birth) was already present in the life of Moses and Elijah: Ex 24:18; 1 K 19:8. This fast is for Jesus what the command to sacrifice his son had been for Abraham, and for Moses the rebellion of a thirsty people or the incident of the golden calf. In a moment of full lucidity, when Jesus felt physically exhausted and spiritually strengthened by his fast, the devil tried to convince him that it was impossible to carry out his mission with the means God had proposed.

Strange as it is, the Gospel presents this encounter of Jesus with the tempter (devil) as a discussion on biblical texts between masters of the Law. The purpose, no doubt, is to show us that even biblical texts may lead us astray if we are without a spirit of obedience to God. The three temptations recall to mind those of the Hebrews in the desert (Ex 16:2; Ex 17:1; Ex 32). At the waters of Massah they grumbled against God for leading them where the going was difficult; later they put God to the test: "Could not he do something for them?" Finally they exchanged God and his Glory for another god of their own making: a golden calf. Jesus replies by quoting three texts from Deuteronomy, a book that speaks at length of the rebellion of the people of God in the desert. The perfect obedience of the Son contrasts with the infidelity of the Father's chosen people.

Jesus is victor in this trial, but after him the Church will have to confront these same temptations. She could be tempted to satisfy human desires instead of offering true salvation. Jesus teaches us to be strong against the tricks of the devil in using, as he did, the word of God.

The angels came to serve him. After rejecting the temptations, Jesus finds total peace. His purity of heart opens up for him a spiritual world hidden from human eyes, a world as real as the material things and beings surrounding him. In this spiritual world, as Son of God he is king among the spirits who are servants of his Father (see commentary on Dn 12:6).

[The Community Christian Bible]

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 1. How has your life grown? Most folks report moments of crises, incidents of insight, and significant questions throwing their expectations into a state of cognitive dissonance as places where their growth has been most productive. These have not always been easy moments for they call for another change in life. They have been difficult enough that we are usually willing to avoid the next crisis, incident, question that would call for yet additional change from us. And yet the Spirit calls us to life, which takes place in the midst of changing times and ways. A spiritual challenge of choosing life is yet before us. There is more growing to do.

2. Jesus and we will continue to go through the test of focus and meaning all our ministry and life long. We will get stuck on one biblical passage when we should have switched trains to another passage. What looks like a spur to our vision of circular certainty is the main road continued. Our desired life of ease, power, and schedule will be put to the test, permanently. A crust of bread and a vision of life; walking slowly with folks, not soaring with angels; and simply standing for another are all choices we can make and will be faced with making until we die -- either physically in the grave or meta-physically refusing to choose.

3. Since we are tied with one another, these same choices face congregations, denominations, and religions as well as individuals. How are you choosing in the face of those around you who choose against you? How are you choosing in the midst of people who are questing their way forward? Are you wishing you had more support? Are you pulling your weight of questioning the ways of the world?

These temptations that faced Jesus and that face us are on-going. As Nikos Kazantzakis so movingly wrote about the Last Temptation, we struggle through the crises, incidents, and questions of our life that we, too, might utter,

"a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!
And it was as though he had said: Everything has begun."

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