NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 4: 1-11
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread."
He said in reply,
"It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God."
Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone."
Jesus answered him,
"Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test."
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me."
At this, Jesus said to him,
"Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve."
Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.
There is a longstanding practice of assigning the Gospel narrative of the Temptation of Christ to the First Sunday of Lent. The Tridentine Missal assigned this text from Matthew as the annual reading; the new missal of 1970 added the Markan and Lukan accounts in years B and C. (St. John does not include a temptation narrative.) It is easy to understand the Church’s longstanding practice of selecting Matthew as the sole source for this opening Sunday of Lent for so many years. His narrative of the encounter of Jesus and the Devil is the most detailed and arouses numerous questions. St. Mark’s entire narrative, by contrast, consists of three lines!
Matthew’s temptation narrative follows immediately 3: 13-17, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. The same is true for Mark and Luke, so there is consistence in the three Synoptic Gospels that after his baptism. Yet the three evangelists compose the narrative here from different theological slants. In the case of Matthew, R.T. France writes that “the focus of the ‘testing’ agenda is indicated by the clause which introduces the devil’s first two suggestions, ‘If you are the Son of God.’” (p. 127) At the end of Chapter 3, 3:17 to be precise, the voice comes down from heaven to announce “This is my beloved Son” as Jesus steps forth from his Jordan baptism. The devil makes this manifestation the heart of his testing; Satan is trying to drive a wedge between the newly declared Son and his Father.
The sequence of the temptations is quite personal, a matter of Jesus praying under anguish to understand and to accept the crucible of the baptism he has received, the full implications of divine son-ship, and the fate that awaits him. France underscores the existential challenges to Jesus personally. Oddly, one could, I think, remove the devil from the text and the narrative would still make sense. To say that Jesus is “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4: 15) can only make sense if he were vulnerable to the human experiences of hunger, success, and the need of the love of his own people. The word “desert” in the Bible is often used to describe a place of desolation, hunger and thirst, wild beasts, and particularly in the apocalyptic sense, the site of past and future battles of the powers of good and evil, such as between the angels and the devil’s minions. It was the Spirit, after all, who led Jesus to the desert in the first place. (Matthew 4:1)
There were no witnesses to the temptations, meaning that what we see here is not the ministering Jesus, so to speak, but an intimate view of his nature. Matthew apparently felt that his own congregation or readership (around 80 A.D.) needed greater insight into Jesus, particularly at a time when outside division and internal strife was a major struggle for the Church. This text, in France’s view, cannot be used to map out a “messianic agenda” like a state of the union address. (p. 127)
Consider the first temptation to change stones into loaves of bread. With no other human presence, the proposition is addressed to Jesus, to satisfy his hunger only. Implied here is the devil’s argument that if Jesus is the Son of God, it is demeaning to be faint from hunger, and moreover unnecessary, since divine power has been assigned Jesus. Jesus’ reply is drawn from last Sunday’s Ordinary Time Gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they are to eat, for the Father knows and will make provision. Such will come to pass in Matthew 4:11 where the angels come to minister to him, presumably with food.
The second and third temptations reflect Matthew’s inspired theological imagination, for the text literally states that the devil transported Jesus to improbable or impossible locations. France refers to these transportations as “not physical but visionary.” (p. 131) The second temptation takes place at an elevated spot on the Temple where a fall might be fatal. Here we anticipate Shakespeare’s much quoted line from scene three of The Merchant of Venice: “Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” (Did St. Matthew inspire the Bard?)
The devil is quoting Psalm 91: 11-12, which speaks of God’s protection to all who “live in the shelter of the Lord.” If this Bible passage applies to the humblest Jew, would it not indeed apply to God’s own Son if he jumped from the Temple?” This is the devil’s second request of Jesus to prove that the divinity attributed him at his baptism is more than an empty title. Matthew, in fact, will use this language again in his Good Friday narrative when hostile crowds demand that Jesus prove he is God’s Son and come down from the cross.
Evangelical scripture scholar Craig Keener punctures the devil’s temptation quite well: “It would be to act as if God is there to serve his Son, rather than the reverse.” The devil is ignorant of or unwilling to take Jesus at his word that “the Son of Man has come to serve, not to be served.” In our Sunday text Jesus responds to the second temptation with another Hebrew Scripture quote, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6: 16)
The final temptation reflects apocalyptic imagination, for it is depicted in a place that does not exist, a mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen, and raises the stakes to the core of the cosmos. The devil drops the “if you are the Son of God” segue and cuts right to the chase. All the kingdoms of the world would come to Jesus if he acknowledges the superiority of Satan. This is a direct challenge to the relationship of Jesus to his Father. France reminds us that universal domination was regarded by some Jews as the hallmark of the Messiah, but such a role—and its lethal cost extracted here—is beyond anything related to Jesus’ vision of the Reign of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. The temptation is rejected out of hand and the devil dismissed.
Spending this day with the Temptation narratives has brought me a profound appreciation of why this text is so appropriate for the First Sunday of Lent, for it describes the internal struggle of the human Jesus to come to grips with Baptismal reality, a struggle we renew within ourselves this week as we take the ashes of holy Lent.