Matthew 4:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards 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.’”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.’”7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Once a year, at the start of the season of Lent, we revisit the story of the temptations/testing of Jesus in the wilderness. In many ways, it is a well-worn passage of Scripture. We can easily rest on the surface, but besides setting the stage for this season of fasting what can we take from this passage?
It’s important to remember that the scene just prior to this one places Jesus at the Jordan, being baptized by John. In that moment the Spirit falls and God claims him as God’s own. Then, that same Spirit leads Jesus into the Wilderness, where Jesus is abandoned to his own devices. He begins fasting – forty days and forty nights (the foundation of our Lenten season) and ultimately to the devices of the tempter.
I think that we tend to take a surface read of this passage, not only because of its familiarity, but also because we tend to see Jesus as specially equipped for such matters. We attribute to him super-human qualities (even many who don’t embrace his divinity), and so we assume he can do things we can’t. But it’s clear from the passage that Jesus is not only famished, he is physically, emotionally, and spiritually vulnerable. These aren’t easy tests. The idea that he could turn stone to bread must have come to mind. Indeed, isn’t that how this all begins?
As we read this passage, especially in light of the preceding baptismal scene, this passage would seem to suggest that Jesus is being faced with the question of his own identity. “If you are the Son of God, then make stones into bread.” If you have the power, then use it. After all, who would know, but you? That leads into the second question – is Jesus willing to use his own spiritual giftedness in a way that benefits him? Is he willing to take shortcuts?
Jesus doesn’t bit on the first question – identity, and he doesn’t bite on the second, but the tempter isn’t finished. The first question is pretty simple – feed yourself. But, moving on, Jesus is faced with the question of the use and abuse of power. Throughout the Gospels Jesus faces certain expectations on the part of those who follow him. We see this played out in the Triumphal Entry scenes that will bring our Lenten journey to a close. If it is in his power to raise an army or capture the hearts and minds of the crowds, so as to bring into place the realm of God, doesn’t the end justify the means? After all, doesn’t Jesus encourage us to be as “wise as serpents?” (Matthew 10:16).
Having read this passage numerous times, and even preached on it a few times, I felt the need to consider whether there might be a new vantage point. What caught my eye is this back and forth duel between Jesus and the Tempter. Both use the Bible – the Tempter using it to entice and Jesus using it to turn aside the tests. As I considered this, I’m reminded that Scripture can be interpreted and used in different ways – it can be a source of encouragement and inspiration, or it can be used in abusive and evil ways. We can use scripture to bless and we can use it to curse.
Think for a moment about the way Scripture has been used to justify slavery, the suppression of women’s rights, anti-Semitism, and all manner of injustice. We are seeing it play out today with regard to marriage equality. It has been said many a time that one can prove anything with an appeal to Scripture, and that is true. We see this played out right here in front of us as Satan and Jesus trade responses, with both appealing to Scripture. The question then becomes – how do we use Scripture? Is it to be used in a self-serving manner or in a manner that shows love of God and love of neighbor?
I’d like to say that my reading of scripture is done appropriately, that I’m not using it in self-serving manner. But if I’m honest with myself, I know that this isn’t necessarily true. I pick and choose in ways that benefit me and mine.
The conversation moves from bread (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the stomach comes first) to spectacle – jump off the top of the temple, and draw a crowd, which can see how the angels come to your rescue. Now that will get you some followers. In the church growth business, we are tempted to use spectacle to gain followers – that’s what marketing is all about.
Finally, the conversation comes down to allegiance. If you give me your allegiance, then I’ll give you a portion of my kingdom. Be my vassal, and I will share some of my fiefdom with you. Maybe the tempter’s pathway is easier – surely it doesn’t involve a cross – it must have been enticing – but Jesus answers: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” In other words, the one to whom ultimate allegiance is owed is God, and God alone. God is the one from whom all authority and power ultimately is derived. It is a more difficult pathway, but it is the pathway that leads to the realm of God.
In his response to the tempter, as weak as he was, Jesus offers us guidance. There are two kinds of power – there is worldly power that seeks to lord it over others. There is also the power that comes from God, and this power liberates and reconciles. That is the message of the prayer that Jesus will teach his disciples, the prayer that many of us repeat at least weekly. We pray that the realm of God will come, the will of God is done, that we would receive daily bread (manna not French cuisine), receive forgiveness as we in turn forgive, and that we would be delivered from the tempter and the pathway of evil. May we be free to do what is right and good.
As we read this passage, may we hear in it a word of wisdom about how we read and hear and apply the Scriptures – may we refrain from the shortcuts that bring curses rather than blessings.