Tempted in the Wilderness

The tester in Matthew’s story, the diabolos, retains at least some of the responsibilities of the satan in older stories.

January 18, 2015

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Commentary on Matthew 4:1-17

The tester in Matthew’s story, the diabolos, retains at least some of the responsibilities of the satan in older stories.

The satan is an ally of God who tests the Creation to determine its soundness, a cosmic building inspector who enforces the Universal Building Code. In later stories and later religious imagination, the satan becomes Satan, the enemy of God, Creation, and all that is good and life-giving. The figure who appears in Matthew’s story is somewhere in between. You can hear that in the name the character is given: the diabolos. The word later gives us the Italian “Pollo alla Diavola” and the English “diabolical.” The Greek word is not quite so devilish: it refers physically to the act of throwing something across someone’s path, and is well-translated as “slanderer.” Such a character is no ally, but neither is a slanderer necessarily a cosmic force of evil. Ask people in the building trades about code inspectors. Such officials enforce the Uniform Building Code so that no one will ever look at your house and use the words “creative” and “electrician” in the same sentence. That is good. But every contractor I know has encountered an inspector who is more nuisance than necessity. Some are petty and pointless. I have heard them accused of far worse things than slander.

Jesus has been called Messiah and Emmanuel by Matthew’s storyteller. These titles give him the task of turning the world right-side-up. We require plumbers and pediatricians to pass stringent tests before we allow them to carry out their tasks, so it’s no surprise that the Messiah would also be tested. You don’t turn just anyone loose on the world to hold a position of trust without first being sure they were up to the job.

With that in mind, the specific tests are fascinating, and well-suited to test the fiber of a Messiah. They test for ability to balance the two aspects of human being that are most often out of whack: aspiration appetite. The rabbis note that Genesis 3 presents a similar test: Havvah (Eve) over-reaches and aspires to “be like God.” Mudguy (Adam) only reaches for food without even noticing what it is.

In Matthew 4, the Messiah is given a chance to ease his hunger. After forty days of fasting, he is hungry and fasts are made to be broken (remember the ordinary English word “breakfast”). But the Messiah refuses.

Several years ago, a colleague had a daughter approaching her bat mitzvah. She was experimenting with how (and whether) she wanted to be Jewish as she approached this decisive day of taking on the discipline of Torah observance. One day she asked what was wrong with pepperoni pizza. She had tasted it at slumber parties, and had liked it very much. “If God created the earth and every creature on it,” she argued, “what could be wrong with enjoying the taste of the pork that goes into the pepperoni?” Probably she expected her father to issue a prohibition and thus provoke the sort of fight that adolescents so often pick and imagine that they win. Instead, he responded with a challenge: “You will have to decide,” he said. Then he held his breath.

After a relentless round of slumber parties, she announced her decision. “There is nothing wrong with pepperoni pizza,” she declared. “God made it, and there is nothing wrong with it.” Parental nervousness began to boil. But she continued: “There is nothing wrong with pepperoni, but there is a lot that is right with learning self-control. When I smell pepperoni, I will remember that I am a Jew and that I know how to control myself.”

Jesus is being given the same test. Both pass.

Next Jesus is tested to see whether he will fall victim to the notion that being Messiah makes you immune to the laws of nature. “Throw yourself down,” says the tester. “Gravity is no hindrance to the Messiah.” This is a version of the test given every time someone tells you that disease is no obstacle to anyone who truly believes. “All who ask, receive,” they say, implying that anyone living with ALS (or Juvenile Arthritis or any other of the diseases that hunt us and haunt us) is only sick because they lack the faith to ask for healing. “Throw yourself on the healing power of God and do not doubt,” they say. Jesus does not seem to believe that an exemption from the laws of nature is a proper attribute for anyone associated with the Messiah. He seems to prefer to be Emmanuel (God-With-Us) at this point, and that means he is subject to the laws of nature just as we all are.

The final test examines his ability to refuse the lure of revenge. Yes, the test involves the act of worshiping the diabolos rather than God, but the real test is whether or not Jesus, the survivor of genocide (Matthew 2), will leap at the opportunity to control the forces that killed his cousins and aunts, every toddler in Bethlehem and all who attempted to defend them.

Reading this part of the story is dangerous. If Jesus is being asked to surrender the hope of justice, then he fails the test by declining the offer. But the test is more subtle than that. “Vengeance is mine,” God is quoted as saying (in Deuteronomy and Romans), but there is something loose in our religious imagining that misses that this is both a promise and a restraining order. When we sing “Let the fires of your justice burn” (in the “Canticle of the Turning,” a hymn that I like very well), something in us wants to light the match, or maybe even stoke the fire. Such acts are tense with danger. Sometime soon after we hear the hope of real justice and real restoration we enthrone our notion of retribution as God. As soon as that happens, violence is God, and violence begets vengeance, and from violence and vengeance proceeds the broken breath of grief.

The rest of Matthew’s story of the Messiah, God-With-Us in a dangerous world, tells the expanded story of this final test. Can the hope that the world will be turned right-side-up balance itself between our aspiration for justice and our appetite for vengeance? Matthew’s story finally offers the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, not as a resolution, but as a promise that Emmanuel means more than we might have initially guessed.


God of strength, your son Jesus withstood many temptations because his love for you was greater than his earthly desires. Make our love for you so strong, that we might withstand anything that threatens to stand between us and your love. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


Light dawns on a weary world ELW 726        

Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult ELW 696, H82 549, 550, UMH 398, NCH 171, 172

Is there anybody here who loves my Jesus Traditional Spiritual        


He shall give his angels charge over thee, Felix Mendelssohn