Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11
Temptation, seduction, betrayal…
Taglines of a new Hollywood blockbuster? No, just an overview of the biblical readings appointed for the first Sunday in Lent! From the Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, through Paul’s exploration of how Jesus functions as a “second Adam,” to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, these readings cut to the chase of what it is to be human.
Although four of the five Sundays in Lent in the year of Matthew are inexplicably made up of passages from John’s gospel, Lent 1 draws us to Matthew’s vivid portrayal of Jesus’ temptation that sets the stage for much of what is to come in this gospel as well as the season of Lent.
While the temptation of Jesus is referenced in Mark briefly, the scene is considerably fleshed out in Luke and Matthew, suggesting a common source that each redacted to suit larger narrative purposes. Matthew, for instance, portrays Jesus as fasting as a righteous Jew should. He also has a different ordering of the Tempter’s trials, placing the temptation to worship Satan as the culminating episode in the scene, one that calls for Jesus not just to reject the specific temptation, but the Tempter himself.
Taken together, the three rejected temptations not only demonstrate that Jesus is righteous according to the law but also prove his identity as God’s divine and beloved son. Indeed, Satan’s temptations get immediately to the core question of Jesus’ identity, calling into question his relationship with God by beginning with the provocative, “If you are the Son of God….” This relationship, announced just verses early at his baptism, is now confirmed through Jesus’ unswerving trust in God.
Individually, each temptation invites Jesus to turn away from trust in God in a different way. In the first, the devil invites Jesus to prove his sonship through a display of power; that is, by establishing his validity and worth through his own abilities. In the second, the temptation is to test God’s fidelity. In the third — more an out-and-out bribe than temptation — Jesus is promised all the power and glory the earth can offer if he will give his allegiance and devotion to the Tempter. In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation and lodges his identity, future, and fortunes on God’s character and trustworthiness.
There is little question that the source Matthew and Luke depend upon has in mind the story of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days, just as the Israelites were for forty years. When tested, Jesus replies with Scriptural affirmations taken from Old Testament passages referencing the time in the wilderness. In this sense, Jesus repeats the trials set before Israel as he is about to commence his public ministry. Jut as Israel emerged from their wanderings chastened, purified, and ready to inherit God’s blessings and promises, so also Jesus emerges from his trials confirmed in his identity and purified and strengthened for his awaiting mission.
Where Israel wandered as punishment for mistrust, however, Jesus fasts and is tempted in order to prove his trust in God and thereby his trustworthiness for the journey ahead. In this way, this scene not only links Jesus to the past of his ancestors, it marks him as superior to them and ready to inaugurate a new era in the ongoing history of God and the people of God.
While this allusion to Israel’s history provides an important launch pad for Matthew’s story of Jesus, the lectionary suggests another Scriptural echo: the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. In some ways, this may prove the more interesting connection as it gets to the core of what it means to be human.
Adam and Eve — and it is crucial to note that while Eve is the one who speaks, both are present throughout the scene (Genesis 3:6) — are similarly invited to mistrust God. Interestingly, the serpent doesn’t actually lie to Adam and Eve — they do not die; they do become more like God as God acknowledges. Rather, the serpent calls into question God’s trustworthiness by suggesting that there is more to the story than God let on. In this way the serpent sows the seeds of mistrust, inviting Adam and Eve to fulfill the deep want and need that is at the core of being human not through their relationship with God but by seizing the fruit that is in front of them. It is the temptation to be self-sufficient, to establish their identity on their own, that seduces the first humans.
Identity is again the focus of the Tempter in the scene of Jesus’ temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan begins. In other words, “How do you know you are God’s Son?” Hence the core of the temptation: “Wouldn’t it be better to know for certain? Turn stone to bread, jump from the Temple, worship me…and you will never know doubt again. You will know. You will be sufficient on your own.” The temptation is the same, but Jesus responds by refusing to establish his own worth and identity on his own terms but instead remains dependent on God. Jesus knows who he is, that is, by remembering whose he is.
Might it be that a part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition? To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill. Adam and Eve behold the fruit and conclude in a heartbeat that their hole is shaped just like that fruit. Yet after they eat, the emptiness remains. Today we might imagine that hole to be shaped just like a new car, or computer, or better house, or the perfect spouse.
But after laboring and sacrificing and obtaining these things, the emptiness remains. Blaise Pascal once described this essential condition of humanity as having a “God-shaped hole,” and this is what Jesus demonstrates. There is no filling of that gap, no permanent erasing that hole, except in and through our relationship with God. Or, as Augustine said, we humans are always restless until we rest in God.
Yet that, also, isn’t quite the full picture. To be Christian is not to have that hole, that need, that awareness of finitude erased once and for all. Rather, to be human is to accept that we are, finally, created for relationship with God and with each other. Perhaps the goal of the life of faith isn’t to escape limitation but to discover God amid our needs and learn, with Paul, that God’s grace is sufficient for us.
Perhaps faith, that is, doesn’t do away with the hardships that are part and parcel of this life, but rather gives us the courage to stand amid them, not simply surviving but actually flourishing in and through Jesus, the one who was tempted as we are and thereby knows our struggles first hand. This same Jesus now invites us to find both hope and courage in the God who named not only him, but all of us, beloved children so that we, also, might discover who we are be recalling whose we are.