Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11
We know this scene too well.
Matthew puts Jesus in “the wilderness” immediately after his baptism and confronts him with options that will address all the desires of a normal human: food, simplistic thinking, and power. The pastor’s challenge is to work at making a familiar text strange, at least to you, so that you can see into it in a new way. Tell yourself what you think this scene is about and then ask yourself why enough times until you get to a new insight for yourself. The people in the assembly will be glad to be taken to a new thought and a new emotional connection to Jesus’––and their own––situation.
I see a move in this First Sunday in Lent away from pious admonitions in the Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday––to do more giving, praying, and fasting. Even while we are being exhorted during Lent to deepen our commitments to faithful living, Lent calls us to focus not on what we are doing but to focus on Jesus. The point in this text is not that we ought to take on the same fast as Jesus did in the wilderness (forty days means not exactly that number but a long time … longer than is comfortable) or that he was strong enough to say no to the devil despite what the story suggests is extreme hunger. Oh, see how he resisted an easy out! Instead, a question is posed through the interaction between Jesus and the Great Tempter that gets at the question of Jesus’ identity.
The Tempter confronts Jesus with the opportunity to differentiate himself from what is not life-giving. By denying the goodies he could have, he articulates the parameters around who God is. In other words, what is truly life-giving resides inside certain boundaries. It doesn’t feed itself at the expense of its proper allegiance. What gives true life does not take a short-cut to wisdom (latching onto a simple way of interpreting Scripture, as if a literal understanding was appropriate to its profundity) or grasp for power.
We know Jesus’ identity is the matter at hand because the offering the Tempter puts to him is a kind of snotty challenge: “If you are the Son of God …” It’s as if someone has whispered to the Tempter, “Psst. Hey! That guy over there thinks he’s God’s Son. Shake him down! See what you can get out of him.” The story doesn’t tell us how this knowledge came to the Tempter. It is an assumption in the narrative. The Tempter just shows up there in the wilderness––defined as a place without sustenance or comforts––and immediately begins to find a chink in the armor of God’s Son.
To make food appear when one is famished is a primary hunger, as it were. To let go of one’s sensibilities in a situation where falling from a great height means death (standing “on the pinnacle of the temple” in verse 5) would be to abandon deep reading of God’s word by taking it literally. To take power over others feeds the ego. Food, simplistic thinking, and self-importance are what is at stake here.
Jesus sees through the attempted traps. He will not let the Tempter make himself give up his self for the sake of assuaging his physical desires, his hunger. He will not let the Tempter narrow his understanding of God’s word so that it becomes a litmus test for faith. He will not yearn for or grab influence in the way of human beings who find themselves unsatisfied unless they have status that is admired by other humans. In short, Jesus will not yearn primarily to be given what feeds the physical body or hunger to know fully what God’s word means or grab importance.
The result of these denials is that “angels” visit Jesus in verse 11. I imagine them doting on him as does a parent when a child recovers from a dangerous illness or has been lost and is suddenly found. They wait on him, which in the parlance of a fine restaurant, means they have an eye for his needs and are ready to provide whatever that is. They are from God as messengers who come because Jesus is recognized through his refusals as one who is devoted to truth and goodness.
The question for the assembly gets at how we are to understand these denials in our own lives. If I find myself moved to eschew physical pleasures or to keep myself from latching onto a too-glib understanding of God’s truth or stop myself from giving in to my desire to be well regarded by others, how do those angels manifest for me?
The question in the text that is the most difficult to answer is precisely the question in the text that the preacher ought to tackle. The answer about the angels could be a journey through imagined possibilities about what sort of form the “being waited on” might take in our lives. I think of the relief I feel when I have stopped striving after something too hard to achieve, when I let it be enough in my life that I am a beloved child of God just as Jesus was addressed by the voice that named him Beloved. How good it is to know my strength when I have turned away from a damaging pattern of behavior! How much more interesting my searching can be when I keep asking why instead of settling for an easy and widely approved interpretation of something.
We hear of the snake’s apple on this day, as well, because what happens to Jesus in his encounter with the Tempter is an elaborate additional description of how the knowledge of good and evil can twist our minds and hearts––how stuck we are each day with the Tempter in the guise of a snake and an apple.