First Sunday in Lent

The temptation is to ease one of their tensions by going along with the Empire, its idolatry and exploitative behaviors

three loaves of bread stacked
Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 26, 2023

Gospel
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Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11



On one level the temptation is a story about Jesus similar to stories of other religious leaders in antiquity, who faced struggles early in their lives and prevailed. At Jesus’ immersion God confirmed him as the agent who would lead a movement towards apocalyptic transformation and the Realm of God. Jesus’ performance in the wilderness shows that he is trustworthy because, empowered by the Spirit, he faced the devil and remained faithful. 

The early twenty-first century is an age of untrustworthy leaders. The preacher might explore the kinds of leaders we can trust in our chaotic moment. Matthew implies criteria by which to make such judgments: trustworthy leaders point to values and practices similar to those of the Realm of God, while untrustworthy leaders advocate attitudes and behaviors that are similar to those of the broken old age.

On another level, Matthew narrates the story of the temptation as a paradigm for the church. Apocalyptic theologians, including Matthew, anticipated a period of intensified suffering in the last days when God and the devil would intensify their conflict. People would be tempted to relieve their uncertainty and suffering by turning away from the values and practices of the Realm of God, and turning to the devil, settling for the present broken state of the world. 

Matthew 4:1-11 is one of many signals in Matthew that the intense end-time suffering is happening. Jesus and the devil come face-to-face. The church must choose: the way of the Realm or the way of the devil. The church should take its model from Jesus and, in the power of the Spirit, live faithfully. Matthew uses the three temptations as models of points at which the church is tempted to turn away from the movement towards the Realm of God and to continue to live in the selfish, violent, self-destructive ways of the old age.

The Matthean Jesus responds to the devil three times by quoting from Deuteronomy, thus invoking the larger Deuteronomic world view. The Deuteronomists wrote in connection with the Babylonian exile to explain that the exile resulted from idolatry, injustice, and other acts of disobedience, and to encourage the community to avoid repeating that scenario by worshiping the living God, practicing justice and being otherwise obedient. The Matthean Jesus assumes similar themes but in an apocalyptic frame of reference: faithfulness leads to the Realm of God but unfaithfulness results in destruction.

Christians often misperceive the first temptation as a choice between the material, physical world, and its values (represented by bread) and the spiritual, nonphysical world and its values (represented by the word of God). However, everyone must have bread and other material goods to live. Jesus replies to the first temptation with Deuteronomy 8:3.

The issue from the standpoint of Deuteronomy is where the community turns for bread and other resources necessary for survival—to idols or to the living God. And the issue is not simply liturgical worship but to living in the ways authorized by the one worshiped. Does the community seek to secure its life by going along with the ways of the present broken age, or by living in the covenantal ways of the Realm?

The second temptation takes place on the pinnacle of the temple, a highly visible place. At issue is the path to the Realm: the movement to the Realm is not the way of dramatic public events designed to call attention to themselves but the way of faithfulness in the face of the devil and the powers of the old age. 

Jesus does perform miracles (noteworthy actions that arrest attention). However, they are not self-serving, nor do they represent God doing something arbitrary, such as sending the angels to pluck a falling Jesus out of the air. The miracles demonstrate the Realm. Matthew 4:7 cites Deuteronomy 6:16, which itself recollects Exodus 17:1–8, when the people did not trust God to provide water in the wilderness. Matthew implies an interpretive move similar to Deuteronomy 6:16; in its context Deuteronomy 6:1–25 warns the community against disobedience and promotes obedience. This means avoiding the cheap path of public exhibitionism and following the difficult way of Jesus towards the Realm. 

The preacher might comment on the importance of interpreting scripture appropriately. In his “On Eagles Wings,” Michael Joncas set the same passage to music that the devil cites, Psalm 91:11–12.1 Joncas intends to reinforce the singers’ confidence in God. Joncas’ hermeneutic is appropriate in contexts in which communities need reassurance. By contrast, the devil’s hermeneutic is inappropriate because it uses the Psalm to violate the purposes of God. 

The Roman Empire is in the background of the third temptation. The devil offers Jesus the leadership of a world whose social structure is a rigid social pyramid with the privileged controlling the resources while repressing the many people in the middle and at the bottom of the pyramid. Rome, like other empires, created idols in its own images to justify its controlling social power. 

The Matthean Jesus rebuffs the above scenario by citing Deuteronomy 6:13: worship God. The God of Deuteronomy is beyond human image and seeks a community whose structures engender mutuality so that “it may go well with you in the land.” Following the “other gods,” led to the defeat of Judah and to exile. The same will be true if the Matthean community compromises with the gods of the Romans and with the exploitative values and behaviors of the empire. 

For Matthew’s congregation, the temptation is to ease one of their tensions by just going along with the Empire and its idolatry and exploitative behaviors. This temptation is before every congregation in the United States—and other places—right now. Deuteronomy reminds the Matthean congregation that yielding to this temptation will set the community a path to destruction. In the day of Deuteronomy, that end was exile. Upping the ante, Matthew anticipated the destruction as an apocalyptic cataclysm. The Matthean Jesus invites the community to an alternative: worshiping God, which means living towards the Realm through love, peace, justice, and abundance for all.

This text sounds one of the major themes of Lent: reflecting on points at which the congregation and culture are moving in the direction of the Realm of God and points at which we are tempted to work against the values and practices of the Realm. When the latter come to consciousness, the traditional Lenten emphasis on repentance is only a prayer away.


Notes

  1.  https://hymnary.org/text/you_who_dwell_in_the_shelter_joncas (accessed September 30, 2022).