My Dear People,
From the waters of the Jordan the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. This is the rugged Judean wilderness west of the Dead Sea. Here Jesus goes for a grueling forty days and nights of fasting. He faces not only harsh conditions, utter loneliness, and the gnawing discomforts of hunger, he also endures the assaults of his archenemy, the devil. Matthew presents this ordeal as an escalating series of three temptations. The first temptation is the most subtle, the second is less so, and the third is the most blatant and audacious. All are attempts by Satan to divert Jesus from the path of human suffering and obedience that his mission entails.
The first temptation reads: “If you are the son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” The devil would have Jesus perform a miracle to relieve the suffering of his languishing body. Some take this to mean that Jesus is tempted to gluttony, to stuffing himself beyond all limits of moderation. but there is something more subtle going on than a temptation of gluttony.
The focus is on the identity and power of Jesus. What was declared in public by the Father (3:17: “This is my beloved Son”) is now tested in private by the enemy. The devil challenges Jesus to use his divine might for strictly personal benefit. In effect, the reference to bread is simply the bait that hides the hook. The temptation is not really about food but about turning Jesus away from the difficult road that the Father wills for his Son (26:39). His mission is not to serve himself by exploiting his divine prerogative but to serve others by a life of heroic sacrifice (20;28).
Jesus responds with the words of Deut: 8:3: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” The statement is a short lesson on God’s priorities for our lives, teaching us that physical needs are not our greatest needs. The Word of the Lord is more essential sustenance for life than bread. Obedience to his Word is something for which we should “hunger and thirst” (5:6). Committed to this teaching, Jesus refuses to prioritize the cravings of his body over the higher obligation to do the will of the Father in all circumstances.
The second temptation brings Jesus to the holy city of Jerusalem. There the devil perches him high on the parapet of the temple and utters the words: “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” As in the first temptation, the divine Sonship of Jesus is central to the test. This time, however, the challenge is buttressed with a passage from Scripture, Ps. 91:11 – 12, in which God promises to protect and support the righteous person with his angels.
Immediately one notices how the tempter adjusts himself to the one being tempted. Jesus has quoted the Bible to express his commitment to live by God’s Word (v. 4), and so the evil turns to the Bible to press his second attack. Moreover, the setting of the temptation is significant. There are many elevations and steep cliffs throughout Palestine form which Jesus could take a fatal plunge. Why bring him to the temple in Jerusalem? Because this is where the God of Israel has chosen to make his presence dwell among his people. If there is any place where a Jew could expect the Lord to heed his prayer for deliverance, it is at the temple.
This second temptation is essentially a challenge to the trustworthiness of God. Satan wants Jesus to subject his Father’s promises to verification. Instead of trusting in the Lord’s care, which is the real message of Ps. 91, the devil urges him to certify the truth of the Scriptures by making a daredevil’s leap from the sanctuary. Such attempt to manipulate God into action is presumptuous. The Father will not be forced to prove himself at our bidding.
Jesus strikes back with words from Deut 6:16: You shall not put the Lord, your God to the test.” The original context of this passage is the rebellion of the exodus generation in the wilderness. At Massah, the Israelites had grown so weary and irritable that some demanded God give proof of his presence among them (Exodus 17:1-7). Failing to trust they dared to put the Lord to the test. Jesus will not make the same mistake. The Son will not turn his own experience of testing into a pretext for testing the Father.
The third temptation brings Jesus to the summit of a a very high mountain. The purpose is to give him a panoramic vision of all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence. This time the devil’s mask comes off. Insinuation has proven ineffective, as has quoting from Scripture. Now the foul ambitions of the demon are laid open to view.
Peering out at the great empires of the world, the devil says: “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” In essence, Jesus is being offered a shortcut to achieving his messianic objectives. Kingly power and international glory can be his without any humiliation or torment. In exchange, Satan wants nothing less from Jesus than a brazen act of apostasy and idolatry. Jesus has refused the offer to serve himself rather than his mission from the Father and he has declined the challenge to test the Father’s goodwill. Now he is asked to repudiate the father altogether by surrendering himself to the lordship of Satan, the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31).
Still Jesus remains unmoved. He responds. “Get away, Satan!” and drives the devil off with the words of Deut 6:13: “The Lord, your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” The context of the quotation is instructive, for it prohibits the worship of “other gods” (Deut. 6:14). Bowing before Satan would be such an act of idolatry, and Jesus will have no part of it.
In the end, Jesus has proven himself the loyal Son of God. Neither the pangs of hunger nor the prospect of worldwide kingship have been able to bend his will away from the Father’s. In a final scene, we are told that angels from heaven came and ministered to him. Most likely this means the Jesus was fed by the angels, much as Elijah was in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19: 4-7).
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Vincent Clemente