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The Reading for Today…, Lent 1 (A) – 2005

February 13, 2005

The reading for today from Matthew’s Gospel is an odd bit of Scripture, isn’t it? This particular passage is full of images. They’re very vivid images, so vivid that we almost can’t help but imagine the scene of Jesus’ conversation with the tempter. If we have very lively imaginations, we might feel the heat of the desert or see a strange being with a pointed tail and horns. But even without imagining the scene, it’s an odd bit of Scripture, because as visual a scene as it is, it’s still surreal. We can certainly imagine Jesus going into the wilderness to pray and contemplate, but what should we think about the devil tempting him to do magic or taking him to the pinnacle of the temple and then to a high mountain and showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world? When the devil leaves him, angels come and wait on him. Matthew even tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. That doesn’t seem quite fair. Whose side is the Spirit on, anyway? And why tell us this story? What does it have to do with us?

It’s always helpful to look at where a passage comes in a particular Gospel. In this case, Jesus has just been baptized by John. In Matthew’s account, John says he should, instead, be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Right after today’s passage, Jesus hears of John’s arrest and seems to take up where John left off. Now, we hear Jesus and not John saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus’ mission begins.

It’s also helpful to consider the whole of Matthew’s Gospel. We find a very creative writer who makes good use of images and symbols and story. It’s part of Matthew’s style of writing, so that when we find an odd passage like this bit with images of demons, pinnacles, and angels, we shouldn’t be surprised and we don’t need to take it literally. We don’t need to imagine Jesus picking up stones and turning them into bread.

Matthew’s Gospel isn’t a diary of facts and figures. It’s all about Jesus’ mission and ministry: who Jesus is and what Jesus teaches his followers about their own ministry in the kingdom of God. So this passage begins to give us a glimpse into the person of Jesus. Remember, he’s just been baptized and is now seriously considering his ministry by taking time apart for prayer. Jesus understood that his baptism was a life-forming event, an event that would propel him into a world that would both celebrate his message and condemn him for it. Baptism should be the same for us. Matthew uses the image of the temptations to help us understand that connection between Jesus and us.

There are certainly many ways to consider how that connection works. One way might be to think about the place—the desert—and what the temptations might say to us. The place for Jesus was a real wilderness; if you’ve ever been to Israel, you can imagine how desolate and harsh it probably was then. People die in deserts, drained of every bit of life and will by the heat, the thirst, and the physical isolation. It always seems a huge understatement for Matthew to write, “Jesus fasted forty days and nights, and afterwards he was famished.” Famished! It’s a miracle he wasn’t crazed out of his mind! He should have been dead. So we begin to see this place as not only a physical place, for Jesus certainly went into the desert to pray, but also as that place deep within ourselves where we come face to face with God and our humanness. Remember, we’re not supposed to figure out how Jesus lasted forty days in the desert. We’re supposed to come to a better understanding of the ministry and mission of Jesus in relation to the whole story of salvation.

And that’s where the temptations come in. Again, this isn’t a story where we’re supposed to focus on what the devil might have looked like or what it might have been like for Jesus to “be put on the pinnacle of the temple.” Didn’t anyone see him up there? That’s not the point of this passage. This is about relationship. It’s about connection. Matthew’s point in describing the temptations was to connect Jesus to the ongoing story of salvation begun in the Old Testament. We see this connection in Jesus’ replies to the devil’s temptations. Jesus first quotes Deuteronomy, “One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus is identifying with humanity instead of relying on his divine power to change stones to bread. His ministry is to the people of God, and he accomplishes that by sharing their humanness.

In the other temptations, Jesus continues to model how we humans should behave. Again, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy when he points out that only God is worthy of humankind’s worship. God alone is the sovereign Lord; God expects humanity’s service. This homage is actually not even the devil’s to offer or expect. We’re reminded of the conversation between the devil and God in the book of Job. The devil tries to tempt God by assuming an equality that doesn’t belong to him.

The last temptation shows Jesus’ faithfulness—his discipleship. He again quotes Deuteronomy, pointing out that one shall not tempt the Lord (as quite frankly the Jews had attempted to do many times before). This reminds the readers of Matthew’s Gospel that a faithful Jew is faithful to God’s commands. A faithful Jew knows that God is sovereign Lord and is worthy of homage and service. A faithful Jew keeps the commandments and model for living as written in the Torah.

So, this place, this desert—whether the physical place or that place deep within where Jesus understood his connection to God and also to humanity—is a holy place. We learn from examining this place in Jesus’ life because we can connect it to that place in our own lives where we struggle with our relationship to God and to humankind. We can be supported in that struggle by this account. It helps us put things in order. It helps us remember that, when we might be tempted to put something in our lives before faithfulness to God’s law, we can remember that God is God and that God is our help and our salvation. God resides in all the places of our lives and makes them holy.

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Christopher Sikkema


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