Lent I – The Temptation of Jesus – Matthew 4: 1-11
“The present is singular.” Jorge Luis Borges
“The present is singular.” Singularity. Absolute. What is Absolute is singular. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6:4-5. Matthew’s use of Deuteronomy 6 in the narrative of the Temptation indicates that he would have known the Shema. I interpret the Temptation as a singular event in the life of Jesus, but at the same time an event that never distances itself from him nor he from it. The Temptation is a transcendent event. I will address this matter in more detail later. Because it is transcendent, it is it is always present, illuminating Matthew’s narrative motive and meaning. It culminates in an eschatology of cosmic inclusiveness reaching forward to a mission of baptism of all nations, backwards to the baptism of Jesus that occasioned the Temptation, sustained by the promise, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” 28:19-20. On a separate note, I believe that the Passion narrative is superimposed over the Temptation whose silent message is always that Jesus is victor not victim.
The Temptation was not originally a unit as is evidenced by the way it is treated in the several traditions. Mark and John have no interest in the Temptation. Mark barely mentions it as if to say that the Passion story suffices. John never mentions the Temptation. Matthew, in presenting his gospel as the narrative of the New Genesis, has both Genesis and Deuteronomy in mind in the Temptation. A New Genesis requires a new humanity, and Matthew intends to offer a theological anthropology that will define his understanding of a new humanity. At the heart of that anthropology is Matthew’s view of discipleship that will form the foundation of his missiology, the redemption of the whole world. I believe that Matthew constructs the Temptation narrative for didactic purposes, to prepare the disciples and the young church for the difficulties ahead.
Matthew begins his narrative by identifying Jesus. He is the son of Abraham, 1:1, and Matthew intends Jesus as the fulfilment of all the promises made to Abraham. (Gen. 12: 1-3; 17:5-7). The wise men of the east call Jesus “the king of the Jews,” and they came “to worship him,” Mt. 2:2. When they found him, “they fell down and worshiped him.” Mt. 2:11. One may pledge loyalty and obedience to a king, but does one worship him? The word for worship, proskuneo, is used with reference to Jesus nine times in Matthew, hence it holds special importance. The devil will use this same word in 4:4, demanding that Jesus worship him. Matthew must mean something quite specific with this incident. He is saying that Jesus is the son of Abraham, but he is more than that. Matthew clarifies that, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” 2:15. Jesus is son of Abraham, inheriting the promises, and he is the son of God. In the scene of the baptism of Jesus, the identification of Jesus is more pronounced. “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” 3:17. For Matthew, the identity of Jesus is settled, the Divine itself has announced it. Consequently, in what follows, I shall focus on what the devil demands of Jesus: command these stones to become bread; cast yourself down from the pinnacle; fall down and worship me.
The ideas presented here lead me to the conclusion that the Temptation of Jesus is not intended to affirm the identity of Jesus. That is an established fact for Matthew. He has demonstrated it through genealogy, 1:1-17. He has shown it through history, “in the days of Herod the king,” 2:1. It makes a difference whether one believe that Matthew himself has constructed the narrative of the Temptation or has adapted it from Q. The latter has no interest in Jesus as the son of God. For Q, it is enough that Jesus is identified as the son of man. Matthew clearly identifies Jesus as the son of God. It is as the Son of God that Jesus enters the desert and is tempted. However, Jesus was not alone in the desert. He was led out there by the Spirit that descended upon him at his baptism. After the Temptation the angels came and ministered to him.
The First Temptation: Everything that takes place in the Temptation narrative does so under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was in the desert, fasting for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which he was hungry. Moses was on the mountain with God forty days and forty nights, “he neither ate bread nor drank water,” fasting as he received the commandments. Ex.34:28. Matthew would have known this. The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 boasted that he fasted twice a week. He was fulfilling the minimum requirements of the law. Fasting and hunger are not words used lightly. They tell us something important if we listen intently.
In the pre-Pauline hymn in Philippians 2, Christ emptied himself so that he became fully human. Fasting in the desert and emptying himself conceal a truth that needs to be revealed. This first Temptation is not simply about turning stones into bread. It is not a challenge to the authority and identity of Jesus. Hunger in this context is not a metaphor. It was real for Jesus, and it might have been real for the church. The devil says, “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He is demanding that Jesus change what God has made. That is the essence of this Temptation. Jesus rejects the demand. This creation is a gift from God, the stones are a gift from God, but only so long as they remain what they were intended to be. Is not Jesus himself stone also? “The very stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” 21:42. In 7:9 Jesus says, “Who among you, if your son asks for bread, would give him a stone?” Stones and bread are both gifts from God, having different purposes. Jesus is both stone and bread, yet he has a singular purpose, to be himself in the act of accomplishing the purpose for which he was sent. (The changing of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana in John’s Gospel calls for a different analysis in the context of the meaning of that Gospel).
Bread is a daily gift from God, so we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In 26:26 Jesus took bread and said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Jesus, the bread of life, the bread from heaven, gives himself as a gift to his disciples and to the church. He who is bread itself does not need to make stones into bread. He is stone and bread. He is self-sustaining and self-nurturing and for this reason he can fast for 40 days and nights. He empties himself; he is hungry; he gives himself as a gift to be consumed by his disciples and the church.
What Matthew teaches in this first Temptation is that Jesus renounces the devil and refuses to change what God has made. Instead, he chooses to remain hungry. Choice is a crucial factor throughout the temptations, and I will address it later. To choose to remain hungry is the more difficult course. Matthew wants his church to understand that they must face their own deprivations with the same faith that Jesus used. His hunger and emptying is a singular event that teaches the church to stand firm in the face of difficulties. The devil knows this very well. Did he not tempt Adam and Eve with food? He tempts Jesus and the church similarly. The devil knows that so long as Jesus empties himself and remains hungry the redemption of the world is assured. The devil knows that the hunger of Jesus is nothing other than “Take, eat, this is my body given for you.” Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall never hunger.” Peter’s question is illuminating. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The first Temptation points to the past: to Adam and Eve; and to the future: to the Church, disciples active in mission, transcending both in an eternal singular present that is being redeemed. Jesus emptied himself, became obedient unto death, even the death on the cross. This is what the first Temptation wanted to prevent. There is an incident in Matthew 16 where Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed and on the third day rise from the dead. Peter takes him aside and says this will never happen. Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance for you are not on the side of God but of men.” Whatever prevents Jesus from accomplishing his work of salvation is deemed as Satanic. Matthew’s motif in the missionary enterprise of the church must not be hindered likewise.
The Second Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, and up to the pinnacle of the temple. It is somewhat curious that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert and the devil leads Jesus to the holy city and the temple. There will be another time when Jesus will enter the holy city to the shouts, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” But for the present, Jesus is accompanied by the devil. Now he commands Jesus, “Cast yourself down.” He whose name, dia-bolos, means “the one cast down” (Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9; John 12:31), wants Jesus to join him as one cast down. He wants Jesus to share his fate. If Jesus were to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he would be giving up his life in the holiest place. Jerusalem is the center of the world; it is the place from which salvation will go out to all parts of the world. It is the scene of the final struggle between the divine and the demonic in a great apocalyptic event. That is what we are told in the Revelation of John. We are also told that in the new creation John “saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb.” Rev. 21:22. He who is himself the temple cannot cast himself down. But for the moment, in the scene of the Temptation, all of this is hidden. It will be revealed at the appropriate time.
The didactic content that Matthew wants to communicate here is this: danger lurks even in the holy city and the holy temple. (Perhaps T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” may offer some insights). But where danger exists, the church can be assured that the Lord God will deliver the people. The devil knows this. He can quote scripture to support this. The devil himself was cast down, not of his own will, but by the will of the divine and the divine did not send angels to deliver him. Perhaps he himself was unsure that God would deliver Jesus. And this uncertainty is something that might have prevailed in Matthew’s congregations. He had to provide an answer that would inspire the faith of the members of his church. Matthew is warning the members of his church that danger lurks in the church itself, as Paul saw so clearly in many of his congregations. He is encouraging them to be careful and to continue trusting that God will deliver them from internal and external dangers. He does this by showing how Jesus faced such dangers and overcame them by trusting in the word of the Lord. Indeed, Jesus will later give up his life in a holy place, but not at the command of the devil. For the moment this too is hidden from the public.
Jesus says, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Matthew is cautioning his church not to tempt the Lord by any show of unfaithfulness or doubt. They are living in critical times, and they need to be careful of their words and their actions. The young church has just discovered new life in Christ, and they know that it is difficult to practice their faith in the public arena. Matthew has constructed the narrative of the Temptation to teach his church that they must not surrender their life to the temptation of the world. The devil asks Jesus to surrender his life, to give it up, in fact, to attempt suicide if his faith is so strong that God would deliver him. Matthew is saying that the dangers and trials which the church faces must be dealt with in the same way that Jesus rebuffed the devil. I find it curious that the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and asks him to sacrifice himself by jumping off the pinnacle. Jerusalem is the place where the Spirit will lead Jesus to the cross, to be lifted up, and then after a while to be taken down by his disciples and then again to be lifted up by the Spirit in the resurrection. The devil’s task is to cast down; the Spirit’s task is to lift up. One may pray to God, “Deliver us from evil,” but one may not tempt God by willing evil and then tempting God for deliverance. Matthew’s apologia is that God will certainly deliver the faithful.
The Third Temptation: The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain. Luke’s version has no mountain. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the kosmos, the natural world. In Luke, Jesus is shown the oikoumene, the populated kingdoms. “All these I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.” We may recall that all the kingdoms of the natural world have already been given to God’s first son, Adam, Genesis 1:26-31. These kingdoms are not the devil’s to give. What is Matthew trying to teach his church with the use of this Temptation? Perhaps some of the newer members who have come from Hellenistic backgrounds are not accustomed to a monotheistic faith. Some of them did not have a sense of a transcendent God who was at the same time imminent. We learn this from Paul who speaks of the people “who do not know God.” I Thess. 4:5. It is because of monotheistic preaching that these people “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. See also Gal. 4:8-9.
Note that in this third Temptation the devil does not say, “If you are the Son of God.” The Temptation is intended for a broader audience. I believe that Matthew is using a didactic technique that is intended to teach his church that the world will indeed offer them many things that are not theirs to offer to draw them away from their new-found faith. Later, in the Revelation of John, we will discover that Jesus will defeat Satan and everything will indeed be delivered to Jesus. Matthew is encouraging his church to be patiently faithful in these critical times and that their faith will be rewarded in time to come. In Rev. 2:20, the church at Smyrna which is under tribulation is told, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” Matthew is teaching a lesson about the strength and persistence of faith.
How shall we understand the episode of the testing of Jesus? The devil is certainly not a flesh and blood adversary standing before Jesus challenging him, as for example the Pharisees and Sadducees. What are we to make of the dialogue? Is it really a monologue between two distinct personas of Jesus? How to understand all this? I shall re-state what I have written elsewhere.
Matthew has constructed the Temptation of Jesus as an ecstatic apocalyptic vision in which Jesus is caught up, as John was in Rev. 1:10. John was “in the Spirit,” when he was caught up. Jesus entered this episode after the Holy Spirit had descended upon him, and he was led by the Spirit for forty days. When the testing was over, “angels came and ministered to him.” See also Paul’s apocalyptic vision, 2 Cor. 12. The demonic is hostile to the divine. An apocalyptic vision does not need to include each and every item that defines the content of apocalyptic. Mark 13 is an example of this. The young church was aware of such apocalyptic visions, and incorporated them into their worship as in Paul and the Apocalypse. Here in Matthew, there is a supernatural entity offering itself in place of the divine. There is symbolic apocalyptic language, the kingdom of this world as opposed to the Kingdom of God. There is also transport of the visionary without leaving the scene as in Revelation. There is a gradual progression within the narrative that culminated in the victory of the divine.
The Temptation of Jesus is a singular event, (apocalyptic visions by nature cannot be repeated, only re-told), a story that transcends time and place and uniqueness of meaning. It is a singular event that inhabits in every proclamation every “now” of the church. The church always exists in the context of temptation, that is, the church always exists in contexts of choices. As long as we can believe with Jesus, in the contemporary image created by Jorge Luis Borges that “The present is singular,” we too will transcend the divisions that challenge the church each day, each moment. We can never forget that the life of the church is a life of choosing. In Deut. 30:19 we read, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses; therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and cleaving to him.” Later, Joshua will say to the people, “choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” 24:15.
Now is the day of salvation! “The present is singular.”