Summary: Year A. First Sunday of Lent Matthew 4: 1-11 February 17, 2002 Title: “Methods all Christians need to use in order to remain faithful to their identity as children of God.
Year A. First Sunday of Lent Matthew 4: 1-11
February 17, 2002
Title: “Methods all Christians need to use in order to remain faithful to their identity as children of God.”
After his baptism Jesus overcomes temptations to misuse his God-given powers by consulting Scripture and following its teachings.
Mark, the first gospel to be written, a copy of which Matthew had before him, simply states that Jesus was tested. Matthew and Luke elaborate on that. Each gives three examples of the content of those tests, although in different order. There is no satisfactory explanation for the different order, even though they clearly derived their accounts from the same source, “Q.” Jesus’ identity as Son of God and his mission as Servant of God were, no doubt, tested throughout his life. He was constantly being tempted to use his extraordinary powers to take shortcuts to successfully completing his mission and to make even his own life more comfortable. These tests or temptations are presented not only as examples of Jesus’ overcoming his own challenges, but also as typical examples of how his followers are tempted and how they are to overcome them. Jesus’ method, asking “What does Scripture say?,” is the method all Christians are to use in order to remain faithful to their identity as children of God and their mission as servants of God.
In form, this scene resembles how rabbis would debate, the Jewish equivalent of the Greek Socratic method. Each one would quote from Scripture to bolster his point. Arguments were settled by determining which side presented the truest and fullest picture of what Scripture really and completely says. Matthew is teaching by using that method. Jesus is presented as “fulfilling,” Scripture, as the one who not only says what Scripture says but does what Scripture says. Matthew and Jesus establish the basic hermeneutical principle: the best commentary on any verse of Scripture is the rest of Scripture itself.
In content this scene unpacks what was said of Jesus by God at his baptism. He is simultaneously God’s Son, in being, and God’s Servant, in doing. The people understood themselves to be God’s son collectively, like a corporate personality. They failed to both be and do what they should. Jesus succeeds where they fail. He accepts the challenges of life as so many tests of integrity and fidelity, as opportunities to grow spiritually, all the while refusing to test God’s integrity and fidelity. These three scenes are to be understood as consequences of Jesus’ acceptance of his divine sonship, not as doubts about it.
In verse one, wilderness: The locale of the desert is not important. It is a symbol for a place of testing, and reminds of the Israelite wanderings. They failed where Jesus succeeded. Even Adam in the lush and plush circumstances of the garden failed. It is not circumstances, but attitudes, which explain the difference.
The Spirit: The same Spirit who descended upon him at baptism, now leads him through the trials and tests and temptations of life. That Spirit does not shield him from negatives, but strengthens and enlightens him to conquer them.
To be tempted: The verb Greek peirazein, has two senses: to tempt and to test. On the human side the appropriate sense is “tempt.” On the divine side, since God tempts no one, James 1:13, the appropriate sense is “test.” God can use the efforts of evil people, even of Satan himself, to accomplish his purposes. Satan here tries, attempts, to seduce, but God views it and uses it as a test.
By the devil: In pre-exilic times God was seen as the “tester.” In post-exilic times Satan was more appropriately understood as having that role. However, “testing and tempting,” is all he can do. Satan cannot make things happen, only lure humans into seeing them as good and desirable. In that sense Satan remains under God’s ultimate control.
In verse two, fasted: Though none of the evangelists say why Jesus fasted, there would seem to be little choice in a desert. Fasting is and was known to be an aid to clear thinking and serious prayer at least, up to a point.
Forty days: This was an expression for a prolonged but limited period of time, although it would remind of the forty years Israel spent in the desert and the forty days Moses and Elijah fasted.
In verse three, If you are the Son of God: “If” here means “since,” expressing assumption, not doubt. Satan appeals to human pride, goading Jesus to “prove,” himself by miraculously feeding himself. If Adam, who was not even hungry, would literally bite the bait amidst a garden of plenty, why would not Satan think Jesus would amidst a desert of stones? Jesus would later work miracles to feed others, but he would not use, misuse or abuse his power as Son to feed himself.