Summary: Exegesis of the Temptation in the Wilderness and an examination of the reality of the Devil from a non-fundamentalist perspective. "The greatest achievement of the devil was to convince people he no longer existed."
Sermon: 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A: 17th February 2002.
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I can resist anything… except temptation!”
So said the great wit, Oscar Wilde. Of all things in this world, temptation is something that we are not short of, and something which most of us, like Oscar Wilde, find difficult, if not impossible to resist. From the quick fix or the short-cut to the last apple doughnut in the window of the bakery on Albert Road, temptation confronts us on every side.
Our Gospel this morning takes the form of a Midrash, a Hebrew narrative which contains scriptural teaching; quite different from a parable which uses a narrative to explore a moral or theological perspective. Midrashim were popular in the rabbinical age in which Our Lord lived. The temptation of Christ reveals to us much about Christ’s two natures as God and Man and also about the nature of the temptations which are presented to us in this world. So let us examine the text before us, which you will find printed in the middle of this week’s bulletin sheet.
The 40 day period in the wilderness is an echo of the 40-year Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. The Gospel writers were not as assiduous as a modern author for historical accuracy, and were more interested in shaping a narrative to reveal great truths about their subject, so 40 days was often a euphemism for “a long time” – it rained for 40 days and nights during the great flood, for example. Note that it was the Spirit, the Holy Spirit which led Jesus into the wilderness to confront this temptation: it was no accident or opportunity, but a clear and planned act of what we often call “Spiritual Warfare” or the confrontation between Christ and the personification of Evil.
All of Jesus’ answers to his temptation are quotations from Deuteronomy Chapters 6 or 8. The individual temptations in Matthew are not as bizarre as they appear at first glance; for they are all based upon ways of sinning against the great commandment to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). To the Rabbinic teachers of the time, “heart” referred to the two affective drives or impulses: good and evil, “soul” means life, whilst “might” represented wealth, property and other external possessions.
The Tempter repeatedly refers to Christ as “Son of God”, which is a clear statement of his divine nature, but is also is a euphemism for the people of Israel; in resisting these temptations, Our Lord is acting as a representative of the Jewish people, and whereas they so often failed in their testing in the wilderness, Christ would prevail, and would ultimately win on their and our behalf.
So, in the first temptation, Jesus is offered the chance to sate his physical needs, and to reject that which comes from heaven – another neat link with the manna from heaven which the Hebrews rejected during the Exodus. Christ here is proved to be fully human: why else would this temptation be placed before him first. After such a considerable time in such an inhospitable location, he was bound to be physically hungry, and yet he resists the temptation with the revelation that physical needs alone are not sufficient for life [Deut 8:3]. Important, yes certainly, but not “alone”, and it is that adverb which makes all the difference. To grasp the full significance of the response you need to place it within the context of Deuteronomy Chapters 6 to 8, where it is the Word of God which is the dominant life-force throughout the world, and physical support comes as a by-product of that.
The second temptation whisks us away from the desert and to the giddy heights of the temple in Jerusalem. The Tempter attempts to use Scripture (in this case, Psalm 91, quoted from the Greek Septuagint rather than the original Hebrew version) to mislead Jesus [Ps 91:11-12]. It shows us that the Scriptures are placed before us as authoritative, but they have the capacity to be misused. Many people have misused Scripture to push a particular view, theological point or even their own petty bigotry. Christ’s response is direct and forthright and puts Scripture in its rightful place [Deut 6:16]. Scripture speaks to the heart, and appeals to the intellect, and those who wish to take sections of the bible out of context or manipulate them for their own ends, like many fundamentalists reject the rightness of Scripture in the heart and the mind.
The third temptation invites Christ to sacrifice principle for material gain: wealth, power and (as it always goes with wealth and power, one must assume sex also). Jesus is offered all this at the expense of his faithfulness to God, and to the covenant made between God and the Jews. Time and time again the Chosen People showed they were not capable of monogamous religion, and they flirted with other, heathen Gods. But Christ points the way through Scripture [Deut 6:13] back to the faithful relationship with God. Only monogamy and monotheism will do.