A Provocation: The First Sunday in Lent: March 5, 2017: Matthew 4:1-11

Matthew 4:1-11
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

4:3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

4:4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple,

4:6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

4:7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;

4:9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

4:10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

A Question or Two:

  • What does it mean to “worship the LORD your God?”
  • No, really, what does that really mean?
  • Hint: it has little to nothing to do with being the right kind of Lutheran (or Catholic, or Baptist, or fill-in-the-blank).  It doesn’t even necessarily involve being Christian or Jewish or Muslim.  Oh, this will be trouble.
  • Hint: remember that “LORD” is the word used when the Bible uses the Unspeakable Name of God, the Name that points to God’s inexhaustible Mercy.  Just a Lenten hint.

Some Longer Reflections:

The first thing we have to do with this scene is fix the translation.  While this could be a scene of “temptation” (and that is a possible rendering of the Greek, πειράζω), it is a far stronger scene if you read it as a scene of “testing.”  The difference matters.  If this is “temptation,” then interpreters will imagine that the tempter is fishing, looking for any moral weak spot, and all the customary theological notions of temptation will come into play.  

For instance:

Food: That’s a temptation we can imagine, and everyone still trying to lose the weight gained at Christmas time will sympathize with Jesus.  But Jesus has been fasting, on purpose, for a long time.  It is no surprise to him that he is hungry, and no sin to look ahead to the ending of the fast.  He can eat when he wants.  

Jumping: The thing about jumping off the  pinnacle of the Temple will be a little tougher to imagine since no one in her right mind would do something like that.  And the default interpretation, that no one should test God, seems a little beside the point.  Even if Jesus says it.

Kingdoms: The last temptation is even tougher to understand.  Some few people get a chance to exert worldwide power and show themselves ill-prepared for the task, but most of us do not. So far 45 men have been elected president of the United States.  Each was, in some measure, inadequate to the task.  Some have been more remarkably inadequate than others.  You can make your own determination on such matters.  

For the rest of us, we do our jobs; we carry out our responsibilities, but there are no splendorous kingdoms hanging in the balance.  If this scene is meant to spur our reflection on resisting temptation for the sake of Lenten discipline, it doesn’t really hit the mark.  We’re not among the 45 presidents, and mostly won’t be, so “presidential” tempting doesn’t attract us.  

But if this is not random tempting, but sharply focused testing, the scene reads differently.

Testing is different.

I am a teacher.  Testing is part of my regular work.  Testing always has a purpose, and the purpose is NOT to keep deans and registrars happily supplied with grades to figure into my students’ GPAs.

Testing, first of all, serves to show students what they have not yet understood, and thus spurs future learning.

Testing also, and just as importantly, shows me what I have not succeeded in teaching yet.  Sometimes a test shows me that certain people in a class have not caught what I have been trying to teach.  Do those people share characteristics that led to them not mastering the material?  I will want to know that so that I can teach such people more effectively.  And sometimes I discover that most everyone has missed a key point.  Which means, of course, that I, myself, have missed the point and need to find a way of teaching that actually works.  Back to the drawing board.

Testing also provides an occasion for candidates to demonstrate that they are ready to practice the profession for which they have been preparing.  Nurses must pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) before being allowed to begin work as a Registered Nurse.  As someone who has been in the hospital, I am glad for this.  I am also glad that the physician who is diagnosing and prescribing had to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination.  And as a homeowner I am glad that anyone practicing as an electrician had to pass rigorous licensing exams.  That guarantees that no one will ever look at the wiring in my house and use the words “creative” and “electrician” in the same sentence.

Testing matters.  It keeps the world safe.

This little scene in Matthew’s story presents Jesus’ licensure exam.

It’s a short exam.  My comprehensive exams at the end of my Ph.D. program involved four 8-hour exams, one each Thursday for a month.  They were epic.  Jesus’ exams were shorter than that, but no less difficult.

The first exam, involving bread, is not as simple as it seems.  He could, indeed, eat any time he chose, breaking his fast when its purpose had been served.  The purpose of this exam is very like the purpose of observing kosher customs for my Jewish friends and colleagues.  Some years ago, one of my colleagues reported that his daughter (who was just approaching the age of her bat mitzvah) had demanded to know what was so wrong about pepperoni pizza.  She had come home from a sleepover at a friend’s house, and the pizza had smelled (and presumably, tasted) excellent the night before.  With the date on which she would become a “daughter of the Commandment” approaching fast, she insisted that her father tell her why keeping kosher made any difference at all.

My colleague was too good a father to simply answer with a prohibition.  His daughter already knew that Jews who keep kosher do not eat pepperoni pizza.  So he turned the question back to her.  After she got over grumping at him for refusing to take her challenge, she began an extensive period of research.  Every weekend was another sleepover.  Every sleepover involved pepperoni pizza.  Many sleepovers ended with a breakfast of bacon and eggs, sometimes without the eggs.  It was research.  Intensive research.

At the end of the research period, his daughter came and reported her findings: there was nothing wrong with either pepperoni pizza or bacon.  Especially not bacon.  Emphatically not bacon.  And, she declared, that if God had a problem with pork, God ought never to have created it in the first place.

This was, for all its theological forcefulness, a disturbing report for my colleague.  He had imagined that he was raising a Jewish daughter.  She had just declared that bacon was a divine creation.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with pepperoni pizza,” she repeated, “but there is a great deal that is right about self-control.”  She had decided that every time she smelled pepperoni or bacon (especially bacon) she would remember that she was Jewish and she could learn to control her appetites.

The rabbis would agree.

The rabbis see the same thing in the story in Genesis 3, which is also a testing scene.  The rabbis argue that when human beings go off the tracks, it is because we lose our balance in two key areas: aspiration and appetite.

When Eve is given a chance to “be like God,” she is reaching for something that will lead to ruin.  But it is not the fact of aspiration that is the problem.  Eve is right to aspire, to hope that her reach will exceed her grasp.  Human beings MUST aspire, or we would never have developed a vaccine for polio or found one possible genetic cause for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  But some aspirations are foolish, or destructive, or simply impossible.   I sometimes tell my students that I aspire to become the second baseman for the New York Yankees just to watch them try to swallow their chuckles and smother their smirks.  Nearly chokes them, sometimes.  I am no athlete; I never was graceful; and I am over 60 years old.  If I actually aspired to play professional baseball, it would be a kindness if someone were to help me get back into balance before I ruined my family’s finances and my own health by trying to do something that stupid.  Eve’s failure is a regular human failure: aspirations are powerful, but they must be balanced.

The rabbis notice that Adam was apparently standing next to Eve the whole time because when she handed him the fruit, having herself considered all the reasons it was desirable to eat it, Adam reflected not at all.  He just ate it.  Adam, in Genesis 3, is all appetite.  No questions, no pondering, no hesitation.  Gulp.  He ate it.  And then he went back to watching the game on TV.  Or something.

In Matthew 4, Jesus is also being tested for his ability to balance appetite and aspiration.  Can he control his appetite?  Yes!  He shows himself capable of the basic self-control expected of a 12-year-old Jewish girl.  So far, so good.

The test on the Temple top is a test of aspiration, but it is a specially focused test.  It is not a test normally given to a 12-year-old of either gender.  It tests, in the first place, whether the candidate is possessed of a pointless faith.  There are such religious people.  They find little random verses in the Bible (“On their hands they will bear you up….”) and they decide that this little metaphorical promise is now the one and only test of really true faith.  Sometimes they declare themselves cured from a dread disease and suspend all medical care.  Sometimes they don’t die when they do this.  Sometimes.  Other times they give away all their property and sit waiting for the end of the world, the delay of which is also a test of true faithfulness.  Sometimes their neighbors return their things when Jesus, yet again, fails to show up.  And sometimes they just send money they don’t have to the rich guy on TV who challenges them to give sacrificially so that they can receive abundantly.  It sounded so plausible on TV somehow.

But this test goes beyond all this.  Jesus has been presented as the messiah.  These tests are determining whether he has the balance to carry out that dangerous task.  An unbalanced messiah is a danger not only to himself, but also to the entire world.  That’s why the tester directs him to jump off the Temple.  Imagine a messiah who was not subject to the law of gravity.  Imagine a messiah who was not subject to any human limitation.  Imagine the theology that would flow from such a messiahship.  If the body of the Christ is not subject to gravity, is the Body of Christ (as in, Christians, all of them) also not subject to gravity?  And if we are not subject to the laws of nature, are we also not subject to moral laws?  This will get ugly fast.  “Don’t test the LORD your God,” says Jesus.  Good advice.

The last test is clearly a messiah-specific test.  The messiah carries the task of turning the world right-side-up.  Imagine a messiah who has the sheer power to do this.

Seriously, imagine that.

Stephen Miller, a White House policy advisor, announced recently:

“Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

This is a minor case, but notice the assertion that constitutional arguments need not be advanced, that evidence need not be presented, and that opposition will not be tolerated.  On what grounds?  Power is enough.  Power will not be questioned.

We have often imagined that the best peace-maker is a bigger bomb.  And we have often found ourselves in the midst of desperate warfare which did indeed call for bigger and more destructive weaponry.  But WWII was followed by Korea, which was followed by Vietnam, which was followed by a flurry of proxy wars, one after an endless other.  No one would pretend that the world is currently right-side-up.  A broken world will go to war again and again, out of tragic necessity.  But it will not bring peace.

Now imagine a messiah who believes that it will, that power to control and destroy will restore the world to the peace for which it was created.

Come to think of it, we imagine such a messiah with great frequency.  This morning in church we sang a contemporary praise song that praised Jesus for having power that none could oppose.  And in my childhood “The Son of God [went] forth to war, A kingly crown to gain…,” over and over, Sunday after Sunday.  For all of our reflection on the reality of the crucified messiah, we still seem to be fixated on the notion that our God (an awesome God, we are assured) is the biggest and baddest GOD of them all, never noticing the idolatry of power involved.  We rotate the hymns, we rework the religious language, but Power is still the god we worship in the end.

This could be an interesting Lent, I think.  This Provocation implies a discipline that I will find difficult.

2 thoughts on “A Provocation: The First Sunday in Lent: March 5, 2017: Matthew 4:1-11

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