Sunday reflection: Matthew 4:1-11

posted at 11:01 am on March 5, 2017 by Ed Morrissey

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 4:1-11:

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.

Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

The first time I recall hearing someone say, “The more I learn, the less I know,” was probably in my early twenties. Before that, I could sing the refrain to the Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” — I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now — and get another glimpse of the same wistful and humbling nature of experience. Even without the context of experience it sounded like wisdom, and I vaguely remember thinking that it would make even more sense later in my life. Three decades later, the nuances of the song and the adage (based off a quote from Albert Einstein) just keep getting more and more pertinent.

Life teaches us humility, whether we desire it or not, and in a particular way — by constantly reminding us of just how much we don’t know, or ever will know. Our arc of wisdom takes a curious direction, almost akin to the film Benjamin Button, whose protagonist was born old and aged backwards toward infancy. In life, many of us start off believing we burst onto the world fully formed, and fully armed with wisdom and knowledge. We put our confidence ourselves, considering ourselves the be the largest part of the world, and believing deeply that we really know everything there is to know and that we can run things better than anyone else. As we age, we grow smaller, less arrogant, while the world expands impossibly around us.

Today’s readings bring this to mind. In our first reading from Genesis, the creation of man is explained, and then the fall from Eden. Adam and Eve are young, close to the Lord, but full of desire to master the world. The serpent tempts them to disobey by promising that they will become God’s equal when they eat the forbidden fruit, able to discern good from evil and run things themselves rather than trusting in the Lord to do so. They eat the fruit and thus gain knowledge and experience — but it also teaches them just how unprepared they are for the role they hoped to usurp. They discover their nakedness, hide from the Lord, and end up having to leave the Garden and brave the wilderness on their own — and find out how much they really don’t know.

Through this act of disobedience and arrogance, Adam and Eve transform the world of the Lord into the world of men, and of original sin. From this point forward, we can divide reality into two parts: the world as God willed it, and the world that man created through devotion to his own will. Throughout the Old Testament, God continuously called men and women back to His will, only to have us choose repeatedly to serve our own will instead. The Lord called Israel out of Egypt to bear His word in Jerusalem as a nation of priests, so that all nations could hear His law and be saved. Israel instead chose to be a worldly nation of alliances and wars, and wound up destroyed and exiled. The Lord restores them to their land, only to have them fall back on their own sin and desires, and wind up under the thumb of the Greeks and then the Romans.

This brings us to our Gospel reading today, where Satan offers three temptations to Christ in the desert. At each turn, Jesus redeems the great failures of mankind. He first refuses to sell His birthright for food, answering both Esau and the Israelites’ rebellion that prompted the Lord to provide manna in the desert. Jesus then rejects Satan’s taunting demand for a test of His identity, answering the Israelites’ faithless idolatry of the Golden Calf as a way of rejected Moses and the Lord.

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus rejects the temptation that felled Adam and Eve — the promise of power that rightly belongs to the Lord. Jesus, sent to save mankind as the Word made incarnate, understands His place as the servant of the Father’s will. Rather than get caught up in His own desires and arrogance, Jesus accepts the will of the Father and refuses to bend to sin as the one true man, the redeemed Adam. He remains obedient, rather than usurp the Lord’s role.

By doing so, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, Jesus bridges the gap between the world of men and the world of God. “[J]ust as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so, through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all,” Paul instructs. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”

What is righteousness, though, except the realization of our proper relationship with the Lord, and through that with each other? The law and the prophets all aim at two eternal truths — there is one God, and we are not Him. Therefore, we should not murder, steal, or blaspheme, because to do so is to claim God’s place as our own and to reject eternity for a bite of dangerous fruit. Love your neighbor as yourselves is the practical command that is predicated on the basis that we occupy the same relative status as our neighbors when it comes to the authority of God, and the same knowledge of all the world — far too limited to run it, and most times too blinkered to realize it.

Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies as well as our neighbors makes this predicate even more clear. In fact, there’s no other way to read it, other than each life has the same sacramental value to the Lord. We should care for it for the same reason we care for our own — because it all belongs to the Lord, and we should act within His will, not our own. If we love the Lord with all our heart, we have no room for hatred or jealousy with His other children. We may act according to the law simply because it’s the law, but if it does not touch our hearts and make us realize why it matters, then we become Pharisees. For most of us, we learn the hard way just how limited we are, and find righteousness almost by the process of elimination.

Serving righteously may be difficult to do in this world made from the will of mankind, disordered as it is by human beings clinging to their own wills rather than the Lord’s. But perhaps this disorder serves the Lord’s will, too, in a way. As free beings, we can choose to accept or reject the Lord, part of the gift of free will and being made in His image. In some manner, we all face that temptation — to usurp the Lord, assuming we can control the world and have enough knowledge and will to run it for ourselves. We spend this life exhausting ourselves in those efforts, slowly learning our limitations and shortcomings, and finally understanding just how little we truly understand. If we allow it, that provides a powerful formation process to ready ourselves to accept the Lord’s will in our hearts, as well as by our actions.

We need to learn these lessons now, so that we know to trust the Lord in the world He truly means for us when we are ready to accept it through Christ, who rebuked Satan and taught us to do the same. Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 18:3 that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We need to go through that process described so lyrically by Dylan, or to use our knowledge to realize how much we need to rely on the Lord.

I was so much older then, we can sing, adding hopefully, I’m younger than that now. May our love of God and reliance on His will make us young enough for that wisdom.

The front-page image is “The Temptations of Christ,” a 12th-century mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.


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