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Sunday reflection: Matthew 4:1-11

posted at 10:01 am on March 9, 2014 by

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

Today’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.

Just recently, I watched and reviewed the film Son of God, a worthwhile effort that people should reward at the box office. The film follows up the blockbuster History Channel miniseries The Bible with a two-hours-plus depiction of the Gospel through the narration of John. While it’s very much a film worth seeing for the price of the ticket, a few of the more mystical and dramatic episodes of the Gospel didn’t make the cut for this film — including one of the most dramatic, the Temptation in the Desert.

At first blush, this entire sequence is puzzling. Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, consubstantial with the Father but also fully human in form. Why would Jesus subject himself to this kind of temptation? Why would Satan try to convert God, for that matter? What purpose did this serve in God’s plan for salvation?

In order to find the answers, one must look in this case for clues in the other readings today. The reading from Genesis includes the temptation of Eve and Adam in paradise, and the fall of humanity from grace. That fall results in a desire of both to usurp God by seeking to seize his power, urged on by the serpent, which is Satan. This arrogance results in disobedience and the sudden dimunition of humanity into a permanently fallen state, where concupiscence creates sinfulness and lack of grace in place of the original status of humanity as priests, prophets, and kings, and death results.

The second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, elaborates that “death reigned from Adam to Moses,” when God entered into history to save his people from destruction in the Exodus. God’s plan for Israel was to create a nation of priests, prophets, and kings to serve and teach the nations of the world to worship the one Lord and subject themselves to Him. Israel almost immediately balks at this mission, worshiping a golden calf instead of God himself, and bitterly complaining and demanding tests of God for Moses to prove His presence. Instead of being a priestly nation, Israel winds up needing one priestly caste to teach itself. After finally entering the Promised Land, Israel will eventually demand a political king that will usurp God’s rule through the prophets, and those kings eventually will start worshiping the idols of local nations as Israel grows more enamored of temporal power than in spreading the Word of God in their mission.

Thus enters Jesus to provide the final plan for salvation — but he must undo humanity’s errors in order to atone fully on our behalf. The three temptations parallel the failures of Israel to trust God in the desert. When Moses went up the mountain, Israel lost faith in God and attempted to worship idols such as their former enslavers did in Egypt. Yet Jesus tells Satan that despite his long privations in the forty days, He will not seek the riches that idol worship promises but remain faithful to God. Where Israel demanded water from the rock as a test from God, Jesus rebukes Satan for tempting Him to test God in the same way. When food ran low in the desert, the Israelites bitterly complained about their freedom, wishing to have been back in slavery; God sent manna to feed them, but rebuked Israel for its ingratitude and lack of trust. Jesus scorns Satan for his temptation to turn stones into bread, preferring the love of God over ingratitude and lack of trust in His power of deliverance.

Finally, these temptations seek to undermine the full humanity of Jesus by the same temptation that corrupted it in the Garden of Eden — the promise of temporal power by usurping God’s place. Instead of sinning in arrogance and disobedience as Adam and Eve did, Jesus refuses worldly power and chooses to remain the suffering servant in order to restore humanity’s ability to be priests, prophets, and kings. Moreover, for that atonement to fulfill man’s debt, Jesus must be fully human as well as fully divine. Jesus experiences the pain and suffering of his fast, but refuses (like Job, in another Old Testament parallel) to repudiate God in the midst of his suffering. That allows for mankind’s redemption through his sacrifice.

The Temptation in the Desert, therefore, encapsulates the entire mission of Jesus in saving the world for the kingdom of God. It prefigures the Messiah not as a worldly idol who magically transforms stones into food, levitates, and seizes material power, but a servant of God who will share in the divine life through His sacrifice for all. That also explains why Satan had to attempt to corrupt the humanity of Jesus, if not the divinity, in order to keep humanity in its fallen state and subject to the powers of sin and death. Jesus threatened to conquer both eternally, and did so, redeeming the flesh through the Word of God.

What does this mean to us, and for us? After all, it’s easy for us to point fingers at the Israelites in the Exodus for demanding God bend to their will instead of the other way around, or at the first of us who rejected paradise for the false choice of usurping God. It’s the same sin, and one could argue the same sin as Judas Iscariot, the zealot who may have wanted more out of a Messiah than what he found — an avenging warlord rather than eternal salvation.

How often do we demand that our will be done rather than God’s?  I know I’ve certainly grumbled about not getting my way more often than I’d admit, or prayed for a few stones to turn to bread (or a lottery ticket to turn into a fortune). We often want to make ourselves into our own God rather than submit to His will and allow ourselves to be instruments of it. We harden our hearts to the Word and display ingratitude — even while we’re on the road to salvation, just like the Israelites following Moses or Adam and Eve in Eden.

I’m reminded of a joke: A grandmother walked along the shore with her young grandson, done up in his Sunday finest from head to toe – hat, suit, and shoes. Suddenly a huge wave crashed down on them, and the grandson was swept out to sea. The grandmother got down on her knees and prayed, “O God, if you only bring my grandson back to me, I’ll repent and worship you every day.” Just as suddenly, another wave crashed down, and her grandson was dropped unharmed next to her.  The grandmother looked up at the sky and said, “So … where’s his hat?

Are we thankful for the redemption Jesus won for us and striving to do His will? Or are we still looking for the hat?

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How often do we demand that our will be done rather than God’s? I know I’ve certainly grumbled about not getting my way more often than I’d admit, or prayed for a few stones to turn to bread (or a lottery ticket to turn into a fortune). We often want to make ourselves into our own God rather than submit to His will and allow ourselves to be instruments of it. We harden our hearts to the Word and display ingratitude — even while we’re on the road to salvation, just like the Israelites following Moses or Adam and Eve in Eden.

Guilty.

Flora Duh on March 9, 2014 at 10:16 AM

Guilty.

Flora Duh on March 9, 2014 at 10:16 AM

Yep, me too. Thankfully, our God is gracious…

OmahaConservative on March 9, 2014 at 10:29 AM

Thankfully, our God is gracious…

OmahaConservative on March 9, 2014 at 10:29 AM

So much more than I deserve.

Flora Duh on March 9, 2014 at 10:37 AM

Guilty.

Flora Duh on March 9, 2014 at 10:16 AM

…it makes me… feel guilty!

KOOLAID2 on March 9, 2014 at 11:17 AM

But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

^ Maybe not just about physical weakness?

Axe on March 9, 2014 at 11:24 AM

Thank you, Ed.

Mason on March 9, 2014 at 11:39 AM

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!

What shall we conclude then?

Axe on March 9, 2014 at 11:43 AM

Guilty.

Flora Duh on March 9, 2014 at 10:16 AM

Guilty of it, right now. Trying to shake this off, really lousy morning.

thebrokenrattle on March 9, 2014 at 12:42 PM

Thus enters Jesus to provide the final plan for salvation — but he must undo humanity’s errors in order to atone fully on our behalf.

Guilty as well.

I might add for your consideration the following. Why did Jesus have to die? Formally, covenants can only end with the death of one of the two parties the covenant joins. Jesus’ death ends God’s previous covenants with man and His resurrection fulfills the new covenant.

ericdijon on March 9, 2014 at 1:41 PM

Another thing to notice. Every time the devil presented a new temptation, Jesus responded with scripture.

He didn’t opine. He didn’t argue. He didn’t do it on his own steam. He leaned on the Word of God.

CurtZHP on March 9, 2014 at 2:11 PM

This is the meaning of lent. Most focus on what to give up rather than what to take up, the word of God.

Thank you Ed.

phatfawzi on March 9, 2014 at 5:04 PM

Yeah guilty here too.

But then, is it my fault God doesn’t see the brilliance of my plan??

/

Shay on March 9, 2014 at 8:29 PM

I am guilty, just like everyone else.

I try to remember when I ask for something for my family to add, “if it be your Holy Will. May your will be done, not my will. Your plan not my plan.”

The thing that kills me, the thing that I can’t understand why God doesn’t give up on me for being so ungrateful,is that His plan is always better in the end than my plan. And when He does answer my prayers with “yes” it is always abundantly more than I ever imagined to ask for. And when His Will is to ordain or permit something difficult, He always gives me the grace and strength to endure it.

Yet I always need to be reminded to trust in Him and not fear. To ask that His will be done, not mine.

Elisa on March 9, 2014 at 9:20 PM

Love you Jesus…..

crosshugger on March 9, 2014 at 10:03 PM

Ed, thanks very much for your insight.

I’m reminded of this brief passage from CS Lewis’ ‘Miracles’:

“But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.”

bogginator on March 10, 2014 at 9:18 AM

At first blush, this entire sequence is puzzling. Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, consubstantial with the Father but also fully human in form. Why would Jesus subject himself to this kind of temptation? Why would Satan try to convert God, for that matter? What purpose did this serve in God’s plan for salvation?

Ed, since Satan isn’t omniscient it could be that he was trying to find out for certain who Jesus was – hence the “If you are the Son of God” line of temptation.

whatcat on March 10, 2014 at 5:12 PM

Man, read this thread 20+ times and it is like trying to sip out of a fire hose.

“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.” Why would Jesus allow himself to be tempted? Or, did Jesus entertain the temptations and then overcame them? In other words is Jesus telling us that we can all be tempted by evil, and that if we are tempted and do not act on those desires, we have not sinned? I would just as soon not to be tempted at all, ‘cause that is too high a standard for me to even try to understand.

“How often do we demand that our will be done rather than God’s?” God’s will? Is this in our hearts….in our minds……in the bible? How does one come to understand God’s will? Or are we born with our will and somehow it is replaced with God’s will? Someone once told me to pray for understanding……I also have been told to accept Jesus for understanding…..I sort of like to understand things before I commit. Guess I just don’t get the faith thing.

Again, you guys are at the PHD level and I still in pre-K. Fort what it is worth….I look forward to this thread and thanks to all for being so kind to this worldly idiot.

HonestLib on March 10, 2014 at 10:37 PM

He wasn’t being tested to see if he could fail. He was being tested to prove that He wouldn’t.

Murphy9 on March 10, 2014 at 10:58 PM

I doubt anyone will see this, but I’m trying anyway.

What books would you say are a must read during Lent?

Thanks in advance.

PhillyCon on March 11, 2014 at 10:10 PM

What books would you say are a must read during Lent?

Can’t go wrong with the Gospels themselves! I have enjoyed the commentaries on the Gospels from Baker Academic, too, for greater understanding of them (here’s one on the Gospel of Mark, for instance, that I’ve already read).

Ed Morrissey on March 11, 2014 at 10:39 PM

I haven’t looked at this thread since Sunday and I noticed you just posted your question. So I felt I should answer.

I don’t know anything specific to Lent that I would consider a “must read.” I only sometimes read the Magnificat Lenten Companion that they distribute in the back of my Church. Maybe you could ask your Church? Otherwise, here is the link to get an ebook copy of it. It’s only 99 cents.

http://www.magnificat.com/english/boutique_lenten.asp

I would most suggest trying to go to daily Mass or at least read the daily Scriptural readings online. You may already be doing this.

http://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/inspiration.asp

I haven’t read the following 3 books, but I love the authors and I would think these would be good:

Fulton Sheen – Your Life is Worth Living

http://www.ewtnreligiouscatalogue.com/Home+Page/BOOKS/Philosophy/YOUR+LIFE+IS+WORTH+LIVING.axd

Also on Amazon is

Lent with St. Francis

and

Lenten Reflections from a Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn

Elisa on March 11, 2014 at 10:51 PM

Yes, Ed, the 4 Gospels are the best reading for Lent.

Elisa on March 11, 2014 at 10:52 PM

How does one come to understand God’s will? Or are we born with our will and somehow it is replaced with God’s will? Someone once told me to pray for understanding……I also have been told to accept Jesus for understanding

HonestLib on March 10, 2014 at 10:37 PM

Isn’t that the $100,000 question! lol

We are given free will and we should try and conform our will to God’s will. Before our fall from grace, Adam and Eve naturally conformed their will to God’s. But sin makes it difficult for us. God’s Will is perfect, so we are to “strive to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

It means sacrifice and humility on our part. Our willingness to please Our Father above our own desires.

In sin we turn our will away from God.

But the reading on Ash Wednesday tell us how to conform ourselves to God. In our hearts first.

Joel Chapter 2:12-13
12 “Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.

.I sort of like to understand things before I commit. Guess I just don’t get the faith thing.

LOL I love that!

Seriously, that advice to pray for understanding is the best. And the commit before you understand totally is what they call a “leap of faith.” Understanding follows and satisfies your mind as well as your heart. When you feel His call, His grace, take the leap. Because no one completely understands God. We aren’t God. lol He said, “my thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways.”

Trust me, when the time is right and that time comes, you will not regret making that leap. You will understand more than you would imagine.

Elisa on March 11, 2014 at 11:07 PM