Sunday reflection: Matthew 4:1-11

“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?