The First Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1-12)


Let the world call me a fool
But if things are right with me and you
That’s all that matters
And I’ll do anything you asked me to.

-Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver

“You Asked Me To”

I don’t know whether you know this or not but Lent, every so often begins with the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil.  It’s my favorite way to begin these next forty days.  I love the Temptations!  The first Sunday of Lent turns the corner like a penitential ice cream truck, tolling some off key jingle of confession, calling all the good little boys and girls to church.  And what do we hear when we arrive?  The preacher, in his or her best black robe and purple stole, reads a story from Matthew 4:1-12.  Jesus, a Galilean loner, a dropout from mainstream society, kicked of John the Baptist’s exorcism club, is going out into the desert to do one on one battle with the tempter, the devil, Beelzebub, el Diablo, old Mr. Scratch, Satan, or as his French friends call him, Louis Safér.

The plan is for Jesus to spend forty days and nights fasting, praying, and being tempted by you know who, the guy in the red suit.   Though I doubt he’ll be in a red suit.  Not too appropriate for the Judean desert.  Who knows what he’ll look like?   But alas, I’m getting the cart before our temptation horse.  Trust me; the devil is the least interesting part of this story.

You’ve got the basic idea.  The scripture is pretty clear.  The Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) kicks things off by leading Jesus into the wilderness.  Here’s where it get’s interesting.  We believe in the Trinity, right?  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; all of those three beings are God.  If you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen God the Father.  One in three, three in one as we like to say.  That’s the official teaching of the church.  It’s been this way for almost two thousand years.  God is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  To claim any less is heresy.

Once the Holy Spirit steps into Matthew 4:  God is leading Jesus to be tempted.  Jesus is leading himself to be tempted.  What? Why would Jesus need to be tempted in the first place?  What’s the point, especially if Jesus is God?  Why would God need to tempt himself?  Why would God want to tempt himself? I told you it would get interesting. And all we’ve done is read two and half verses and take traditional Trinitarian doctrine at face value.

Great heroes have always faced a time of testing.  From Native American cultures, to Siberia, and in aboriginal societies all around the world, young men are often sent alone into the wilderness to face physical and spiritual hardships.  Jesus’ journey, as recorded in Matthew 4, is similar to those in other cultures.  In many ways, given what comes next; his message, preaching, and teaching, the event makes sense.  It wouldn’t be right if he didn’t start out with an experience such as the one Matthew describes.

Despite Jesus’ cultural synchronicity with the hero’s path, elements of the temptation story undercut traditional notions of God’s power and presence, particularly at the beginning of the New Testament.   I’m left wondering, much as I do when I read Job, why Jesus is being tempted by God now?  Is this a game?  And if we understand Jesus to be God, in the classic Nicaean sense, why is God going through the motions of tempting God?  Surely there’s no chance that God, even in the second person of the Trinity, will succumb to the temptations offered by the tempter?  Why pose such a ridiculous premise? Isn’t the action pointless, from the beginning?

The meat of the story is found in the temptations.  Jesus is asked to make sunshine on a cloudy day.  Ha!  That’s a Temptations joke.  I bet you didn’t see that one coming.  Nope!  The tempter asks him to do three things:  a) turn stone into bread, b) throw himself off the temple and see if the angels catch him, and c) worship him in return for all the kingdoms of the world.   As expected Jesus refuses all three requests.  What’s underneath each of these denials?  In the past I’ve talked about shortcuts. I’ve argued the devil is asking Jesus to take shortcuts toward the inevitable.  Sure, he could and will make bread but now is not the time.  This is not the time for him to rule the earth.  Selling out to the devil is a shortcut for what will be his eventually.  Those ideas still have some merit.  (Don’t we face the temptation to take moral and ethical shortcuts in our lives?)  However, the shortcut theory only functions if you think of Jesus as a hired hand, an underling who works for a distant God, and is representing that God before an adversary called the devil.  If Jesus is God and God is Jesus there are no shortcuts because God is God now.

Maybe, just maybe, what we’re forgetting, in all this talk of the devil and temptation is Jesus’ humanity.  Jesus is still human.  Jesus was a person.  By saying no to each temptation he’s not acknowledging the devil’s argument or God’s moral superiority; he saying, “I’m just a guy who can’t turn stone into bread, fly, or desires power.”  To paraphrase Dirty Harry, Jesus knew his limitations.  In these twelve verses, Jesus is a person and not a god.  People can’t turn stone into bread.  People can’t fly.  Power isn’t transferable.  People know these kinds of things.  You don’t do things just because some guy in the desert asks you to.

I also know Ignatius of Antioch first made up idea of the Trinity from his own reading of scripture sometime in the mid second century.  We create so much from nothing to help us understand mysteries we probably not intended to get in the first place.  The temptation of Christ:  a guy on his own in the desert coming to terms with his demons; that’s Matthew 4.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.