Last Sunday we heard Jesus advise his disciples to be wise and build on rock, since a house built on rock will stand firm. The house of the fool, on the other hand, built on shifting sands, will collapse into a heap of rubble at the first sign of rain or wind or flood.
This week, the first one of Lent, we see Jesus surrounded by, of all things, sand – in the desert, where he’s been "led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil." He leaves the hubbub of the Baptism, where he’d been among the many people dunked in the Jordan by John, not to mention affirmed by the heavenly Voice as "beloved Son," to find himself now alone with God in the wilderness. Or almost alone.
Because, in fact, someone else is there with him, someone who makes his presence known after Jesus completes his fast of forty days and forty nights, someone who slyly uses the same language as the Voice at the Baptism. Of course, this someone adds one little word that changes everything : IF. "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread," he says to Jesus. So much depends on that one little "if," the Tempter implies – so much, starting with your Sonship itself. What a thing for Jesus to hear as he comes out of an epic fast that calls to mind the days of Exodus !
Matthew certainly wants us to make that connection here. As we see Jesus hungry and weary in this wasteland after forty days, we’re meant to think of the people of Israel and their forty years of wandering in the desert. We’re meant to remember how the original "sons of God," the Chosen People, had loudly and angrily doubted that their God could "spread a table in the desert" (Ps 78 : 19), how they’d challenged him to provide them with meat and drink, and how stunningly ungrateful they’d been when he’d done just that. That story eventually led to the giving of the Law on Sinai, an event that gave Israel its identity through its relationship with the LORD. So these echoes of Exodus alert us that this latter day contest between Jesus and the Tempter will take place on the ground of the Covenant, and that the stakes will be as high as they were back then. But this story will take a different turn from that long ago original.
When the devil challenges Jesus to prove his identity by tempting God to provide bread, Jesus won’t bite – literally. Clinging to the word he’s received from the Father – "you are my beloved Son" – Jesus proclaims that true life comes from that word rather than from earthly bread. Jesus’ words quote the Word itself, Deuteronomy 8 : 3, part of a section devoted to remembering how "the LORD, your God, directed all your journeying in the desert so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments" (v. 2).
But the devil can quote Scripture, too, and he ups the ante by citing Psalm 91 : "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." By addressing Jesus’ role as (maybe)" Son," the devil recognizes him as representative of the people who have such a checkered past of faithfulness to the Covenant, who have so often called God’s providential care for them into question. In a sense, the devil double-dares Jesus to test that care by risking his life for no reason. Such a challenge succeeds in lampooning not only the risks undertaken by martyrs, but also Jesus’ future Passion, where he will lay down his life for the greatest of reasons — love. It’s an ugly little bit of mockery, done with characteristic style ; the idea of whisking Jesus up onto the pinnacle of the Temple is a very nice satanic touch indeed.
Jesus, however, is unmoved : "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." In other words, love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength (Dt 6:5). This command must not be taken lightly but rather lived deeply. It’s not a question of answering dares as if you’re playing games on some cosmic schoolyard.
The final temptation scene, set on a high mountain, has to do with glory, which in the Bible usually means "outer or manifest splendor or wealth, fullness of being." In this instance, when the devil shows Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world and their glory" and says that all this can be his for the low, low price of worshiping him, he’s urging Jesus to remake himself in his (and the devil’s) image, to be a self-made man rather than a creature in relationship with his Creator. The Evil One, that well known lover of freedom (just ask Adam and Eve), urges Jesus to turn his back on the love of God (understood as fidelity to the Covenant) and go for this special type of "freedom" instead. This tawdry suggestion, wrapped in all the baubles and "bling bling" of the world, is the last straw. He’s sent packing : "Get away, Satan !" As Jesus banishes the Tempter, he quotes Deuteronomy once more – "The Lord, your God, shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve." Only God is worthy of our worship.
And that brings us back to our "houses" and the ground on which we will build them. Will we choose sand or rock ? Jesus gives us his answer here. Lent offers us the time to give ours.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester - USA