Last week we read about the baptism of Jesus. This week is the story of his temptation in the wilderness. Matthew’s Gospel moves from baptism to temptation—as if the temptation of Jesus is a continuation of his baptism, the wilderness as a further dunking into the waters of baptism.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). The same Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus like a dove, there in the Jordan River, as John the Baptist dunked him in the water—the same Holy Spirit who rested on Jesus in the baptismal waters, now takes Jesus by the hand and leads him into the wilderness, the desert, for a confrontation with the devil.
The story of Jesus is also our story. The Scriptures invite us to see ourselves through the light of these holy texts, these stories as revelations into who we are, insights into our lives. We are baptized into this life, into this Jesus—his life becomes ours, ours becomes his. To see him is to glimpse who we are. He is our representative. That’s the language from our theology textbooks, from Christian doctrine—that Christ represents us, that he represents our humanity, that we find our story in his story because Christ is our representative.
That’s why at Jesus’ baptism, when God calls him beloved, God says the same thing to us—that we are God’s beloved, that God loves us as much as God loves Jesus; that when God loves Jesus, God loves us. And the same love that sustains him in the wilderness will sustain us through the wilderness of our lives, the deserts of this world. That’s where we are in the unfolding story of Matthew’s Gospel this week—with Jesus, in the wilderness, tempted by the devil, yet sustained by God’s love.
The temptations tell the story of his commitment to be true to his humanity—that he will be human like us, like us in every way, even in our vulnerability to temptation.
I usually don’t think like this about Jesus. I don’t think of sins flashing across his mind. I don’t think of him as being tempted by the same things that tempt us. I don’t think of him as having to resist sin, as if he could entertain the possibility of sinning, as if that would be possible for God incarnate. But that’s exactly what happens here, in this story. Jesus is the tempted one.
Later in the New Testament, in the book of Hebrews, this temptation becomes central to who we understand Jesus to be for us. This is a verse from Hebrews, chapter 4: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is tempted. The good news here is that Jesus knows us, from the inside—he is as human as we are, temptations and all, tempted in every respect, it says.
Later in the history of the church, almost 500 years after Jesus, a church council was convened to clarify what they understood Jesus to be. They picked up on these verses from Hebrews, and the temptation stories from the life of Jesus, and they said that Jesus is truly human, like us in all things but sin. That’s from the Council of Chalcedon, in the year 451.[i]
Yes, he is without sin, but he was tempted. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “Temptation besets me as it beset him.”[ii] Christ’s solidarity with us goes all the way down into our desires; his union with us does not shy away from the mysteries about us that we keep to ourselves.
This scene in the wilderness isn’t only supposed to show that Jesus is with us in our struggles, by our side; it also reveals something about our human condition, something about what lies at the heart of our temptations. Jesus exposes the basics of sin, as the devil tries one temptation after another—all of them having to do with grasping at his wants, the things Jesus wants in the world, that he wants for himself and others: the sin of overreach, the temptation to grasp.[iii] That’s what temptation is all about. We are tempted to take what we want, no matter the consequences.
In the wilderness Jesus is offered good things. There is nothing wrong with wanting bread to satisfy hunger. “Command these stones to become loaves of bread,” the devil tells Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with wanting bread, nothing wrong with wanting to eat when you’re hungry. And there is nothing wrong with wanting a new kingdom on earth, the reign of God. “All of these I will give you,” the devil says to Jesus, offering the kingdoms of this world. There’s nothing wrong with Jesus wanting to change the world, to get rid of the corruption, the violence, the greed of political leaders. That’s what all of us want him to do. Jesus longs for that kind of change, and his body is starving for that bread.
But, but, he doesn’t seize what he wants as soon as he feels the desire for it. He waits instead. He is patient with his longings. That’s what we see at the heart of temptations—the desire to grasp, to take, to seize, the urge for immediacy. The temptations have everything to do with the impulse to grab what you want when you want it—call it greed, an impatient life of greed, the lust for power over others, power over the world.
I hear this story as an invitation to be at home, a call to be at home in my humanness, in my dependencies, in my weakness, at home in my body—to know that there is a holiness in a life full of hungers, like Jesus; that we can be at peace with our longings because Christ has sanctified them; that we don’t have to run from where we are, to let our desires get ahead of us, to tempt us with coercive power, with take what we want no matter who gets hurt, no matter what the consequences—that we will be okay, where we are, with who we are, with what we have.
Jesus doesn’t make a deal with the devil, because those deals are all ways of becoming inhuman, of dehumanizing ourselves as we dehumanize others. The devil tempts Jesus with violating his humanity, with harming his human way of life our world—for he is our representative, he represents a way of life for all of us, the same path we will travel, with our lives, as we hunger, as we desire good things, perhaps, but not good for us when we grasp at them, when we seize them with our greed, our impatience, our selfishness.
The hardest thing to do is to be where we are because we usually feel stuck with ourselves—with all the things we wish would change, about the way we think, the way we act, how we look, our habits of the mind, our personality quirks, not to mention our dreams of a different world, the remaking of all things.
Of course, some things need to change. If we’re hurting ourselves and others, then we’ve got to stop. But I’m talking about the aching dissatisfaction—I feel it, so I wonder if you feel it too—the discontentment that comes over us when we’re alone with ourselves or when we’re dissatisfied with the people around us. The temptation to crumple up our lives and start over, as if that were even possible.
The alternative, I think, is gratitude—a life of gratitude, of noticing the mundane wonders of this world, the ordinary mysteries of our lives, to marvel at the familiar, gratitude as a way to pay attention, to experience the world anew, to remember that everything we have, all of who we are, comes from elsewhere, that we are made up of bundles of gifts we’ve received from others, that ultimately we are loved into existence by God, created by the one whose name is love.
When the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus responds with a verse from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3). We live by this word from the mouth of God, and that word is love. That’s the last thing Jesus heard God say in our story, there at the scene in the previous chapter ,when the voice spoke from heaven at his baptism, saying, You are my beloved—that’s the word from God that feeds his soul, that sustains his life, a word for us, too: You are my child, the Beloved.
That’s the gospel, a word of truth that Jesus gives his life to reveal—a love without coercion, to love without possession, to love without grasping. Jesus falls in love with the world and us, and takes time to get to know our world from the inside, to love until the end—his whole life as an echo of that word from God, a word that becomes his flesh, a word for us: “You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
[i] Chalcedonian Creed, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds2.iv.i.iii.html
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, Temptation (SCM, 1959), 117.
[iii] Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2005), 164: “They are temptations to certain kinds of grasping.”