March 5, 2017
For the past several weeks the gospel readings have dealt with Jesus teaching the disciples what it means to be his followers. As we begin Lent, the Gospel text takes a dramatic shift. The first Sunday of Lent always presents an account of Jesus being directly temped by the devil. The second Sunday of Lent is an account of the Transfiguration. This year the Transfiguration text comes from Matthew 17:1-9. The next three gospel texts will be taken from John’s Gospel: John 4:5-42, the Samaritan woman at the well; John 9:1-41, curing of the man born blind; and John 11:1-45, raising Lazarus. The last Sunday of Lent is Passion Sunday. That gospel will be from Matthew 26:12-27:66.
As Matthew presents the sequence of events of Jesus’ temptation, it follows on Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). Matthew describes Jesus coming out of the water and “God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice comes from the heavens, saying ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Matt 3:16-17) Matthew then describes Jesus being led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted. The description of Jesus’ temptation is the gospel text for this Sunday.
Matthew’s community assumed the presence of evil in ways that most modern readers might dismiss as naive or even fanatical. They believed that there was an abundance of evil spirits whose main pastime was interacting with humans, sometimes with a surprising blessing, but often with ill intentions. In order to ward off the ill effects of these spirits, people relied on objects and ritual actions and prayers that were believed to have protective powers. This spirit world also enjoyed its own way of communication and being connected, so that whatever happened was in part known by other spirits. That fact that God had spoken, of Jesus, that this one was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased would naturally draw a response from others in the spirit world. Other spirits would want to know if Jesus was indeed worthy of such praise, and tempt him in such ways that he might lose his favored status.
With this being their understanding, it is no surprise for the people for whom Matthew is writing, that, following the baptism, Jesus is tempted by the devil. What is surprising is that Jesus does not rely on any of the things that they would have used to protect them from the powers of the spirit world. Even after he has fasted for forty days, and is hungry and vulnerable on many levels, Jesus faces His tempter unaided.
Matthew is also making use of the community’s familiarity with the events of the Exodus from Egypt. All the responses of Jesus to the temptations are quotations from the description of Israel’s wandering in the desert as recorded in Book of Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:16 and 6:13). Jesus’ temptation and the exodus both take place in the desert, the place normally associated with the evil spirits. They would also recognize that Israel spent 40 years in the desert, and Jesus has been fasting in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Matthew is building a connection between the experience of their ancestors in faith and the experience of Jesus.
Matthew also rearranges Luke’s account of the temptations so that the last temptation places Jesus on a very high mountain. Mountains were places of revelation, and the story of Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain was familiar to everyone as Matthew describes Jesus’ last encounter. (Next week, Matthew’s gospel will again place Jesus on a high mountain with three of the disciples for the transfiguration. Matthew’s community knew well the tradition that the mountain was the place where God revealed the relationship God desired to have with them as the chosen people.)
- What is your experience of evil in your own life and in the world around you?
- What do you rely on to protect you from the power of evil?
- How do you experience occasions of temptation? Have you ever been tempted to do something that you felt was not only sinful but also evil?
- What does the kind of temptation that Jesus faced suggest to you?
- Jesus is tempted to use his status as beloved Son of God for his own purposes, to ease his hunger, experience God’s protection, and to be treated as one above others. In his rejection of the temptations, he refused to use his status as highly favored Son of God, and instead he demonstrates his choice to be one of us, even in being tempted. What does that say to you?
- Why is it that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted?
- As you reflect on this text, what sense of yourself and your relationship with God come to the fore within you? What would you like to say to God from that awareness?
The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.