EXPLORING THE MEANING OF LENT IN THE YEAR OF THE BIBLE:
Matthew’s Story of the Temptation of Jesus
A Talk given by Professor Andrew Lincoln, University of
The Year of the Bible and Lent
Let’s deal straightaway with the obvious question. Isn’t Lent Lent and doesn’t its meaning remain the same for the church year whatever the calendar year it falls in? Yes. So what difference does it make to talk about the meaning of Lent in the Year of the Bible? Well, designating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible as the Year of the Bible highlights in particular one of the resources that is always available to the Church during Lent. In his New Year message the Archbishop helpfully reminded people that, apart from its gift of memorable language and turns of phrase, more generally the King James Bible made available to people a big picture in which they could imagine their lives, a big story within which their own lives could make sense. Along with many others, the Archbishop recognizes that we are “narrative animals”: that is, whether we are conscious of it or not, we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in. We all have a bigger picture by which we make sense of being human and of our particular lives, and this year’s anniversary gives Christians and non-Christians the chance to stop and think about the Bible’s story of who we are and why we are here. So to reflect on the meaning of Lent in the Year of the Bible is to highlight how our stories can be shaped by the Bible’s big story about God, Israel, Jesus and the Church. And when we come with that framework, we notice immediately that Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus is told in precisely these terms. The temptation of Jesus is, of course, the major theme for Lent, with the 40 days of Jesus' period in the wilderness, which is modelled on Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, providing the pattern for the 40 days of Lent. And this year it is Matthew’s account that provides the Gospel reading for Lent’s first Sunday. In it Matthew tells how Jesus is able to see what is happening to him from within the resources of his Bible, the Jewish Scriptures with their story of Israel, and Matthew does so in order that his readers will also make the connection between their story and this story of Jesus. To see how this works, we need to back up a little and begin our reflection with the immediately preceding incident in Matthew that gives the context for what follows and that is the baptism of Jesus.
The Context of Baptism (Matt 3:13-17)
In Matthew's narrative the baptism of Jesus establishes publicly both his identity and his calling or commission. Jesus' baptism by John was something of an embarrassment for the early Christians. Did it mean that Jesus was inferior to John? Did it mean that Jesus needed baptism for repentance from sins like all the others who were baptized by John? Matthew's story addresses these questions by having John totally reluctant to baptize Jesus and by his making quite clear that really the roles should have been reversed. He also provides a special reason for Jesus' baptism. In the very first words Jesus speaks in this Gospel he says, "Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness." The use of the term "righteousness," which is a favorite term in Matthew's story, seems to indicate here that this baptism is a divine requirement. Although Jesus is not repenting of sins, he is identifying himself with the people of God in being prepared to carry out God's just purposes. The voice of approval from heaven that comes after Jesus' baptism takes up the language of the Scriptural story about the Servant figure from Isaiah 42 and this helps to fill out the meaning of this righteousness language. In that passage describing God's delight in the Servant, the term righteousness or justice occurs four times. The Servant is to bring forth God's justice to the nations. The baptism of Jesus in fulfilling all righteousness initiates just that work. The divine will Jesus begins to carry out at this point inaugurates his mission as the agent of God's rule, a reign of justice where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and the sick and imprisoned are visited.
The voice from heaven announces Jesus' identity and contributes to the explanation of his mission. "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" - again links Jesus' story, and therefore his identity, with the Scriptural story of God's dealings with Israel. In Jesus’ Bible Israel was called God's son and then, in particular, Israel’s king was given the title of “God’s Son,” and the first part of the announcement recalls the words of the royal psalm - Ps 2:7 - "You are my Son." The second part, as we have seen, recalls the words about the Servant in Isa 42:1 - "Here is my servant, ... my chosen, in whom my soul delights." It goes on to say, "I have put my spirit upon him" and that is exactly what has just happened as a result of Jesus' baptism. So Jesus in his identity and mission combines the expectations of the OT story about both the ideal king and the servant. In inaugurating the kingdom of justice he will do so neither with all the trappings of royal status nor with all the arsenals of royal power but as a servant who comes in meekness. As Isa 42 goes on to say (and Matthew will quote this fully later in his story in 12:18-21), he will not wrangle or lift up his voice or make it heard in the streets, he will not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick, he will be the despised and rejected servant, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. So Jesus' baptism links him with the story of Israel and that story decisively forms his identity and shapes his mission.
In the early church no believer could enter the baptismal waters without being reminded that Jesus had already done so. For Jesus this was a commitment to God's righteousness, God's righteous purposes for him and for all, a commitment to the task God had given of establishing justice on the earth. And that task, it becomes increasingly clear, as Matthew’s story unfolds, would not be completed until he was plunged into the deep waters of death. Whatever else Christian baptism means, and there is a lot else, it is at least a promise of faithfulness to following one's Lord, including following him on the way to the cross by taking up one's own cross. Just as baptism linked Jesus' story with Israel's story, so baptism is the point at which our story becomes linked to Christ's story. And if it is true that our identities are formed by the stories we inhabit, then baptism gives us our identities as Christians. Just as Jesus was declared son of God when he was baptized, so as Christians we are declared to be children of God in the act of baptism. Martin Luther in times of conflict and despair resorted to two words - baptizatus sum, I am baptized. This is what gives courage and assurance. I am not on my own, trying to shape my own identity and future. I belong to God and to Christ and my story has been taken up into Christ's story, a story that leads through death to life. Baptism is entry into the story of Christ as the story of the Church. Baptism doesn't simply change my identity by obliterating the distinctive things about me and my history. That story remains. It too makes me what I am. But now it is enfolded within a new story that by promise of a different future changes the past. What has been is no longer what has to be. In this way baptism is a pledge of our destiny. But between the pledge and its fulfilment lies the adventure of the long highway of Christian discipleship with its opportunities and demands in furthering God's purpose of justice and love. “I am baptized” means that my story becomes part of this bigger story of Christ and of the Church.
All this talk of baptism is not really a digression. It is itself a strong reminder of Lent. Lent is first and foremost a preparation for Easter. Especially in the early centuries of the Church Easter became established as the normal time for administering baptism, and so the preparation of candidates for baptism coincided with Lent as the preparation for Easter. Not only the candidates for baptism but the whole people of God found themselves preparing to celebrate Easter by reliving their preparation for baptism. Since baptism meant dying with Christ in order to be raised to newness of life, Lent became the time when we reflect again on what it means to take up the cross, to die more completely to sin, so that we may live more completely for God.
The Bible’s Big Story
Before moving to the Temptation, I want to pause to underline what has already emerged from looking at the Baptism of Jesus. Paying attention to the Year of the Bible, with the Bible as the book that tells our big story, reminds us that faith is finding our own story in Christ's story. But what has become clear, I think, is that these two stories in fact are four interrelated stories. Christ's story takes up a previous story, the story of Israel, and leads into the story of the Church, which is a continuation and performance of Christ's story, and my story and your story are related to Christ's story as they are part of the story of the Church. The point of observing this is not just to complicate matters. It’s to remind us that we are not just talking about two individuals - Jesus and me, but that there is a corporate, a community dimension. Christ's story takes up and embodies that of a whole people, Israel, and in turn results in that of a new kind of community, Israel-become-the-Church. So it's a reminder that our story, through baptism, becomes related to and shares all sorts of similarities with that of a host of other people. Our story is still ours with all its distinctiveness but we have a family history. We should be able to swap stories with other Christians, knowing that we will have the same basic reference points, knowing that there are sisters and brothers who understand what we are talking about. We should also be able to cherish the stories of our mothers and fathers who have gone before in the church’s history, knowing that there is a real flesh and blood continuity to the story of which we have become a part.
Now, as we get to look at the temptation of Jesus, it will not be surprising that that first part of the story, the story of Israel, and in particular, Deuteronomy 6 and 8, will play a significant role.
The Temptation of Jesus (Matt 4:1-11)
(i) Our identity as Christians, and what that says about our ultimate values and allegiances, is of course inextricably linked with how we live this out in our calling in the world. And in Matthew's narrative about the testing of Jesus the two also go hand in hand. There is the personal issue of Jesus' love for his God as a son and the issue of his vocation, confirmed at the baptism, to be the agent of God's rule in the world. The first aspect emerges from the OT story of Israel in Deut 6-8 to which the temptation story itself refers. We are meant to recall that Israel as God's son had been tested in the wilderness. What had been at stake in the testing was allegiance to the confession of Deut 6:4,5 - "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." By the time Matthew tells his story Jewish tradition had given each part of the great commandment its own distinctive force. "With all your heart" meant with an undivided heart, not distracted by desires, not diverted by physical instincts. "With all your soul" meant even if it costs you your soul, that is, even if God takes your life, you are to love God. "And with all your might" was interpreted as with all your mammon, that is, with all your resources of property and wealth, and the power and status that accompany them. All these elements feature in Deut 6 and 8 and now all reappear with a new twist in Matthew's story. And what is striking about Matthew's story - and encourages us to link our story with Jesus' - is that in all three tests of his love Jesus' responses are those of a human being dependent on his or her God. This Israelite in the wilderness takes no privileged position as a divine being. He passes the test as he does what is necessary for any creature - acknowledges his allegiance to his Creator. At the same time the testing of Jesus' sonship is the testing of his vocation to the mission to which he has been called. We have seen that at his baptism the voice from heaven commissioned Jesus in terms of divine sonship for the mission of the kingdom, the kingdom that had been announced by his baptizer and that was now to be his own life's work.
(ii) Having fasted forty days and forty nights in order to sharpen his focus on his calling, Jesus is hungry and the temptation comes, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." The "if", which can also be taken as "since", raises issues about Jesus' identity not so much in terms of whether he is the son of God as in terms of what it means to be son of God, what sort of son he is to be. "Let gratification of your physical needs take precedence over trust in God who has brought you into the wilderness. Assume sole responsibility for procuring your own food, and do so miraculously." Hunger or the craving for food is not of course sinful in itself. In the OT it was only considered as sinful when it came into conflict with what God had ordained or the conditions God had sent. Then it could become a desire that divided the heart and led to an abandonment of trust in God's promise to provide what was necessary for Israel. But Jesus had learned the lesson explained in Deut 8:2,3 - that God is testing what is in the hearts of God's people and lets them hunger so that they may know that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Jesus then will wait in trust on God's promise to provide what is necessary and he will later tell his followers that there is no need for them to have divided loyalty because of anxieties about food and drink. "Do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or "What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 6:31-33). Again in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will say, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? ... How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:9,11). Now, in the wilderness, part of the test of whether he will be a responsible son comes as Jesus is presented with stones and tempted to turn them into bread at a stroke instead of trusting God’s provision for his needs. This is quite a religious way of not trusting God. Let's just tap the power of God's rule so that we don't have to go on trusting that God cares when it appears that God does not. Let's just have some tangible evidence of God's care.
The implications for Jesus' mission are all here too, How is God's rule, of which he is the agent, going to solve desperate human need? Jesus would not have been indifferent to the plight of his fellow Jews as they were ground down by Rome’s rule, not only politically but also economically. So Jesus' hunger can be seen also as part of his identification with the people of the land whose existence was frequently organized around hunger pangs, leaving them little time to worry about details of ritual purity. The temptation must have been strong to be the sort of political messianic figure they wanted - one who would bring liberation and change social conditions. Why not miraculously alleviate economic privation and bring in the kingdom at a stroke? Yet Jesus knows that this is not to be the way of the kingdom. We too can feel the force of this sort of test. Why doesn't God do a miracle for the starving people around the world and provide bread for the dying? God's rule does of course have a lot to do with bread but it does not take shortcuts to its provision. It does not turn stones to bread at a stroke. To expect that is to be under an illusion. Instead what God requires is that human beings live responsibly in God's world by every word of God - as contained in the Jewish Scriptures and fulfilled in Jesus - words that contain God's will for justice and for structuring our social and economic conditions so that there can be bread for the world.
(iii) In Matthew's story Jesus is next taken by the devil to Jerusalem and to the pinnacle of the temple. The devil doesn't see why God should have all the best texts and shows that he too can quote from Scripture - Ps 91 to be precise - about God and his angels protecting people and saving them from danger. So, “O.K. then, if you are God's son and you trust God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and demonstrate that God is with you in a way that would put it beyond doubt.” But Jesus sees this misuse of Scripture for what it is and recalls instead a more basic text that puts the Psalm passage in context. It’s again from the retelling of Israel’s story in Deuteronomy, this time Deut 6:16 - "you shall not put the Lord your God to the test" and the original passage goes on, "as you tested him at Massah" - at Massah where Israel had demanded a sign that they would not die in the wilderness and that God was with them and where that was seen as a radical breach of trust on Israel's part. God's ultimate care for God's people should not be in doubt. Love God with all your soul. Remember, that was taken to mean that real love will trust God even if God takes your life. So to demand that God save your life and protect you from danger is simply not on. And if that is the case, what could be more subversive of true love and trust than to attempt to force God's hand by deliberately courting danger and looking for the intervention of some form of heavenly parachute.
In due time Jesus will face death in Jerusalem but he will do so in the unfolding of a genuinely historical drama of cause and effect, and even then he will not expect a miracle to show him God's control. At his arrest he has to remind Peter not only that there should be no human violence in an attempt to resist but also that he will not call on God to send angels to protect him (26:53). In doing so he demonstrates then that genuine sonship does not involve the ability to tap some power that guarantees protection or success. We do not live in a world where God is under an obligation to protect us, to heal us, to make things go well in our personal lives or in our families just because we have been baptized or responded to God's call on our lives. The fact that our calling is to follow Jesus and his calling was the way of the cross should put that beyond doubt. And yet an awful lot of our thinking about our lives in relation to God and sometimes even our prayers can be based on this sort of illusion that God owes us something.
Again this test of Jesus had immediate implications for his role in inaugurating God's rule. Why not ask God to certify his mission unmistakably from the start with a miracle at the heart of Israel's religious life - in the temple area? That sort of divine legitimation would guarantee the support of the religious hierarchy. After all Matthew tells us later the Pharisees and the Sadducees propose just such a test on two occasions (cf. 12:38; 16:1-4). Shouldn't the kingdom be a religious success? But these incidents are told by Matthew as a warning against a spirituality that demands guarantees and certainties. There are plenty of types of religion around today offering doctrinal certainties or tangible signs and wonders on which to rest one’s faith. And it's easy to succumb to this temptation that turns out to be another illusion. What might be one of the best commentaries on this passage is in a novel. It's the story of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. The Grand Inquisitor, representing the religious establishment, arrests Christ when he revisits the world and appears in medieval Spain. He explains why it has been necessary to make the arrest, "Your way of expecting a free response of trust rather than certainty was fine for you but expecting ordinary people to remain with God and ask for no miracle is too much of a burden for them - so we have corrected your great work and based it instead on miracle and certainty. And now you have come to repeat your great mistake."
(iv) Jesus' love for God as a true son is probed for a third time. This time he is given a view from the cosmic mountain, a view of all the kingdoms of the world - and note - the glory or splendour of them. For this world with all its might and wealth to be his, all Jesus has to do is to kneel to accept it from the devil who claims to possess it. But again Jesus remembers the duties of the covenant son according to Deut 6:13, where Israel is told - in your rightful enjoyment of the good life God has given you - great and goodly cities, houses full of good things, plenty to eat, take care that you do not forget the Lord. You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. Jesus will not abandon allegiance to God in order to possess what is only God’s to give - this world and its glory. Instead he loves God with all his might or mammon, and this is the same undivided allegiance he will ask of his followers - "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also ... You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt 6:19,21,24).
What are the implications of this test for Jesus' calling to demonstrate God's rule in the world? Matthew's readers would need no reminder of the conclusion that various Jewish revolutionaries drew from the monotheistic confession of Deut 6:4,5. If there is only one God, it is blasphemous to acknowledge the rule of the Romans. All means, including violent ones, must be used to overthrow them and establish God's rightful rule. But Jesus recognized these types of path to world dominion as ultimately a lack of trust in God's control. He saw that it was an illusion to believe that evil was really in control of the world and therefore God's ends are to be achieved through evil means. The temptation is still there for his followers to correct Jesus' way on this matter too and to endorse the illusion that since evil is in control, we must be realistic and we must threaten war to win peace or use violence to achieve justice. At the end of Matthew's story Jesus will stand on a mountain and will make the claim that rule over this world is his - "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." But notice that God gives him this authority and status only by way of the cross. The cross as the way to achieving God’s universal rule has now been vindicated. Jesus' God-given cosmic authority comes only through the God-ordained means of suffering and death.
(v) Jesus as God's son passed the tests of allegiance that Israel as God's son failed, and so Matthew's story ends with angels, who had been mentioned in the quotation from Ps 91, coming and ministering to him anyway. This is the sign that the tests have been passed. His love for God and the shape of his identity and calling have been resolved in principle. But the testing of these issues will return at various points in Jesus’ mission and only later will the full cost of the resolution become apparent. It will lead through the mounting hostility of the religious authorities, betrayal by one of the twelve, the agony of Gethsemane, desertion by the disciples, arrest and the miscarriage of justice in his trials, to the torment of abandonment by his God on the cross. In that final testing what had been established in principle becomes literal desperate reality. He trusts in God, refusing to appease the senses by drugging them. He trusts in God, though deprived of the last vestiges of property and power as his clothes are taken from him and his body is nailed down. He trusts in God, though there will be no protection from violent death, no last minute miraculous rescue by Elijah (Matt 27:47,49). The temptation to manipulate God into a miraculous rescue is still there in the taunts that are chilling echoes of the wilderness - "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross" (27:40) and then “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (27:43). When no miracle will take place, when the worst that could happen does happen, Jesus endures to the end and trusts God in the utter darkness.
The message of Lent is that this way of the cross was not just for Jesus. Matthew makes this clear. He tells this story for an audience, among whom, we see from 24:9-13, the love of some for God is in danger of growing cold because of the tribulations and persecution they face. Their love for God will be tested and they must endure to the end. He tells this story for readers, who, we see from 7:21-23, are troubled by false teachers and miracle workers who have not understood that the real test of love is doing the will of the Father. For Matthew the thermometer that tests the temperature of one's love for God is not feelings or just words but behavior, and that is why love can be commanded. Matthew has been telling us - Loving God means not abandoning your trust to look for self-gratification; loving God means not going back on your loyalty even to save your life; loving God means not giving up your allegiance to grab by any means the possessions and status and power that are ultimately God's to give. All this may be beginning to sound pretty grim – and we need to remember that Lent highlights one part of the Christian story and it is followed by Easter. Christian commitment does have its joys and its high moments but inevitably that commitment will be tested. And, after all, our ultimate allegiance to God is serious business. But the good news of the story is that in a world like ours it is possible to love God and to carry out our calling as Christians responsibly. Jesus was able to overcome temptation by remembering what it truly meant to be God's son, as he had been declared to be and as this was sealed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan. Similarly for us, when temptation comes we are to recall who we truly are. Again this was Luther's advice. In characteristic fashion he told anyone confronted by the evil one to shout at him "I am baptized" in order to send him packing. In other words, when facing our particular tests, we need to remind ourselves of our identity as those who are now part of the Christian story. What is more, the same one who was tested and came through promises his presence with us - not to offer us a way out but to brace us on our way through the wilderness with its testings and to help us endure to the end. The last words of Matthew's story as a whole are "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (28:20). The wilderness experience can be austere and bleak, but, when you go through it, don't let anyone tell you that that is a sign that Christ is not with you or that you are lacking the Spirit. Some Christians like talking about things being "of the Spirit" or "of the devil." Well, it's quite clear where those labels are to be attached in this story. It's the Spirit who leads into the wilderness and it's the devil who offers the easy way to fulfilment, the desire for certainty and for supernatural signs that will prove God's presence, the shortcuts to the establishment of God's rule. When your love and calling are tested, it's in fact a sign that your story has become linked to Christ's story. And Lent is the Church's special time for examining ourselves to make sure we are giving up on illusory expectations and holding firm to our love of God. It’s the time for dealing with the distractions that can make us live forgetful of what it is to be fully human and alive to God and for attuning ourselves again to the reality of the good news Christ has brought. Lent is the time for prying our fingers loose from presumed securities, false certainties and misplaced commitments and renewing our grip on our baptismal identity and our calling as part of the Church's mission in the world. The Year of the Bible reminds us that, just as the Scriptural story was an indispensable resource for Jesus under testing, so finding our place in the Bible’s bigger stories enables and shapes our experience of the Church’s peculiar baptismal and Lenten claims that it is in dying that we live, it is in taking up the cross that we find true flourishing!
Professor Andrew Lincoln, University of Gloucestershire - firstname.lastname@example.org
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