First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 1

William Loader

Lent 1: 5 March Matthew 4:1-11

What could be more fitting than to begin the season of Lent with this passage. The passage is rich in images and ideas and lends itself to be extended in so many directions. It is probably good from the start to note some directions which would be a long way from where it appears to be heading. One is to reduce it to a lesson about facing temptations in the area of private morality: I shall resist the temptation to swear or watch X rated videos or some other such trivia. The little world of little things is not the focus of the passage. There is an immorality about such morality because it neglects the weightier matters (see Matt 23:23!).

Even trying to hear the passage in its first century setting confronts us with a rich variety of possibilities.  One is to see Jesus in the wilderness, the outback, living off what nature provides, almost an idealistic, paradisal picture, ministered to by angels. Locusts and wild honey, John’s fare, were, if anything delicacies, not the strange diet they are to us. It fits well with the Q sayings of Jesus about trusting providence in nature, as John the Baptist did. Consider the flowers of the field or the birds; trust (Matt 6:25-34).

Before rubbishing this as naive idealism (or suppressing this thought!), let us, at least, note its alternative character. It is an alternative lifestyle which implicitly protests against the common lifestyle of the day (our day, too). Much of Jesus’ behaviour had this kind of protest element to it: his abandonment of home and possessions and his questioning of the priority they generally received. The itinerant lifestyle enjoined by Jesus on his group of followers was not sustainable once the movement grew; nor was the idealised diet and living off nature’s provisions. That accepted, is something then lost which need not be lost, when such practice is left behind? There is a sense in which protest against norms is of the essence of Christianity (and terribly difficult to sustain when it, itself, sets the norms, but then even more urgent - to protest against itself!). There is also a sense in which taking the lifestyle question more seriously might lead to a better appreciation of the creation itself and our part in it.

Perhaps the above approach matches Mark’s brief account (1:12-13) better, which does not imply fasting and has more of nature about it - though the animals may have been thought of as a source of threat and danger. Mark’s Jesus wins the battle against Satan (it was not a battle against the animals!) for God and God’s reign. This is a significant part of the good news (1:14-15). Matthew follows Mark’s order at this point but, like Luke (4:1-13), incorporates the account which he found in Q. In Matthew the focus is primarily on Jesus as the obedient Son - this is also why God was well pleased with him, as the voice at the baptism had just announced (3:17). The quotations from Deuteronomy in Jesus’ responses, the location, the time (40 days) all recall Israel’s time in the wilderness when Israel failed. This Jesus, already linked typologically with Israel in the birth narratives, stands in stark contrast to Israel. He continues to fulfil all righteousness. Righteousness in Matthew defines itself when we read the beatitudes and what follows. At its heart is a compassion-based understanding of scripture and the result is good news for the poor and all who live in solidarity with them (5:3,6,10,20).

The sequence of temptations is different here from what we find in Luke. What Luke has second, the temptation to accept from the devil dominion over the nations, comes as the climax of the three temptations in Matthew. What the devil offered will be given by the Father, as 28:18 indicates: that power will be exercised through the teaching of all nations (28:19-20). Matthew creates another significant echo of the scene when he expands the mockery of Jesus on the cross. The mockers repeat the phrase, ‘If you are Son of God..’ (27:40). The parallel is instructive. Jesus refuses to exercise the power which Matthew assumes he has, because he remains obedient to his call, his mission. Matthew makes the same point quite dramatically in the arrest scene, where Jesus reminds his supporters that he could summon legions of angels to his aid, but chooses not to (26:53). Matthew assumes the alternative was there (we may not); but the major focus is what Jesus did choose: to follow the path of obedience, the path of servanthood.

In Matthew the focus of the temptations is clearly vocational rather than a lesson about private morality. They are a symbolic testing of Jesus of a kind not uncommon in the accounts of the lives of great heroes in the ancient world. Take time out to face who you are and what is your calling. Face up to the alternatives! In Lent, in particular, we are reminded of the importance of doing so for ourselves. This is something not just for heroes. What agenda drives us?

While Matthew’s major focus is on Jesus as faithful in contrast to Israel, the narrative invites further reflection. You could read it as a lesson in christology. Jesus says no to certain models which might have been options (for christology at that time; also for Jesus, himself, and for any who sought to execute God’s will with success). One is to gain followers through stunts/miracles, a common option in christology, then and now (against which many New Testament writers protest, while not denying miracles; see Matt 7:21-23; John 2:23-25; 1 Cor 13). It is very much alive today. Another is to take the military option - achieve dominion by force or at least achieve rule, the opposite of weakness and failure. Would the third temptation have been heard as a commentary on the revolutionary movements of the day? Is it the approach of Peter who confesses Jesus, Christ, and then immediately rebukes Jesus for contemplating suffering and death (16:13-23; Mark 8:27-31; John 6:14-15)? Is the food supply miracle another option? Certainly the place is significant in Israel’s hope and especially in the first century where would-be saviours and liberators retraced the great epic of crossing the Jordan and entering the land, often with fantasies of miracles of manna and the like, but also often connected with predictions of wonders at the temple itself. Such traditions and expectations colour the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. We can be sure that many would have listened to the fantasy of Jesus’ great trial with such things in mind.

Like a parable, a fantasy narrative such as the temptation story invites elaboration and creative reflection. Its historical truth is doubtless based on the conviction that Jesus must have faced such an ordeal and did have connections with John and the wilderness lifestyle. The narrative has been a favourite place of reflection on options facing every age: the will to power (OK; but whose power? what kind of power? what for?); the materialism (usually extrapolated from the temptation to turn stones into bread - a distant connection); the spirituality of the sensational.

Ultimately the focus is what it is in Matthew: doing the will of God alone and saying no to other gods. But doing the will of God needs unpacking: what is God’s will? What is God about? What then am I about? There are plenty of spiritualities, including within Christianity. Which is the way to go? This calls for critical, theological reflection, because ultimately it depends on who and what we understand God to be. Within Christianity we find all the options, including those attributed in the passage to the devil. - and more!

Epistle: Lent 1:  5 March  Romans 5:12-19

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