1st Sunday of Lent — 1st March 2020 — Mt 4,1-11
Jesus, True Israel and True Son
After Jesus’ sonship is proclaimed by the Father in the baptismal theophany, he is tested by the devil in the wilderness. Matthew highlights the comparison between Jesus and Israel, in their respective wilderness temptations. Jesus is to experience what Israel, God’s son in the OT, experienced in the desert. But, Jesus, the true Israel and true Son, will conquer and prove his sonship where the old Israel failed (Dt 8,2-5). Matthew does this through threefold reference to Deuteronomy (chs. 6-8). The Spirit which led Jesus into the desert also miraculously sustains him during his fast; that only “afterward” does he feel hungry. Thus Jesus’ fast is not a sign of penance, but a challenge to reveal his identity as God’s son. “The Tempter”, who appears only after forty days (in contrast with Mark and Luke), immediately takes up the question of Jesus’ sonship (vv.3 and 6). The baptism was Jesus’ surrender to the Father’s will, as marked out in prophecy (3,15). Now that surrender, which is at the heart of true sonship, is put to the test three times. Will Jesus misuse his sonship for his own advantage?
In the first temptation of converting stones into loaves, Jesus replies by placing himself not among the privileged few but among the ordinary people of God. He highlights the need of the ‘human’ being. For Jesus being the Son of God means accepting his humanity and depending on God for daily bread (Mt 6,11). On the contrary, Deut 8,3 refers to the manna. During the exodus, God’s children doubted God’s provision, but Jesus as son of God models human reliance on God for food, for strength, and for life itself. The mark of the son is that he is nourished by total surrender to God’s word, which creates and sustains humanity in all its needs.
In the second temptation, devil takes Jesus into the “holy city” (unique to Matthew). Standing on the ‘pinnacle’ of the Temple, the devil shows that he too can quote Scripture for his purpose. The temptations turn into a rabbinic debate on the nature of true sonship. This time the tempter challenges Jesus to prove his identity by throwing himself down and letting the angels rescue him (Ps 91,11-12). He cleverly seizes upon Jesus’ main concern in the first temptation: if you’re so dependent on God, why don’t you take it a step further? You trust God to feed you. Do you trust God to protect you from harm? The devil’s purpose is to have Jesus destroy himself. Jesus refuses to misuse God’s gift of protection. He fights Scripture with Scripture (Deut 6,16). True trust includes an obedience which does not try to force God’s hand, as Israel tested God at Massah. Instead of revealing his filial power to perform miracles, Jesus reveals his filial authority to interpret Scripture correctly.
Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the cosmic mountain, that reminds of Moses’ viewing of the whole promised land from Mt. Nebo (Deut 34,1-4). The devil is interested in the OT promise that God would give his Messiah-Son the nations for an inheritance (Ps 2,6-8). The cosmic struggle between God and Satan reaches its climax when Satan presents himself as a god to be worshipped (2 Thess 2,4). This temptation is the basic temptation of Israel to idolatry, to putting a creature in the place of God. The devil assumes that all authority in the world belongs to him, to give to others as he chooses. And so Jesus dismisses Satan with the fundamental commandment given to Israel: monotheism (Deut 6,13). With the authority that flows from the Son’s unshaken union with the Father, Jesus sends Satan away.
This rough dismissal links up with Jesus’ rebuke to Peter at Caesarea Philippi: “Get behind me Satan” (16,23). Peter unwittingly continues Satan’s attempt to deflect the Son from the path of the cross, the only true way to the glory of the kingdom. When Jesus is arrested, he refuses to be rescued either by violence or by angelic intervention (26,52-54). The temptation to false sonship will be taken up at the cross, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (27,40). But the obedient son trusts God to see him through to the end of the journey, and when he dies, the centurion proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s son!” (27,54). Precisely by taking the road of the cross, Jesus will gain “all authority” at the resurrection (28,18). Finally, what the Son would not take from Satan’s hands at the cheap price of idolatry he has won for himself at the cost of the cross.
Through Jesus’ temptations, the disciples must remember that divine sonship is not primarily a matter of working wonders but of understanding God’s will in Scripture and carrying it out in filial trust and obedience. Each test goes to the heart of what it means to be faithfully centered on God’s covenant and to be a follower of his beloved Son.