Monday, September 14, 2009

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,

and “On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

- Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus is led up into the wilderness. After the revelatory experience of his baptism, he is led into the wilderness to be tempted. The Greek word used for "led up" (anago) is interesting, because it can mean at once "led up" and also "brought back" - Jesus is led up and he is also brought back from this exalted revelation of Sonship and Trinity at the baptism, to "the world" in which he is tempted as a man in this place of wilderness. Wilderness is a place of battleground, according to my study bible. It's a place where anything can happen, a picture of "the world" in which we have "good" and "bad" influences to choose from; my study bibles says, "at once the abode of demons and a source of divine tranquility and contemplation." When the earliest monastics began their desert dwelling, it was for precisely this reason; it is a place of spiritual battleground. Like Christ, both we and the desert fathers have aid in this battle. We are not alone. We have our "Emmanuel" or "God with us."

But we mustn't forget this place of wilderness as a place to focus, where we are able to see a sharp contrast between the things that are God's and the things that belong to "the world." So the temptations that Jesus faces are "worldly" in their nature. He is at once divine and human, and so his Sonship confers a will united with the Father, but his human reality is a state of free will, of choice, and of temptation by the "worldly." Let's examine the nature of Jesus' "worldly" temptations.

Firstly, he has been fasting. Fasting is a spiritual discipline precisely because it is a discipline: it is a way of choosing, of abstinence. Our great goal of personal spiritual discipline is abstinence from sin. But fasting becomes a way of expressing and developing our capacity for choice. We are not slaves to any impulse; we are capable of choice and personal discipline. My study bible notes that fasting gives us an example of our own power and its limitations. Jesus' answer, "Man does not live by bread alone" is a great statement of detachment. But there is more to this worldly temptation: Jesus is tempted, after revelation via the baptism in the Jordan, to create a great display of power, to test his spiritual identity. And this is really the "worldly" part of temptation: does he need to prove himself? To flex his spiritual muscles in the mode of power, a display for himself or others? No, this is not part of God's will for him - he will not do it. "If you are the Son of God" is the great temptation to prove identity - by acting in separation and in a "worldly" way to show or to prove something. "Worldly" temptation, we can conclude, will prey on our insecurity, our sense of need to prove ourselves, to prove the value of our faith, to give in to a perspective which does not include the spiritual, the presence of God. It will seek to test the reality of such relationship. Jesus rejects a kingdom based on materialism, earthly well-being, the "bread which perishes." It is an affirmation of reliance upon God, and a reflection of what it is to take up our cross in this struggle that will carry us through all the gospels. The spiritual life is not simply one of ease and comfort; we will not necessarily reconcile paradox and contradiction but make choices through the struggle.

The next temptation is again a temptation to create a great sign and wonder, and put that relationship to the test. Can he hurl himself down from the temple in Jerusalem? Prove God's power to save? Again, this same way of thinking will be present at the crucifixion, when Jesus is told to prove himself by saving himself from the cross. My study bible notes that God's Kingdom is not one of earthly spectacle and fame. The Church has long forbidden, since its earliest centuries, exposing ourselves to danger just to test God's protection. To do so is to "tempt the Lord," to "put God to the test." The worldly temptation is about our image in the eyes of others - what we can prove of that relationship to God in our spiritual reality and worship. Faith asks of us to dwell within a different reality of relationship and relatedness.

Finally, Jesus is tempted with all the material wealth and power in the world. If he would but follow the "Prince of this world," all of this would be his. But again, our faith does not come from the desire to gain fame, wealth and power. The spiritual struggle is not one of seeking to conquer the world in this sense. "Worldly" temptation looks at life without this presence of God, without spiritual reality. The temptation to forget this relationship and its reality, its goals and purposes, and our identity in relationship to God, is one that still tempts. With our great focus on image in so many ways, it is perhaps more strongly felt as a "should" than ever. But Jesus rejects this image for his life of spiritual struggle, with its different goals and values. Jesus' Sonship is what his human mind chooses. "Away with you, Satan" is a command, rather than a rebuke.

I love this ending to this particular passage, that the angels came and ministered to him. We may find in our own lives a "saving grace" at any time. But it does not mean that we avoid our struggles and choices, and remember to rely on our understanding of faith - and that we go into that struggle in our own wilderness, just as he did, so that we make our choices.