In reading Matthew 4: 1-11 it comes as no surprise, when I think about it, that Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit after his baptism at the hands of John the Baptizer and the appearance of God his Father decreeing him to be his beloved son in whom he is well pleased. Son of God was a phrase used at many times and in many places. Kings of the Davidic line, a lineage which Jesus shared, were called this. And in the pagan world those kings who were seen to be divine, such as the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Roman Emperor were hailed as sons of God. But it is unlikely that those other kings, those who did not worship the one true God, the Holy One if Israel, were driven into the wilderness to be tested. Jesus knew he had to be tested to discern his purpose, his vocation. Because unlike the kingship of those pagan rulers who thought that they controlled their lives, Jesus’ call came from God, who truly rules. This was a time to be with his Father, to struggle to understand what his call meant, and what it meant for him.
We are told Jesus fasted for forty days until he was famished. Forty comes up a lot. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Moses fasted for forty days on Mount Sinai to receive the Law (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked, fasting, for forty days seeking God’s word for him (1 Kings 19:8). And who appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration? Moses, the given of the Old Law. And Elijah, the prophet. And Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
While the narrative in Mark (1: 12-13) is direct and simple (Jesus is driven out and angels attend him), in both Matthew and Luke (4: 1-13) the testing of Jesus is spelled out in three challenges by Satan. Satan says not “if you are the Son of God,” but a better translation would be, “since you are.” As in the case of all the demons Jesus has yet to expel, Satan knows who he is. Jesus is famished. Now the test is to see if he is so famished for the love of God that he will not succumb to the hunger of the world and turn the rocks into bread. It is said that this refers to the manna given to the grumbling Israelites, but there are other meanings. Will he turn these stones into bread, all of them, just for his own need? He will create bread for eating when he blesses and breaks a few loaves of bread and feeds the multitude. God’s grace shared, and God’s word is preached to those who can hear it. And isn’t all bread a gift of the Creator? God will supply. And bread, while vital to the body, the word of God, both as creator and savior, is more so. And yet another layer, when Jesus at the Last Supper consecrates the bread with his blessing and ultimately his own body, then the bread of the world becomes the word of God. So much in so few words. So no, Jesus will not fail this test. He refuses to change the rocks into bread but trusts in God his Father to sustain him. Again, Satan tests Jesus. Throw yourself down from a height. Since you are the Son of God, fulfill the prophecy in Psalm 91. No, this is tempting God. Jesus won’t be lifted up until he is lifted on the Cross, nor will he fly away until he is Ascended to be reunited with his Father in Heaven. The final test offers earthly power. When Satan claims authority over the nations of the world it would be laughable if Satan had not already seduced much of humankind. Jesus only has to submit to Satan as if Satan, not God, really held such power. But Jesus has come to glorify his Father and serve the lowly, not to become the servant of Satan to claim power over others.
I think these three temptations are a prophecy of Jesus’ entire ministry. First there is the earthly nourishment – bread, healing, banishing demons. Then there are the challenges by the Temple Authority, which Jesus answers as often as not with a parable turning around the challenge to challenge the challenger. And finally, the true power, the power to accept the word of his Father even unto the Cross.
Jesus came as a servant to the poor and needy. But the irony is that the rich and powerful are just as broken, just in need of God’s nourishing grace. In facing starvation with faith and trust, but more importantly, with acceptance that whatever God gives is both sufficient and righteous, Jesus will not tempt God or yield to the Father of Lies. But, sadly, the powerful of the world often do. As his disciples we go into the wilderness with him and learn as he learned. In our lives and in our ministry, we too need to be tested. And we too are called to yield in reverence to God our Father, we who are adopted by faith. All the rest follows, the care of the needy, the courage to speak to power, and to accept the inevitabilities of life, knowing that our God, our Father, loves us. And we are uplifted with Jesus through the Spirit. But those who deny the Spirit want a life without bumps, loss, sorrow, unjustness, and they think they can buy or barter for it. Jesus chooses to accept all the pain of life and deny Satan the victory.
That is what the five promises in the Baptismal Covenant are all about when we vow to reject Satan, evil, and sin, all of which are acts of rebellion and draw us from the love of and dependence on God, and to turn to Jesus, trusting in his grace and love. We are called not just with the list of “thou shalt not”, murder, envy and covetousness, adultery, disrespect. More to the point in our world and in Jesus’ we can add don’t get rich off the poor, don’t turn away refugees, don’t kill school children, don’t rape the land. We are called to remember not to accept the promises of Satan at the cost of the loss of our souls, a self-inflicted damnation by turning from dependence on God, our Mother/Father and Creator?
Yes, we need to be tested, to be formed, refined, pruned. There is so much in our lives that need to be exposed, healed, fed. And without our time in the wilderness, on the Cross, in the tomb, we can never come to know Jesus as he chose to come down and know us. Our brokenness, and our repentance and forgiveness are not a curse, but the fabric of a bond with the suffering and tested Christ. Welcome it as you wrestle in the wilderness, famished for the bread of life. It is through these tests that Jesus is now ready to go forth and spread the word of the Kingdom. To show pity and cure bodies and souls. And suffer the worst that we can dish out. And when those unspeakable things happen to us, we know he is with us, both as All Powerful and as once a man who also experienced all those things and said No to Satan, and Yes to God.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California