"… lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Matt 4:5).
Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness draws on the stories in Exodus of the 40-year formation of Israel as a people before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. In their challenge to trust Yahweh, they encounter hunger, are tempted to idolatry and the vision of worldly wealth and power.
Jesus, after his baptism, recapitulates the history of Israel and in each instance where they failed because of disobedience he advances God’s will through his obedience. He will fulfill the Covenant, the Law and Prophets as God’s servant. The devil’s temptations are all directed to a worldly messiah, not the servant, whose suffering and self-sacrifice will reveal God’s unconditional, reconciling love. This paradoxical way to salvation subverted all human expectations and was so difficult to grasp, the Gospel writers called it the “messianic secret.” Only after his death and resurrection would the followers of Jesus begin to understand how apparent defeat and failure was in fact the history-bending path to glory.
What is remarkable in the encounter between Jesus and the devil is that it is a duel of scripture quotes and actions that on their own merits might even seem positive. Feed the hungry, trust God, use earthly power and resources to accomplish good. What better way is there to usher in the kingdom of God? Church history shows how real these temptations have been and continue to be. In his public ministry, Jesus will multiply loaves, work miracles and exercise power to advance the kingdom. What he will never cede to Satan is his total dependence on God, who is his center of balance, the source of his every discernment and action.
Pope Francis will preach on this Gospel this weekend. Approaching the first anniversary of his election, the pope has had lots of experience in trying to balance the church’s approach on many controversial issues, between doctrine and pastoral need, justice and mercy, clear teaching and and open-ended dialogue. There are those who would like to see the pope falter from his high profile, high-wire balancing act as he proceeds to the core issues of global poverty and religious freedom in a world seemingly locked in economic exploitation and ideological conflict.
We are entering a crucial and, some say, dangerous time. As we embrace the journey of Lent together, there is much for all of us, as members of the church and followers of Jesus, to pray for and about.