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Lent 1A Gospel

Matthew 4:1-11

Aimee Niles

If I were to say: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” many of you would know immediately the scene and story I was about to tell. In Matthew 4:1-11, the author uses the first-century Jewish equivalent: “Then Jesus was led up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.” (NRSV) The allusion was transparent. Jesus had “hooked” his audience.

A question we might ask is: how did Matthew know to record this episode? Since Jesus was alone throughout his ordeal, we can reasonably assume that Jesus first related his experience to his disciples through story–much as we might share our own personal experiences around a campfire. When Jesus establishes the setting as the wilderness, and he discloses the timeframe as forty days and forty nights–his disciples are right there in the story with him. They are “in a galaxy far, far away.”

“Wilderness” stirred up images of danger, loneliness, vastness, and waiting in unknown spaces. The disciples would have immediately recognized the wilderness as a testing place. It was the setting of some of the most challenging and important encounters between God and humanity,[1] the place they remembered each time they celebrated the Passover Feast.

The number forty also would have immediately connected them to some of the most important stories of the Old Testament: the forty days and nights of rain in the flood narrative, Moses’ fast prior to receiving the Law, and the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (among others).

Narratively, Jesus is under the influence of the wider body of Jewish history and story. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years and at the end of their wanderings they came into the Promised Land–no longer weak and powerless refugees, but a conquering force. The Israelites claimed and fulfilled their divine right to take possession of Canaan and with it the land, its people, natural resources, and accumulated wealth.

So when Jesus alludes to both the wilderness and the number 40, it would make sense that his listeners would think of the glory of the Israelite conquest and the reign of King David from which their historical identity was born, not the suffering servant of Isaiah.

The groundwork of the story was laid. Jesus, fasting in the middle of the dangerous, unknown wilderness and completely separated from centers of earthly power would be particularly vulnerable. And the stage is set for the approach of the Accuser, who tempts Jesus in three ways:

To turn stones into bread, (for he is legitimately hungry);

To throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, (for he is legitimately capable of defying natural laws and working miracles);

To take possession of all the kingdoms of earth and the riches that accompany them, (for in eternal time, they all belong to him anyway)

These temptations have a connection to three distinct kinds of power: the power to care for oneself and live in comfort; the power to ensure personal safety through the negation of logical consequences; and the political power to dominate kingdoms and empires. These are the powers of a conqueror.

However, at the very outset of him earthly ministry, Christ rejects the power of the conqueror. Rather than claiming his supremacy, Christ rejects temptation. He rejects the draw of comfort, the draw of safety, and the draw of empire-toppling. In his first act after baptism, this final scene before his public ministry, Christ rejects the powers and glory typically associated with the Messiah.

In Christ’s rejection of the temptations, he signals that he is a Messiah of a different kind of Kingdom. He trades dominating power for the authority to establish a Kingdom that will not be built upon the backs of the oppressed, rejected, enslaved, and accused. Instead, this Kingdom will be built upon the vulnerable and dangerous love of God. The love that is neither controlling, nor manipulative, neither destructive, nor violent. God’s Kingdom will not be built upon conventional wisdom or grand narratives of conquering warriors, but upon stories of contrast: all-consuming power revealed through self-denying love.

God’s story up until this point is full of events illustrating God’s counterintuitive exercise of omnipotence. From Creation, the God who planned and spoke into being all things gave those made in the imago dei free will, yet vulnerably accepted Adam and Eve’s choices even as they severed the perfect relationship God intended. We see the restraint of power and the exercise of love in God’s renewal of covenant after Israel repeatedly turned away, and God’s vulnerability in expressing God’s broken heart through lament for fractured relationship.

God is the God of power in the least likely of places. We see the power of God at work in the story of a wounded Joseph, rising from the ashes of slavery; in Ruth, the foreigner living on the margins who gave rise to a line of kings; in Mary, of humble origin and at risk of shame, who bore God’s own son. God has often chosen to reveal God’s own power in those who, by human standards, are powerless.

So it should be no surprise that emerging from this wilderness testing, Jesus announced his ministry: to build the long-expected Kingdom upon surrendered power. Where Christ could have done any of the things he was tempted to do, he rejected all the Tempter enticed him with. Instead of grasping for power, Christ vulnerably chose obedience to God and gave up his divine rights and personal power in order to reveal God’s vulnerable love as the basis for this new Kingdom.

For Christ, who was undeniably fully human and fully divine, the power of his divinity was not an opportunity to exploit. The power of his divinity was revealed to show the self-restraining love of a God who walked among us. The power of God’s divinity was unleashed not to overpower, but to empower the weak and overcome our human structures of dominance and injustice.

[1] Gilmore, Alec. 2006. “Wilderness in the Bible and the wild places of the Earth.” Journal Of European Baptist Studies 7, no. 1: 44-57. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2017).

Aimee Niles

About the Contributor

postgraduate student at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, UK