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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);