Moses is the hidden presence behind Matthew’s Gospel. His name may not be often spoken but there are passages in the Gospel which can only be fully understood by a reference to him. During the Christmas season we read about the slaughter of this innocents. (Mt 2:13-18) Understanding that and indeed the entire story of the flight into Egypt clearly depends upon knowing the details of the birth of Moses. Less obvious, but just as important, are the references to Moses in the visit of the Magi. (Mt 2:1-12) As we read the Gospel of Matthew throughout the year, we will find the presence of Moses hidden in plain sight. Nowhere is this more important than in today’s reading of the testing of Jesus.
Let us look at the background. In the section before today’s, Jesus has emerged from the baptismal waters of the Jordan just as the Israelites had gone through the waters of the Red Sea and both find themselves in the desert. Jesus spends 40 days in the desert; the Israelites 40 years, but it is a time of testing for both. Matthew tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit and the book of Exodus (Es 13:31) relates that the Jews were led by the “pillar of cloud and fire”. The great difference is that the Israelites were in the desert because of their sins. Although they had been the beneficiary of deliverance by God from the Egyptians, they rebelled – even fashioning a golden calf for worship. Therefore, they would not receive the promised reward of possession of the land that flowed with milk and honey until they made penance for their sins. They were given a mission from the LORD and for them to be His people, they would need to embrace it. The route from Egypt to Canaan would have taken no more than a few months to complete if distance were the only issue, but it would take 40 years because of their attitude.
The book of Deuteronomy tells them clearly that “the LORD has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments” (Dt 8:2).
There we three basic tests. The first was hunger:
The Israelites said to them, “Would that we had died at the LORD’S hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!” (Ex 16:3) He fed them but remembered and had to wander longer.
The second was putting the Lord to the Test:
3 Here, then, in their thirst for water, the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” (Ex 17:3). The Lord gave them the water but never marked the event and extended their sojourn: 7 The place was called Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” (Ex 17:7).
The third was idolatry. When the people became aware of Moses’ delay in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will be our leader; as for the man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.6 Early the next day the people offered holocausts and brought peace offerings. Then they sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel (Ex 32:1& 6).
With this they condemned themselves to such a long penance that Joshua and Caleb were the only members of the Exodus generation who entered the promised land. The others had failed to accept the mission the Lord had for them. As with Adam and Eve, the LORD did not abandon them but through kings, prophets, sages and martyrs He would reveal His love more fully. The people would follow for a while and then would fail again but then He sent His Son to spend His time in the desert.
He too is hungry, but rather than breaking his fast continues his mission and replies to the devil from the book of Deuteronomy that he would be fed not by bread but by God’s word. (8:3)
He too is weakened by the difficulty of the journey, but as the Son of God he is secure in his Father’s love and does not need to be reassured. Although the devil now quotes scripture, Jesus himself responds with another line from the book of Deuteronomy: that it is the Lord who tests, not any creature. (6:16)
Finally, Jesus, like the Israelites, knows that his mission is dangerous. He must face the forces of evil and even if there is victory there will be much suffering. When the devil, the very personification of evil, promises to surrender in advance if Jesus worshiped him – is not this a swift and sure end to the eternal conflict? Jesus not only sees through the trap but reacts violently. and gives his final quote from Deuteronomy, that only the LORD should be worshiped (6:13)
It is not a coincidence that Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy. It was thought to have been written by Moses and provided the clearest expression of his beliefs. Matthew is connecting Moses and Jesus as tightly as possible. This is not to even imply that Jesus is the second Moses, Jesus is utterly unique, but that Jesus is offering a new way to union with the LORD.
This is important to Matthew and his community and should be for us as well. They risked a great deal becoming Christians. Yet they may be tempted to dilute their discipleship by the search for money, or putting God to the test to see what he can do for them or even to worship some other way of life which may mention Jesus but will not be subject to him. We are being told today that Jesus himself has been tested in these ways, but unlike Israel has succeeded.
This is the key lesson here. It may be a good spiritual exercise to ask ourselves how we would have done with these tests, and an even better one to ask how our community would have fared. But we should never take our eyes off Jesus. Beyond all else, we must recognize that Jesus did not fail and that if we build our lives and our church – Parish – upon Him today, we will be able to stand with Him forever.