When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he probably expected that they would march straight to the promised land and in due time conquer and settle it. The people had endured such horrors that they should be eager and determined to have their own nation. Yet within a few weeks, they complained about bad food, quarreled among themselves and some even plotted a return to Egypt. The biblical authors were very clear that the Israelites left Egypt not only because of brutal working conditions but attempted genocide. However, they discovered that freedom was difficult and the temptation to either misuse it or reject it was enticing. Jesus shows today that he understands freedom and can make us truly free.
Matthew clearly reveals the parallels between the temptations of Jesus and Israel. Most obviously they occur in the desert over 40 days and nights recalling Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. More subtly the temptations of Jesus reflect those of the Israelites: hunger, insubordination, and idolatry. Also,Jesus responds to each temptation by quoting Moses’ exhortations to the Israelites in the desert.
Jesus succeeded where Israel failed and reveals the meaning of freedom. Matthew’s Gospel as we have seen each week was designed to bring together his divided community. To give in to any of these temptations reveals a personal failing but also weakens the entire community. Jesus shows how these divisions can be overcome.
“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” The most basic temptation is to feed oneself at the expense of other people or common decency. To turn stones into bread not only would have shown personal weakness but revealed a great temptation for the religious. Are we religious because we wish to worship God or because we want earthly benefits? Human beings act from mixed motives,and we should not expect purity. But to act purely from self-interest is fatal to any community. Jesus refuses this temptation and tells Satan and indeed future generations of Christians:
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
True freedom comes from worship. When individuals or a community forgets that they are putting on their first chains.
Satan next quotes from scripture that God will protect his people so “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down (off the temple). (Ps 91:11-12)
Jesus would have gotten many disciples if he had participated in this publicity stunt. Yet that would make God do his bidding for his own vanity. Jesus’ response: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” was spoken originally to those Israelites who wanted proof that God really was with them in the desert and to show the world that they were special. (Dt 6:16)
There is a universal need to be esteemed. Our participation in the Church will, I hope, provide a sense of well-being, protection, and belonging, but they are by-products. Matthew as an astute pastor has seen people in his own community use religion to establish superiority over others. Jesus refuses to put God to the test for his own ego. It is a grave misuse of freedom to desire recognition before everything else. This is a great temptation for the individual and a great danger to the community. God owes us nothing, we owe him everything.
The last test is the most dangerous. All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.
Satan is very clever. Jesus will indeed conquer the world but through his death and resurrection. Satan is offering him an easy way out. He can attain seemingly the same end without the suffering of the cross. Yet there is no short cut. Thus, Jesus says: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” (Dt 6:13)
Moses tells the Israelites this when they were about to enter the promised Land. He warns them that there will be other “gods” but they must not worship them. Jewish history will prove that the most dangerous course is not to reject the Lord outright but to add other “gods” and customs. This was the perennial causeof their distress.
The greater the dedication of our worship of God the greater our freedom. Throughout Jewish and Christian history there were those who felt that accepting the customs and beliefs of the day would strengthen their lives and community. Ultimately this is worshiping Satan usually in the guise of power and prestige. Have we not seen in our own day religious people most tragically religious leaders make accommodations with political and financial interests? It can seem so easy. More funding or greater access to power could make so many good things easier to do. Indeed, it may but it can also become an end in itself. Seeking personal or institutional freedom by accommodating forces we know are at least problematic ends in slavery.
The image of Jesus in the wilderness is powerful. When we look at the background of the Israelites in the desert it takes on even more depth. However, we truly understand only when we remember the further history of the Jews. They entered the promised land only when the generation that was born in slavery had died. Their 40 years in the desert were their purification. They had God’s word but the tendency to reject the freedom it offered was always present. God sent many prophets and teachers to them; they would have an effect for a time but then the people would return to the search for comfortable slavery. Matthew knows that this is human nature and that his community and the church throughout history would be as prone to it as anyone else.
He is exhorting us at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to recognize that joining with Jesus is the way to overcome the temptation of slavery. It is the perfect beginning for Lent;freedom is found not in holding an idea but in embracing the cross.