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The wings of the Spirit-dove are still beating the air, and the words of the Almighty still hang there, when the action of our passage begins: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).
Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that there really is such a creature as a devil.
Actually, let’s go back to basics. Biblical Devils 101.
First: There are no “devils” in the Hebrew Scriptures. None.
Second: There is, however, a character called “Ha-Satan,” or “The Satan.”
Third: “Satan” is a Hebrew word, meaning “tempter.”
Fourth: And the Tempter in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually a part of God’s heavenly court. He functions to prod the Almighty, to test the divine worldview. As an example, see Satan pushing God to question the righteousness of his servant Job.
Fifth: Once we get to the New Testament, something changes, radically. Instead of the Satan being one skeptical lawyer on God’s team, he abruptly appears to be on the other team, the anti-God team. And…
Sixth: In the New Testament, the devil’s job is no longer to help God to see things clearly. Now his job is mess up the vision of people—to tempt, seduce, and ensnare them to join his team. This is the traditional understanding of the devil that appears today, in our reading from the gospel of Matthew.
And now, Jesus is face to face with one who is called “devil” or the “tempter” or “Satan.” The function of the devil in this particular passage seems to be to test Jesus’ sense of self. This follows that extraordinary peeling back of the heavens to reveal God’s sense of Jesus at the end of the preceding chapter. “My Son. Beloved. Well-pleased.”
And Satan jumps right in: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (v. 3). The devil seems to be tempting Jesus to use his identity or power as the Son of God to exempt himself from the human experience of hunger. But Jesus refuses, quoting Deuteronomy (8:3): “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). Jesus’ connection with God, his identity as “beloved child,” is a precious gift. Jesus refuses to use this connection as a convenience, as a “get-out-of-hunger-free” card. Jesus lives with his physical hunger while reminding himself of his spiritual hunger for God. Jesus deals with his hunger in a very human way.
The devil’s second temptation incorporates another quote from scripture, as if to say to Jesus, “I see what you did there. Two can play at that game.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
The devil seems to have come up with a strategy of matching Jesus, quote for scripture quote. Here he’s quoting Psalm 91. However, Jesus seems to have a particular view as to how we should quote scripture. I think it goes something like this: to quote scripture with the goal of causing harm is a violation and a perversion. Jesus quotes scripture to tell the truth. “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (v. 7). If Jesus was not inclined to use his connection with God to fill up on miracle bread, he is even less inclined to use it to try to bend the laws of nature, turning falling into flying. Jesus is committed to his humanity.
The devil tries a third time, offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” in return for his bowing down to him in worship. Jesus’ response is decisive: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (v. 10).
The tempter does indeed give up and go away…only to be replaced by angels, ministering to Jesus. I think it is fascinating that the angels appear just now. Jesus has not performed any miracles. Jesus has not shown the fearsome power of God by calming a storm at sea. The angels appear after Jesus has essentially given up all claim to divine power and authority. Jesus has been described so far in this gospel as “Messiah,” “God-with-us,” and “Son of God.” And yet Jesus’ power seems (ironically? paradoxically?) to rest in his absolutely, and tenaciously, clinging to his humanity.
The test completed, Jesus begins his ministry. Upon hearing that John the Baptist has been arrested, Jesus “withdraws” to Capernaum, in Galilee, safely out of the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the equally bloody son of Herod the Great. This means that Jesus is intentionally avoiding conflict with potentially hostile authorities. He does this on several other occasions in this gospel. He is not looking for a confrontation—not yet, anyway. This also means that Jesus’ ministry begins in Gentile territory. And so Jesus begins his ministry much as be began his life: on the run from a king named Herod, and unexpectedly welcome in Gentile territory. By the last verse of our passage, Jesus has picked up John’s mantle, preaching in the same key: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (v. 17).
So… let’s assume this creature is for real. This tempter, this Satan. We could ask, what, exactly, has the tempter accomplished? How devil-like does he feel to you?
A friend in ministry wrote this week,
Because of years of traditions we tend to see the "devil" as someone who is trying to lead Jesus astray, as the demonic face of evil trying to stop the good from triumphing. I suspect such an image would be foreign to Matthew as he wrote this story down. It appears that this is more a story of being tested than being tempted. Not being led astray but refining from a variety of options who he will be, how will he live out the calling of Messiah.
Who will Jesus be? Will he feed the hungry? Will he overturn the laws of nature? Will he come in power to rule?
OR will he be something totally different?[i]
Jesus is in the wilderness, forty days and forty nights, just as Moses was in the wilderness with God’s people for forty years. But there is something completely new going on here. Jesus is not just a throwback, he is not Moses reincarnated. Is it possible that Jesus is doing something that has been called a “vision quest”? I read this week that a traditional vision quest consists of a person spending an extended period of time, at least one to four days and nights, in nature or the wilderness. During that time, the person enters a deep communion with whatever they understand to be God—they might call it spiritual energy, or the forces of nature. And it is hoped that this intense experience will result in a spiritual aha—dare I call it an “epiphany”?—in which the person receives a profound insight into themselves and the world, a dream or a vision, telling them about their identity, their purpose, and their destiny.[ii]
What if the role of the tempter was not to turn Jesus away from God, or from his true mission or ministry, but to actually help him to refine, and clarify, and discern exactly what his true mission or ministry was? What if the time in the wilderness was Jesus’ vision quest?
It seems to me that Jesus’ fundamental realization in his wilderness sojourn is this: the Son of God, the Messiah, is not someone who will accomplish his work by separating himself from humanity. The deepest truth of Jesus’ mission and ministry flow from embracing his humanity. And Jesus does just that: in the face of each test, he does the human thing, wholeheartedly. And then the tempter’s work is done. Jesus’ path is clear.
For those of us watching with interest, this is good news. Very good news. If we are called to follow Jesus, it’s to follow him by fully embracing our own humanity.
We are human beings—formed from the earth, and made in God’s image, at once grounded and exalted.
We are human beings—created for community, for belonging, for relationship.
We are human beings—called “beloved,” and tested by all that life throws at us, to be sure. But God is our open book for that test—God is with us in all of it.
In the end, God doesn’t ask us to be anything other than we are. Which is, after all, what God created us to be.
So, about that devil… that tempter. Is it possible that the Hebrew Scriptures had it right? That the role of temptation is to help us to gain clearer vision? That in being drawn to certain things or situations or people we learn who we are, and who we are not; what we treasure above all, and what we are willing to let go of? Is it possible that what we perceive as the “tests” of this life can, if we allow them, help us to understand what our true path is? And if Jesus gives us any clue, our path has to do with being fully human—grounded and glorious, individuals in connection and communion with one another, and beloved children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rev. Gordon Waldie, “Looking Forward to January 18—Jesus Tested in the Wilderness,” Ministerial Mutterings Blog. http://ministerialmutterings.blogspot.com/2015/01/looking-forward-to-january-18-2015.html.