Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent (1 March 2020)

Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent (1 March 2020)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “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.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him (Matthew 4:1-11 – NRSV).

Introductory notes


Parallel texts can be found in Mark 1:12–13 and Luke 4:1–13.

“The Markan version (Mark 1:12–13) is very short in comparison with Matt 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13; it is a straightforward narrative, without the lengthy dialogues of the other Gospels. The Matthean and Lukan versions are clearly related. Since they depart from Mark and are closely parallel, they are usually attributed to Q (though by length and complexity they stand out from the simple sayings-material characteristic of Q).

“After a narrative introduction (Matt 4:1–2), the Matthean version consists of three dialogues between the devil and Jesus (4:3–4, 5–7, 8–10) and a narrative conclusion (4:11). Each dialogue has the devil offering a test and Jesus responding with a quotation from Deuteronomy 6–8. The biblical quotations correspond closely to the Septuagint, indicating that the present text at least was composed in Greek on the basis of the Greek Bible. Whether the story goes back to Jewish-Christian scribes (as Gerhardsson argues) or to Jesus himself (as Dupont claims) cannot be determined.

“The three biblical quotations in which Jesus’ responses are expressed come from Deuteronomy 6–8 (8:3; 6:16; 6:13). In those chapters Moses addresses the people of Israel near the end of their wandering in the wilderness and before their entrance into the promised land. The underlying motif of the Book of Deuteronomy is the covenant. In chapters 6–8 Moses supplies the historical foundations for God’s relationship with Israel and presents exhortations on that basis. This material is reminiscent of the “historical prologue” in the covenant formula” (Daniel J Harrington, S. J. The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 68).


the wilderness: This echoes the experience of the Chosen People when they were called out of Egypt: “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)

to be to be tempted by the devil: The “tempting” is a “testing”. Daniel Harrington notes: “In the OT ‘testing’ refers to the process by which the covenant partner is scrutinized to determine his fidelity in keeping the agreement. In the context of Israel’s relationship with God the process will reveal whether Israel is faithful or not. God can test Israel, but Israel must not test God. Here the testing will show forth the fidelity of the Son of God. ‘Devil’ is the English equivalent of the Greek diabolos, which serves as a synonym for Satan (‘tester, tempter’). Whereas in pre-exilic times God tests Israel, in post-exilic times that function is given over to Satan (see Job 1–2; Zech 3:1–2; 1 Chr 21:1). The assumption is that the devil remains under God’s ultimate control. In the case of Jesus the Spirit of God leads him into the wilderness, and so makes the testing possible.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 66.)

forty days and forty nights: This could refer to the forty years the people spent in the desert – see above quotation to Deuteronomy. It could also refer to the forty day fasts of Moses – see Deuteronomy 9:18 – or Elijah – see 1 Kings 19:8.


The Sermon on the Mount – see Matthew 5:1-7:29 – is one of the more memorable passages in the Christian Scriptures. It starts with the Beatitudes and right in the middle Jesus tells his disciples: “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven ….’”. As with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, there is a clipped, very direct and at times even a tough, non-negotiable quality to the Our Father. It reflects the mind and heart of one who has been tested and purified. He knows in his bones what matters in the end and what is involved in getting there. Today’s Gospel – Matthew 4:1-11 – indicates one instance of Jesus’ testing and purification: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (NRSV). The Greek word peirazo – translated here as “to be tempted” – may also be translated, “to be put to the test”.

It is entirely possible that Jesus recalls this testing – and just how horrible it was – when he tells his disciples to pray to the Father: “Do not put us to the test” or, as we more commonly know it, “lead us not into temptation” – but still, “deliver us from evil”.

When Luke speaks of the testing in the wilderness, he adds a note which remains implicit in Matthew: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time”. The testing in the wilderness is not just an isolated event in Jesus’ life. Recall Jesus’ words on the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” Jesus’ encounters evil. This is an encounter in which evil is vanquished by Jesus experiencing it. This suggests a possible interpretation of that blunt statement in the Apostles Creed: “He descended into hell”. Jesus “descended” to the very depths – the darkest depths of human existence and its subjection to evil – in order to endure that evil and bring healing and salvation through his very being. The theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: “Only what has been endured is healed and saved” (Lyra Pitstick, Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016, 2).

“He descended into hell”, jars. But it jars, not because Jesus is so pure that he could not possibly “endure” evil, but precisely because he is the embodiment of a love we cannot begin to fathom, a scandalous love: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Maybe when we feel most at sea, we are most likely to encounter Jesus – see Matthew 14:25; maybe when we feel least in control we are most available to the power of Jesus at work in and through us – see Matthew 11:28-30; maybe when we feel abandoned and lost we are most able to identify with Jesus in his triumph over evil – see Matthew 27:4-50.