Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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).
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 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 reference to Deuteronomy. It could also refer to the forty day fasts of Moses – see Deuteronomy 9:18 – or Elijah – see 1 Kings 19:8.
Reflection – Being Tested
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 4:1-11 – we have an account of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. The text is often referred to as the “temptation of Jesus”. This tends to place the focus on the one who tempts Jesus rather than the One who led him into the desert. The biblical scholar, Daniel Harrington SJ, writes: “A better title, one more appropriate to the biblical basis of the narrative in the Book of Deuteronomy, is the ‘Testing of God’s Son’. The concern of the passage is not so much whether the devil can lure Jesus into this or that sin as it is the portrayal of Jesus as God’s Son ‘who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb 4:15). Where Israel in the wilderness failed, Jesus passes every test” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 68).
The Book of Deuteronomy gives us the context: “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” (8:2). The focus here, as with Jesus, is the One who leads – “the Lord your God has led you”. If the people forget that – as they frequently did – the wilderness becomes a place of threat, “an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions” (8:15). On the other hand, when they live in remembrance of “the Lord who leads” them, the wilderness becomes a place of promise: “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (2:14).
The testing is in view of a deepening love: “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession … because the Lord loves you” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Through the testing the people can come to know the Lord’s fidelity and that they are loved infinitely. Thus, Moses tells the people the testing is so that “you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3). In the light of this, you will “not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:16) and “the Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear” (6:13).
The profound links between today’s account of the testing of Jesus and the testing of the people of Israel as described in the Book of Deuteronomy, become even clearer when we hear Israel spoken of as God’s son: “As a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (8:5). See also 1:31; 14:1; 32:5–6, 18–20.
Jesus represents a faithful Israel. He understands and obeys the loving Father. In him the Covenant of love will be renewed forever. The testing in the wilderness brings this to light for all to see.