Temptation One (Matthew 4:1-11)
Julian Altman’s deathbed confession was admirable: the Stradivarius violin with which he had entertained presidents and politicians for decades was not his; he had stolen it from Carnegie Hall in 1936 at intermission, after the performing virtuoso had replaced it with a Guarneri. The sense of guilt of Altman’s crime had hounded him for forty-nine years and his regret was finally stronger than his greed.
Caving in to temptations is like that, isn’t it? What seems enticing and alluring at first leaves us withered and ashamed eventually. The shining carrot held out before us turns to sawdust in our mouth, and worse: the path we veer onto leads us away from the path of God and away from real living.
When Matthew recounts for us the temptation of Jesus early on in his ministry, we are given a singular glimpse into the workings of temptation, the methodology of the tempter, and the response of the Man on whom the rescue of mankind depends. It is a window whose shutters are opened for our benefit. Through it we see how light overcomes darkness, and how we can walk in that light, because we know about temptation too, don’t we?
We find Jesus here having fasted forty days and nights and we’re told in classic understatement, “He was hungry.” Matthew might have said ‘ravenous’ or even ‘starving’, but we get the point. He is physically weak from the past six weeks’ spiritual retreat and Satan knows to make his move; the tempter’s goal is to remove from the world our one and only hope for the recovery of our race from his deadly grip, and he will try any trick of his trade.
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” challenges the liar. The temptation suggests that Jesus should act independently of the Father. It counsels Him to see Himself as the solution to His problems, to rely solely on Himself to turn His weakness into strength. Envision the bread in those stones, whispers the tempter; it’s in you to do it.
“No!” responds Jesus. True life comes “from the mouth of God”, not from bread, He answers through parched lips. Jesus is modeling for us His commitment to unity with the Father. He will not be drawn away from dependence upon that relationship. It is everything to Him. It is life itself.
We can learn much from that response. This world’s mantra cries ‘look to yourself! You are the source of your strength,’ it cajoles. New Age spirituality falls to that temptation; so does Wall Street sagacity. It can be made to sound reasonable, viable, and even enviable. Many of the bright minds and bodies of this world have espoused this creed and have eaten the bread they have created. The spotlight of fame and wealth that has accompanied their rise to the podiums of the world does not shine onto their souls, though. There we would see what the tempter hopes will stay hidden until he has duped many more into listening to his sweet temptations.
If we are to avoid the peril of self-sufficiency, our answer every time must be ‘No!” We must insist, especially in moments of our greatest weakness, that our strength, our hope and our life come only from God. We must resist the temptation to rely on ourselves, to take matters into our own hands, and to set aside the power of God to make room for the power of self.
“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus quotes; He uses this truth, mouthed half a millennium earlier by Moses, to snap the twig that dangles the tempter’s first carrot. We do well to attend. Our first lesson draws us to reject self-dependence. Only by relying on God, His words and His ways can we avoid this all-too-common temptation.
One down. Two to go.
(Photo Credit: Koernerbroetchen, Wikimedia Commons)