Discipleship’s Anchor: context

Matthew 4:1-11  1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. 3 The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” 4 He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” 8 Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, 9 and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” 10 At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Context  From the 4th Sunday to the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Sunday gospels include most of the “Sermon on the Mount” (Mt 5:1-7:29)[1]  On the first Sunday in Lent, the traditional reading reverts to several chapter earlier – Mt 4 – to consider “the tempting of Christ in the desert.”

We would be well served to remind ourselves of the context of our gospel reading:

Mt 3:13-17

Jesus revealed as the Son of God: the baptism of Jesus. “And a voice came from the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased ” (Mt 3:17).

Mt 4:1-11

testing of the Son of God in the desert

Mt 4:12-17

beginning of the public ministry in Galilee

Mt 4:18-22

calling of the first disciples

Mt 5:1-7:29

teaching on discipleship, revealing the authority of the Messiah (“Sermon”)

Mt 8:1-9:34

anthology of actions revealing the Messiah’s authority (miracles and signs)

Mt 9:35-10:42

the Son of God’s authority shared with the disciples sent on mission

Everything that surrounds and comes from the pericope points to discipleship, its demands, and ground on which a disciple is called to stand.

As well, reminded that this reading forms the first weekend in Lent. There is also a context for its inclusion in this season. On this same Sunday everywhere in Catholic Churches the RCIA catechumens (those not yet baptized) and candidates (those already baptized and seeking full communion with the Church) will gather for the Rite of Sending. The parish community will affirm their preparedness, bless them, and send them to the cathedral where the Bishop will receive them. The catechumen will be “accepted” and declared the Elect. Their names symbolically written in the “Book of Life.” The candidates too are welcomed and affirmed in their decision of faith.

Commentary All three synoptic gospels record an incident of Jesus confronting the devil in the wilderness immediately after his baptismal experience at the Jordan River. Where Mark notes quite simply: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:12-13). Matthew and Luke record a three-part dialogue between Jesus and the devil that is recorded traditionally as a “tempting.”

A Test? A Temptation? A Trial? It is difficult to know how to translate peirazo (4:1) and the more intensive ekpeirazo (4:7) – “to test” or “to tempt”. The word is often used in the LXX of God testing people, e.g., God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gn 22:1).  When God rained bread from heaven, God asked that they gather only enough for that day. “thus will I test them, to see whether they follow my instructions or not” (Ex 16:4).

Why does God test people? One reason is given in Dt 13:4: “for the LORD, your God, is testing you to learn whether you really love him with all your heart and with all your soul.” A slightly different reason is given in Dt 8:16: “that he might afflict [humble] you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end.”  God does not test his people so that He would know the answer, what is in our hearts – He already knows.  God tests his people so that we would know what is in our hearts (cf. Dt 8:2).[2]

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. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (NRSV)

That is this positive side of peirazo and ekpeirazo. They can also have negative connotations: “to tempt” or “to try and cause someone to make a mistake” or “to try and cause someone to sin.” At the same time that God is “testing” so that one self-discovers the depths of one’s faithfulness, the “Tempter” may be “tempting” someone to sin. God’s purpose is to strengthen faith. Satan’s purpose is to weaken trust in God.

One should also be aware that this pericope of conflict with Satan is part of a recurring theme within Matthew of conflict between the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world.  In Matthew’s theology, the devil though defeated (12:28-29) continues to tempt Jesus during his ministry (16:23), at the crucifixion and into the time of the Church (13:19,39).  This pericope also sets the stage for the post-Easter period when the disciples must still confront the devil-inspired resistance to the gospel message (5:37; 6:13; 13:19, 39)


[1]        In a typical Year A of the Lectionary, unless Easter is very late – April 20th or later – the period prior to Lent will include only portions of the 4th-9th Sunday gospels.

[2]        In the NAB Dt 8:2 the word “intention” is a translation of lēḇāḇ [לֵבָב:] which means heart, intention, conscience, mind.

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