Lectionary commentary: first Sunday of Lent, year A
A reading from the book of Genesis, 2:7-9. 3:1-7
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 103:1-4. 8. 10. 12-13. R/. v. 8
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 3:16-23
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 5:38-48
When I open my newspaper I know what to expect. The very latest news is on the first page. It is there because it is news. Generally speaking, it is an account of something that has just happened. There will be a headline (FLOODS DEVASTATE YORKSHIRE), directing me to the subject of what will be a factual account of what has happened.
On the other hand, if I turn to the football page, I am likely to expect headlines that strive to capture the excitement of Saturday’s big match. But I will be careful. If I read,
WOLVES DESTROY BIRMINGHAM CITY,
I am not going to think that a pack of wolves has just devastated England’s second city. I know what the writer means. I know that the writer is talking about football teams and using very flowery language to inform me that Wolverhampton Wanders gave City a trouncing. In other words, I have to adapt to the ways of football reporters and not expect them to write in the language of academic historians.
When I turn to the financial pages I expect to read very factual and accurate accounts of business matters, not fairy tales (though I need to be careful about this). When I go to the births and deaths page I do not expect a bunch of laughs. When I read political comment, usually I reach for a large pinch of salt.
What I am driving at is that when I take up something to read I have to be sure what kind of writing I have before me. Is it a poem? Is it a novel? Is it a history book? Is it a prayer book? Is it a romance, a tragedy, a comedy, a crime story, a piece of science fiction?
When I open my Bible I have to ask of each book in that library of books a basic question:
What kind of book is this?
The Book of Jonah is a short story. It never happened. Jonah was not swallowed by a huge sea beast. Job never existed. He is the central character in a dramatic discussion on why bad things happen to good people. I have to realise it is, for the most part, poetry. So I need to put on my poetry hat when reading one of the most important books in the whole of the Bible. When I pray Psalm 51, I know that I am praying a prayer. When I read St. Paul’s writing to little communities of Christians in Rome, I know I have a letter in my hand, not a novel. When I read the Song of Songs, I agree with the Jewish Study Bible that it is an “extensive discourse on human, erotic love”. When I read what Matthew wrote, I know I am reading a Gospel (whatever that might be).
When I read the story of Adam and Eve, I know I am not reading the story of a couple that actually existed long ago. I have to discover what kind of writing it is that expects me to believe in a talking serpent, a naked gardening couple, and a tree in a garden that produces the knowledge of good and evil and turns those who eat this magic fruit into gods. I don’t believe any of this happened. But I believe it to be true.
Today and every Sunday we have three Bible readings and a psalm-prayer. There is a first question we must ask of each reading: what kind of writing is this?
A reading from the book of Genesis, 2:7-9. 3:1-7
The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die. ’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
The word of the Lord.
The story from the second chapter of the Book of Genesis that provides today’s first reading is not well served by our Lectionary. The Lectionary has an unfortunate habit of editing biblical material by abbreviating in order to make the text more amenable to other texts read on the same day. Today St. Paul introduces the Adam story and the Lectionary editors cut the Genesis story in order to facilitate our understanding of the teaching of the great apostle. What is lost is the integrity of the story in the Genesis.
The Book of Genesis is a coherent literary production. The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis are concerned to set the scene for the call of Abraham and how that call developed into a people. They are a long introduction to God’s election of Abraham and his descendants as a chosen people, ultimately to be a light to the nations. This is what the Book Genesis is about:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
The first eleven chapters are an introduction to the story of Israel and ultimately, from a Christian perspective, to the ministry of Jesus. It is simply wrong to isolate the first three chapters of Genesis under the title The Fall of Adam and Eve, as if that myth was an historical event starring our first parents named Adam and Eve. There were no such people and the human race is not descended from a man and woman in a garden.
What is at the heart of chapters 1 to 11 in Genesis is an elaborate fiction that imagines the fate of humanity without God, a humanity that is determined to live independent of divine oversight. A key Hebrew word in these chapters is hamas, violence.
The first Creation Story
The magnificent opening chapter of Genesis is not only a remarkable literary achievement. It is a glorious celebration of a world at perfect peace. God speaks creation into existence and, taking the Jewish week as a headline, God works through the week preparing a home for adam, “made in our image and likeness”. The word adam is a generic term, that is, it does not refer to an individual. It does not mean “a man”; it does not mean a male person, unless it is otherwise qualified to do. It would make more sense to translate Genesis 1:27 in this (rather awkward) way:
And God created the human creature in his image,
In the image of God he created the creature,
Male and female he created them.
It is to the male and female, this man- and woman-kind that are blessed and given a command to be fruitful and multiply and are entrusted with dominion over the earth. They and the animals are also, let it be said, given “the green plants for food”. The ultimate gift, the crowning glory of humanity is then given. For on the seventh day God rested and ceased from all the work that God had done. God blessed the day of rest and Jewish faith has always recognised it as the greatest of gifts. Humanity is privileged to join God, to be resting with God, on that divine creation, the holy Sabbath.
The second Creation Story
This second account may be regarded as more homely. The name of God in the first creation story is Elohim. In the second the divine name is Yahweh (YHWH or YHVH), the name that came to be regarded as so holy that it is never pronounced, even when reading in the synagogue. When the name occurs, the reader must say Adonai (which means “My Lord”). Yet in this second creation story the Lord (the usual English substitute for YHWH) rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck in. The earth has lain untended. So the Lord God took a pie of soil (adamah) and made an adam out it. YHWH blew the breath of life into the nostrils of this chunk of adamah and it became a living creature.
Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden and placed the adam creature in it. YHWH set about planting trees (“lovely to look at and good for food”. Among the trees was the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Rivers on all four sides ensured there was water aplenty (including the Tigris and the Euphrates). The Lord God gave the human responsibility for tilling and maintaining good order. All this came with an injunction: the adam was not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To eat of that tree is to be doomed to death.
It is at this point that the Lord God felt that it was not good for this adam to be alone. So the Lord decided that the adam needed. Here we must be very careful. The English translation of what the Lord intended to fashion out of the rib varies:
A helper fit for him (ESV; RSV) Help-meet (Authorised Version/King James Version) A helper as his partner (NRSV) Suitable partner (REB) A helper suitable for him (NASB) A helpmate (JB) A helper (NJB) A partner (RNJB) A suitable helper (NIV).
Scholars agree that the Hebrew here is difficult to translate. A glance at some sentences in the Hebrew Bible might be of help.
… to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
Whoever prays Psalm 18 proclaims the love of the Lord who is strength, rock, fortress, and deliverer (verses 1-2). Using military metaphors the psalmist goes on:
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have given me the shield of your salvation,
and your right hand supported me,
and your gentleness made me great.
Psalm 18:34-35 and see II Samuel 22:33-36
There are quite a number of instances where a form of the word used in Genesis 2:18 refers to divine help, divine support and deliverance. The Lord God cannot be supposed to be a subordinate. Rather God is an active support, a necessary arm of strength where that is required to overcome distress and danger. The “helper” fashioned out of the rib is not a subordinate but an active and essential “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”.
They were naked
What happened next is the dawning of reality, from being “naked and unashamed” to “they knew that they were naked”. The serpent by promising that “you will become as gods knowing good and evil” undoes the magic of the garden and the realities of human existence dawn. The man must face a life of working the very ground from which he was taken. The woman will bring forth her children in pain. And their first son will be a murderer. The dream turns to into a nightmare.
Our first reading today abbreviates the story and concentrates on the alleged sin of the man and the woman. But this is to distort the story. The serpent is God’s creation:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
It is this creation of God that causes the downfall of the naked pair. Surely the serpent stands for everyone and everything that leads the human heart away from God? The Garden of Eden story is the first edition of the Babel story. Seeking to be God or even one of the gods is not only futile. It has dire consequences.
It never happened. It’s just a myth! That is what most people understand the word “myth” to mean: something untrue. But that is not what historians believe. Historians examine ancient stories. Many of them were handed down by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next. People sitting around fires told tales of wonder and lament, tales of superhuman heroes and heroines and, above all, tales about their gods.
People who study ancient religions are used to myths. These are stories that use highly imaginative language (where serpents can speak), where gods appear from nowhere and talk to human beings, and even marry them:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.
Myths wrap up a people’s wonder and mystery. They relate human existence to the realm of the gods and imagine the divine oversight of human affairs. Myth-makers seek to understand why things are the way they are. In other words the cosmic dimensions of human existence (where did we come from? why are we here? what are we for? why do we die? Is there a future for us? what concern do the goods have for humanity?) are turned into stories that explain why things are the way they are.
By the time the New Testament was written the word myth had taken on our dismissive understanding, especially in the Letters to Timothy, to Titus, and in 2 Peter. It is worth noting what they had to say:
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.
I Timothy 1:3-5
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.
I Timothy 4:7
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
II Peter 1:16
All of which is sound advice.
But the first chapter of Genesis is a sublime poetic hymn-like God-centred imaginative understanding of the creation of the Sabbath and of humanity, of all that exists as we observe our world. It is a celebration of man and woman and their place in the divine scheme of things, the very humans on whom will be laid the solemn command:
Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.
Chapter 1:1 down to Genesis to 11:9 is the stuff of myth in the technical sense. These chapters are imaginative attempts to explain where we came from, what God has determines humanity to be, and why we are where we are. Questions abound. Who are these sons of God who marry earthly women? Who are these people who lived as long as 777 years (Lamech in Genesis 5:31). Is this the same Lamech who engaged in such violence that he took revenge seventy-sevenfold (Genesis 4:24)? Of course, as every one knows, the oldest of all these old-age pensioners was Methuselah who lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27)? And who was Noah who at the age of 500 years fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth? From where did he get the strength to build a boat that held all the animals of the world? Dinosaurs included? More to the point, where is the geological evidence that the whole earth was subjected to a flood? What was the one language spoken by “the whole earth”, by all the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:22 and 11:1)? Above all, why does violence (Hebrew: hamas) everywhere raise its destructive head? Notice:
Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
It was violence, so the myth says, what goaded God into sending the flood. The point of biblical myths, and those to be found in neighbouring cultures, is to attempt to understand the vagaries of human existence. God express an interest in human affairs:
The Lord will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the Lord God of hosts.’
Why? What purpose does God pursue? Genesis 1 to Genesis 12 provides us with a mythical prologue in order to introduce readers and hearers to God’s call to Abraham and the beginning of the estanblishment of God’s justice and righteousness across the face of the earth.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you ...
SIN AND ORIGINAL SIN
The plain fact of the matter is that the Book of Genesis does not have a doctrine of original sin.We need to unlearn prevailing misconceptions of what the myth of the opening chapters of Genesis teach. The following considerations point to the need for much-needed re-education:
(i) That Adam and Eve and their descendants are conceived and born sinners because our mythical “ancestors” sinned is not to be found in our Holy Scriptures.
(ii) That humanity was always and is sinful and that sin is a universal contagion is a clear and constant teaching of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.
(iii) The Hebrew Bible has little to say of Adam beyond its opening chapters. One quotation is worth our attention:
But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.
This is simply a way of saying that the neglect of God’s ways is as old as the hills.
(iv) We are not born sinners. We become sinners because each of us, everyone, is responsible for his or her action and our actions often deserve to be labelled sin.
(v) We are not born into the community of Jesus. We are united to our Lord Jesus Christ when we are blessed with the gift of faith and confirm our faith by seeking baptism that confers a share in the life of our Risen Saviour. Baptism is a birth into new life. We need not just to be born; we need to be born again:
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again ’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
(vi) The sacrament of Baptism created “children of God”. It so joins us to the Risen Lord that our participation in the life of the heavenly Jesus means that “in Christ” we stand before God. Therefore baptism removes sin, removes whatever distorts the face of Christ that God sees when God looks upon those who are “in Christ”. That is why we can call what happens at the font a re-birth. We are born again into a community of faith, hope, and love, into the People of God, into the Church. We are graced to become participators in the ministry of Jesus. All of this becomes obvious in the ceremonies of water and oil in adult baptism. The present form of infant baptism confuses the sacrament and trivialises the seriousness of Christian commitment to God’s justice and peace.
(vii) Mary the mother of Jesus alone did not fall prey to the universality of sin. She was, by God’s design, ”full of grace”.
(viii) We are all born into a sinful world. None of us are untainted by the sin of the world. We are all in most need of God’s mercy.
The popular view of “original sin” presumes that Adam and Eve are the ancestors of every human being. That is a belief that must accommodate what science teaches. It cannot do that. The popular view must also contend with the fact that the word “sin” and related words occur 458 times in our Bible but not in the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. It is of interest that the verb “to eat” occurs 17 times.
All of which warns us to be particularly careful when we read St. Paul and especially when we make our way through his Letter to the Romans.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 51:3-6. 12-14. 17. R/. cf. v. 3
R/. Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! R/.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight. R/.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me. R/.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise. R/.
Psalm 51 is among the best known of all the psalms. It is also the only one with a very particular account of its origins:
TO THE CHOIRMASTER.
A PSALM OF DAVID,
WHEN NATHAN THE PROPHET WENT INTO HIM,
AFTER HE HAD GONE INTO BATHSHEBA.
The key to the story is the sexual pun. The prophet “went into David” after he had “gone into Bathsheba”. The story is as old as the hills:
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.
II Samuel 11:2-5
David then devised a hideous plot to murder her husband, Uriah the Hittite, a foreigner fighting in the army of the King. The rest of chapter 11 reveals the evil plan and its success, ending in Bathsheba becoming David’s wife and bearing him a son. It is a despicable story and it is no wonder that “the Lord sent Nathan to David” (II Samuel 12:1) and the prophet told David this parable:
There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.
II Samuel 12:1-6
Then, we are told, David anger was greatly kindled against the man who took the poor man’s lamb and swore an oath:
As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.
II Samuel 12:5-6
To which Nathan replied,
You are that man!
The crude pun in the title of this psalm goes to the sordid heart of the matter. The psalm may very well have been composed long after the death of King David for it mentions the restoration of the walls of the city of Jerusalem. This restoration happened after 537 B.C. when the remnant returned from the Babylonian exile. Nevertheless it is a powerful prayer. Sin is not wiped out in offering sacrifices, merely going through the rituals of religious piety. Three Hail Marys are never enough:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.
By the way, both David and Bathsheba are ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth. Look up Matthew 1:6 and notice how delicately Matthew handles the sordid pair. David is mentioned five times in the genealogy of Jesus. The woman, Bathsheba, is reduced to “the wife of Uriah”, as if she were the guilty party.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 5:12-19
Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, so death spread to all people because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
The word of the Lord.
In the text of the Letter to the Romans this paragraph begins with “therefore”. Today’s reading is a conclusion to all that has gone before. The focus of the two paragraphs is what we might call cosmic, that is, there is a movement to stress the fate of all humanity. The perspective is universal.
Two men are set over and against each other. Through one man—Adam—sin and death (sin’s consequence) entered the world God created. Through another man—Christ—many will be made righteous. The comparison is summarised in 5:17:
For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Adam brought sin into the world and with sin came death.
There was no Torah, no Law of God, to fence off the world from sin and death. The sad condition of humankind was hopeless beyond relief:
… the ungodly by their deeds and words summoned death,
considering him a friend,
they pined away,
and made a covenant with him …
For they reasoned unsoundly,
saying to themselves,
"Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy
at the death of a human being …"
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1
The reasoning of humanity along these lines of hopeless despair resulted from sin that blinded them to the truth: God made humanity to be a reflection of God’s immortal righteousness, that is, in the words of Genesis 1:27, God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them. The Wisdom of Solomon provides a sad summary:
Thus they reasoned,
but they were led astray.
For their wickedness blinded them,
and they did not know the secret purposes of God
or hope for the wages of holiness
or discern the prize for blameless souls;
for God created mankind for incorruption
and made him in the image of his own character,
but through the devil’s envy
death entered the world,
and those who belong to his party experience it.
Wisdom of Solomon 2:21-24
The fate of humanity is endless despair:
All living beings become old like a garment,
For the decree from of old is,
“You will surely die!”
Wisdom of ben-Sirach 14:17
The same writer, without a great deal of reflection, knows who to blame:
From a woman sin had its beginning,
And because of her we all die.
Wisdom of ben-Sirach 25:24
What Paul, and even the indiscriminate language Wisdom writers, assert is that it was men and women, not God, who brought sin into the world. The universal reign of sin and death is alien to God’s intent and the only source of deliverance is, and must be, God. And so it is:
For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.
God reverses the sad state of humanity and transforms despair into hope though the ministry of Jesus Christ. What God wrought was not condemnation but rather justification. That word “justification” was at the heart of Martin Luther’s Reformation. What St. Paul’s means by the word has divided Protestant and Catholic understanding for five hundred years. But we have come at last to realise that each side needed to be less insistent on its perceptions and more sensitive on those of the other:
Your righteousness, O God,
reaches the high heavens.
You who have done great things,
O God, who is like you?
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities
will revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
you will bring me up again.
You will increase my greatness
and comfort me again.
That is to say, God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s creative instincts, God’s grace, God’s determination to be on humanity’s side,—all of which are embraced by that phrase :God’s righteousness—is ever disposed to human wellbeing. Paul’s understanding of justification is that, first and foremost, it denotes a status and a relationship. The secrets of human hearts are seen by God through the lens of Christ Jesus. The meaning of what God does to bring us where we need to be is this:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The next verses are a perfect summary of all we know and all we need to know:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Humanity is save in God’s hands, from here to eternity. We are dead to sin and alive to God and this is God’s doing. Though understanding Paul can often be a challenge, more often than not, he is guilty of plain speaking:
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And 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,“‘Man shall 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 set him on the pinnacle of the temple 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“‘On their hands they will bear you up,lest you strike your foot against a stone. ’”
Jesus said to him,
“Again it is written, ‘You shall 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 glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Then Jesus said to him,
“Be gone, Satan! For it is written,“‘You shall worship the Lord your Godand him only shall you serve. ’”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
The Gospel according to Mark gives a very succinct account of the testing of Jesus:
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as his base text and almost all of Mark’s text is found word-for-word in his Gospel. Matthew’s presentation of the testing of Jesus is an imaginative dramatisation of the brief account Matthew read in Mark.
The Jesus who is led into the wilderness by the Spirit is none other than My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel know is true for it was declared by a voice from heaven, that is, by God. It is this Son of God who is brought by the Spirit to be tested in the desert just as the People of Israel emerging from slavery in Egypt were tested. That testing of faith and trust in God provide Matthew with a model for his drama.
The forty days and forty nights recall the forty years of the wilderness experience as the People of God were prepared for the realities of their vocation in the land of milk and honey. Just as the People of Israel passed through the waters of the Sea of Reeds to emerge into the safety of God’s hands, so Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism. The People of Israel and Jesus will experience severe testing in the wilderness.
Hunger tested the faith of the desert stragglers. Recall the phrase from the reminder Moses gave to his reluctant charges of what God was about: testing you to know what was in your heart (Deuteronomy 8:3). Matthew did not quote the Hebrew Bible but he abbreviated the Greek text of the Septuagint, the Bible of the first Christians:
… man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that goes out through the mouth of God man shall live.
The tester of verse 3 is now revealed as the devil and, as we know, the devil can, as they say, quote Scripture to suit devilish purposes. Again, the words are from the LXX (the Septuagint):
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
upon hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91 (90 in the LXX): 11-12
Again, the reply is a word of Scripture (Deuteronomy 6:16). In the same way Scripture will rout the devil whom Jesus reveals as the Satan, an Aramaic name meaning “adversary”. The name crops up in the Hebrew Bible generally identifying a being that leads people away from God. So it is with King David:
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.
I Chronicles 21:1
God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the sand that is on the seashore (Genesis 22:17). To hold a census was to question the word of God and a punishment followed.
Satan is the one who tests the faith of Job (Job 1:6-12). The prophet Zechariah has an interesting sentence that couples Satan with fire:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?
The word of Scripture is again the weapon of choice. Jesus confronts Satan with what is written, with the word of God:
You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
Again the appeal is to the past. The People of Israel, in their forty year trek through the desert, constantly complained, constantly blamed God and Moses for taking them from the fleshpots of Egypt, perhaps to kill them in the desert sands.
And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
The devil’s display of the all the kingdoms of the world and their glory ends with the dismissal of Satan. The words of Holy Scripture, the very words of God, are employed as a command:
Be gone, Satan!
For it is written,
“You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve”.
The quotation is taken from Deuteronomy 6:13.
It is important to realise how Matthew weaves the words of his Bible (the Greek Septuagint) into his text. He does not always indicate that he is quoting but he is determined to weave the word of God into every detail of the life and work of Jesus. He is not just quoting for the sake of it. He is weaving God’s story, the story of Israel, into the texture of Jesus. The angels who “were ministering to him” (an imperfect tense indicating continuous ministering) are ever at hand to do God’s bidding:
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
Readiness is all. Matthew’s drama acted out in the wilderness, in the holy city, and on a very high mountain, has identified for his readers and hearers who it is who now leaves Nazareth and goes to live in Capernaum by the sea (of Galilee, actually a lake). Matthew tells his readers and hearers that the town is in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, not to show that he has an O’Level in geography. He does so because he has a very informative quotation to hand. The twenty miles or so from Nazareth takes Jesus into the words of the prophet Isaiah; every step of the way is marked out by God’s holy words:
The land of Zebulun
and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.
Slightly adjusting the Septuagint text, Matthew quotes Isaiah to set the public ministry of preaching in motion. The whole of the Galilean ministry of Jesus is underpinned by the divine words of God’s prophet (see Isaiah 8:23-9:1). Matthew leaves out “the regions of Judea” from the quotation for at 16:21 he will announce that Jesus sets out for Jerusalem in Judea). Isaiah points to the northern regions. So he underlines that the preaching of Jesus begins under the impetus of God’s holy words. The reference to “Galilee of the Gentiles” is a broad hint that Gentiles as well as Jews are at the heart of the Gospel according to Matthew. He speaks to both on every page.
Dr Joseph O’Hanlon.