Reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy
After Jesus was baptized, he 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.
One of the ongoing themes that has been weaving its way through several of our reflections has been that of identity. Who we are and how it is we come to know that. Or to put it another way our stories of self and who tells them. The trainers from the Kennedy School for Public Policy with whom I have recently been privileged to spend two weekends learning the art and craft of community organizing in order to carry out a very exciting Diocesan project related to the Millennium Development Goals tell us often, “If you don’t tell your own public story, someone else will tell it for you.”
For some reason that came to mind when I read this Gospel. Like so many of the characters that Jesus encounters in the narratives of the Gospels, here we have the devil telling Jesus some things about who he might be. If Jesus didn’t tell his story, someone else was going to tell it for him in this narrative! And Jesus is at a crucial point here. Newly baptized, newly initiated, he must determine for himself who he is going to be. There was a lot of expectation. There was a lot of story already told about the one who was to come. A public narrative of a mighty one who would baptize with the holy spirit and fire, who would bring the kingdom of heaven, who would fulfill all those wild visions and dreams of the Old Testament Prophets. A ready made, slip-on narrative. The metaphor presented by the three temptations is a universal and powerful one. Jesus is offered temptations toward three things: First, to be the great provider/caretaker of the world’s material needs, second, to be the holder of great and wonderful power, magical power, power even to control God, and third, to be mighty as a king over all nations. He is offered the chance to decide. Will he take that defined story and wear it? Or will he tell his own story, a new story, a story that has never, ever in all of time been told? One that will be so radical it will first get him killed and then in turn separate all of history into before and after.
This is such an apt reading for the beginning of Lent, a time when we are encouraged to slow the pace down, reflect, take stock. Maybe it’s a good time to review who is telling the story in our own lives these days. Yes, like many of us it’s been awhile since Baptism, but it sure has not been any distance since the last time I’ve been presented with the great temptation to….acquiesce and let someone else tell my story for me.
Who defines us, who says who we are? Who tells the story? I’m writing this on February 2nd, the day before the Superbowl. I heard on MPR last night that Americans will spend fifty million dollars on snacks for the game. At the same time people are starving. OK, so we don’t live by bread alone, but I’m sure even bread would be welcomed by some. The dominant story in the culture is that it’s better to have more….that you are better if you have more. That there is something wrong with you if you are not ambitious in that way, seeking striving to better yourself financially, to prosper….there are even churches who preach a Gospel based on this “prosperity-thinking” narrative. Our story? My story? How do I tell it? How do I stand in the face of it? How am I willing to talk back to the devil in my narrative?
And then there is this power to control God. Well of course if Jesus throws himself off the temple God’s not going to let him get hurt! And we can pray that Aunt Mabel’s cancer will be cured….and if it is not, well, the story must be that it was our lack of faith, or “God wanted her with Him in heaven now” or….some other version of the underlying God-in-the-box narrative that we really are in control of this thing called Life. Nope. God is. Really. And that is OK. Jesus got that. It was the point of the Incarnation. Another interesting place to bump up against those dominant stories….mine, ours, theirs. To make radical trust in the Incarnate Jesus that says “God-with-us no matter what” the truly dominant identity story would be transformative.
Of course then there is that last one. OK, it can be about imperialism. But I haven’t wanted to conquer any nations lately. I have had struggles with power though. My own. Other peoples’. The right uses of it. Who is getting served in the choices I make about how I hold it, share it. There are a whole lot of stories about that playing themselves out in my life on a daily basis. And Temptation regarding power is often a main character. Mostly to abdicate it! And in my conversations with other women, I find I am not alone in this. So perhaps one for us is about claiming in the retelling. Not in power over but in power with. Aligning ourselves in right relationship with those Jesus focused on, those of the margins, those of the least, the powerless ones might help me figure out a way to hold it with dignity, use it with grace, and narrate a different chapter on power and its uses in my story.
At the end of the forty days, after the three temptations, the devil, apparently getting the point that he is not going to get Jesus to fall over into temptation, to tell his story of Jesus’ life, gives up. Jesus emerges from the desert and begins the work of his ministry. The familiar narrative about his public life emerges. We are heading into the home stretch on that story again. Hard as that is to believe. As Lent begins I want to think about those three temptations. How they play out in my own narrative…. How much I buy into some of those culturally-based, steeped-in viewpoints about giving and having, who’s in control, power, just a few of life’s little questions…just a small Lenten reflection.