First Sunday of Lent Matthew 4:1-11 – The Temptation of Christ
A vacationing American businessman was standing on -the pier of a quaint coastal fishing village in southern Mexico when a small boat with just one young fisherman pulled into the dock. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish. “How long did it take you to catch them?” the American casually asked. “Oh, a few hours,” the young man replied. “Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American businessman then asked. “With this I have more than enough to support my family’s needs.” The businessman then became serious, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” Responding with a smile, the Mexican fisherman answered, “I sleep late, play with my children, talk with my wife, watch ballgames. Sometimes in the evenings I take a stroll into the village to see my friends, play the guitar, sing a few songs…”
The American businessman impatiently interrupted, “Look, I have an MBA from Harvard, and I can help you to be more profitable. You can start by fishing several hours longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra money, you can buy a bigger boat. With the additional income that larger boat will bring, you can then buy a second boat, a third one, and so on, until you have an entire fleet of fishing boats.
“But how long will all this take?” After a rapid mental calculation, the businessman pronounced, “Probably about 15-20 years, maybe less if you work really hard.” “And then what?” asked the fisherman. “Well, then you could happily retire with all the money you’ve made. You could move to a quaint coastal fishing village where you could sleep late, play with your grandchildren, talk with your wife, watch ballgames, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could play the guitar and sing with your friends all you want.”1
Be careful what you wish for because it might come true. That’s a good jumping off point for our Scripture lesson about temptation. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But there’s a whole lot more here than meets the eye. But first, the literary context.
The temptation narrative we have before us today is yet another example of Matthew’s connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and his gospel account. An essential element for Matthew, who was speaking to a predominantly Jewish/Christian audience, was the connection between the great characters of Jewish history, (Moses, Abraham, and so on…) and Jesus of Nazareth. So, this temptation account that we’re looking at today reflects the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. And at the heart of both of these narratives rests the same mistaken insinuation that God is not trustworthy.
Consider the text. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter begins. If you are who you really say you are, then, put your money where your mouth is; turn this stone into bread, put God to the test by jumping off this pinnacle, and claim all that you see as you’re own. Come on, if you’re so high and mighty, prove it! The tempter was setting the trap. A trap that we, frankly, often fall into. But of course, Jesus resists and tells the temper to shove off.
It’s a great story with an even greater message. So, let’s break it down. First, the word “if” is key here. The word “if” calls into question Jesus’ relationship to God and suggests that he could establish himself on his own terms. But Jesus declines to define himself apart from God. And that, I think, really gets to the heart of the matter. The deeper message here is that we too are often tempted to define ourselves apart from God.
This isn’t a new thing. It’s been addressed across the history of thought. Take Blaise Pascal for example. The seventeenth-century French philosopher who spoke of the human condition as having “a God-shaped hole” inside of us. He didn’t see this as a flaw, however, but rather as how God keeps us tethered to our life-giving relationship with the Divine.2 Likewise, St. Augustine, the fourth-century African bishop, writes in the first lines of his Confessions that God created a restlessness in our hearts that can only be satisfied when we rest in God.3 And the seventeenth-century Welsh poet George Herbert went so far as to describe this same restlessness as the “pulley” by which God draws us back into God’s presence.4
So, across the arc of history humans have attempted to establish themselves apart from God. And we’ve done this most visibly by separating ourselves from the other; whoever the “other” may be. If you don’t believe me look at a globe. We’ve drawn lines all over it to distinguish “us” from “them.” But, guess what, God didn’t draw those lines on the globe, human beings did.
One of the core values of Christ’s message was that of interconnectedness and he crossed all kinds of borders to demonstrate this. He crossed physical borders between nations. He crossed religious boundries and divisions created by wealth, status, and position. He even crossed boundries that separated people by the state of their health. He crossed those by healing on the Sabbath and by healing and restoring the “wrong” kind of people. A big part of the ministry and mission of Jesus was to show us that people are more alike than we are different. And even though we are diverse in many ways, we’re finally all interconnected.
Now, the dominate cultural message we hear today is quite the opposite. We are fed a constant stream of information touting individualism. I mean consider advertising. Think about ads you see on TV. Advertisers promise that by owning their product you will receive all the joy we can image. If you buy this kind of car, or use that kind of body wash, you will be beautiful and loved by all. If you just buy my widget, advertisers suggest, you’ll discover your identity, live in bliss, and have a meaningful life.
On the face of it, this all sounds ludicrous, right? How can using a particular product enhance your sense of self-worth? Yet in a Frontline documentary, that I saw on PBS some time ago, they suggest that we are so starved for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives that we make many of our purchasing decisions based the hope that the story they’re peddling is true. And I want to be clear here, it’s not that the stuff itself is bad, but rather that we expect too much from it. As one guest on the program said, “In the end it’s just a laptop or a pair of running shoes. They may be great, but they’re not actually going to fill those needs.
Which brings us back to the gospel reading. Jesus shows us that the key to resisting temptation is by finding our identity in God. And that identity is interconnected with all humanity and with all creation. Now. let me be crystal clear, we are not God, but there is a bit of God within us. “A spark of the Divine,” Whitehead called it, “that exists within all people and in all things.” When God breathed the breath of life into God’s creation, we all became interconnected, intrinsically interwoven into the very fabric of the Divine.
So, whether it be Pascal’s God-shaped-hole, or Augustine’s restlessness, or even Herbert’s pulley, these images serve to illustrate the longing that is within us to be connected to all living things. A longing that goes unfulfilled if we let fear rule the day. Fear is the motivation behind the temptation to disconnect, separate, divide, to draw lines on a map or build walls. When we let fear overshadow our faith, it causes us to compartmentalize or calorize humanity and nature, and thus God.
But if we take a step back, and view things from this perspective of interconnectedness, then we will come to understand, that we need not turn stone into our personal bread because there’s enough bread in the world to go around. All we need to do is share it. Do you see what I’m getting at here?
From this perspective, we need not put God to the test because the signs of God’s presence and love are all around us. We can experience God in nature, in relationships, in prayer, in music and in so many other ways. Even in our most difficult times, our interconnectedness with the Divine is evident in the caring of others and healing that comes through faith.
And finally, from the perspective of interconnectedness, we need not seek earthly power. The temptation of individualism is to acclimate as much as possible, but earthly wealth isn’t the key to happiness; it doesn’t fill that God-shaped hole. Realizing that God loves us beyond all measure, however, fills it nicely.
Perhaps the Mexican fisherman was onto something. Perhaps it’s a blessing to sleep late, to play with our grandchildren, to have a deep and meaningful conversation with our spouse or dear friend. Perhaps it’s a blessing to watch a ballgame or read a good book or listen to a beautiful piece of music. Perhaps we overcome temptation when we stroll through the forest on a misty morning or look for the Christ in the face of a stranger. Perhaps it’s these things, these moments of clarity, these moments of interconnectedness with the ordinary pleasures of life, that constitute the stuff of happiness. Perhaps.
As we continue through this season of Lent, may we all find those points where we interconnect with others, with nature, and with the Divine.
May it be so. Amen.
1 What Really Matters in Life. Author unknown. (inspiringcommunity.org) 2017
2 “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in humanity a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God alone.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensee 10.148.
3 “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” – St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1
4 The Pulley
When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by– “Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can; Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span.” So strength first made a way, Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure: When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, Rest in the bottom lay. “For if I should,” said he, “Bestow this jewel also on my creature, He would adore my gifts instead of me, And rest in nature, not the God of nature: So both should losers be. “Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessness; Let him be rich and weary, that at least, If goodness lead him not, yet weariness May toss him to my breast. – George Herbert, 1633