Choosing God’s Path

This reflection is based on the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1-11.

We are entering the season of Lent. Lent is an introspective time—a time to look within and identify what our values and priorities are. In the process of taking us closer to the cross—and to death—Lent leads us into dark places. In the passage of scripture we heard this morning Jesus is struggling with his own identity and who God is calling him to be.

Just before the passage we read is the story of Jesus’ baptism. In Matthew it is the first story we have of Jesus as an adult. It is the first time that Jesus has appeared publicly. I often think of Jesus as a young man but for his time Jesus was quite elderly. Life expectancy in first century Palestine was around 29 years. So what we see in this passage is not the struggle of a young man trying to figure out his life’s direction but an older man trying to make sense of what his life has been about and what legacy he wants to leave behind. He also has nothing to lose because whether he dies a natural death or dies on the cross his life will be short. Will Jesus give in to the temptations set before him or will he make his choices matter?

In order to make sense of this passage there are a few words that need some explanation. We begin with Jesus being led into the wilderness to be tempted. We often think of tempting as being enticed into something but in the Greek the word used here also means “to test, to try, to examine, to prove.”[1] So Jesus is in the wilderness not to be enticed by evil but to be tested or to be examined.

And the person tempting him is known as the devil or satan. For the Hebrew people satan was originally an adversary or an accuser and could be a normal human. But satan was also a position in the heavenly court who had the responsibility of identifying evil and presenting a case to God. Eventually satan became a corrupt prosecutor.[2] As this idea evolved we see satan becoming the one who would try to lure people towards evil. With this tradition comes the idea that there is an actual being called satan or devil that works to destroy.

For many of us, we understand that there is evil in the world. People do terrible, horrible things to themselves and each other but the idea of evil as an incarnate being doesn’t sit well for many of us but in Jesus time that concept would not have been uncommon. In this story the author seems to be using the image as the prosecutor who is trying to prove a case.

So first we see Jesus being tested with food. He’s been fasting in the wilderness, is presumably hungry and weakened. Most of know that we will eat today and tomorrow and many of us will eat well. But for the people in Jesus’ context starvation was a very real possibility. Most didn’t know where their next meal would come from. With starvation a reality, having stones turn into bread would be amazing but it doesn’t solve the problem. It gives Jesus bread for the moment but it doesn’t change the reality that the unjust system keeps many people in poverty and starving. Jesus reference to the life-giving word of God is a quote from the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 6-8) where the people are being given instruction to live faithfully by loving God with all their heart, soul and strength. So Jesus has to decide what is more important—his immediate need or the big picture which involves living faithfully.

And then Jesus is taken to the temple in Jerusalem and put on the highest point. The tester tells him to throw himself off the temple to prove that God will protect and save. The temple would be a busy place and if Jesus threw himself off the highest pinnacle hundreds of people would witness his miraculous salvation. It would propel Jesus to instant stardom but what would it accomplish? People would follow him around and he would be known for his theatrics but would it really change the world? And does God really go around changing the laws of physics? If you throw yourself off the top of a high building you will be hurt and so Jesus responds essentially by saying “don’t mock God.”

And finally Jesus is taken to the top of a mountain and shown all the nations of the world. The challenge for Jesus here is whether he will opt for political power which would put him in control and he could implement whatever type of kingdom he wants or whether he would choose the path of the suffering servant. The trade-off for having power over the world is worshiping Satan who is corrupt and in doing so Jesus would give up his voice that speaks for God.

The cost is too high and so Jesus refuses the tempter’s offer yet again. But this story raises questions for us. Where do we draw our lines in the sand? Are our individual and immediate needs more important than living faithfully? Do we choose to do things we know can only end badly by saying “God will protect…If I have faith it will all work out”? Does then end result of behavior justify how we get there? Jesus answered “No” to all these questions. He chose God’s path. We are also given opportunities throughout our lives to make similar choices about how we will live and where our allegiance lies. Our commitment to following God isn’t something we do once but we need to reaffirm that commitment on a regular basis.

Jesus didn’t choose this path as a young man. He chose this path as someone in his later years. In this story we see Jesus fully commit himself to God and God’s ways. We sometimes have this idea that changing the world is for the young and yet Jesus chose to change the world in his old age. Change is not necessarily the realm of the young and I know many seniors who are changing the world a bit at a time. God can work through us at any point in our lives.

Lent is a time for us to make a similar commitment. In many Christian traditions Lent is a time when people give up something but in recent years it has shifted to reflect the idea of taking on something new—of reorienting ourselves to God and God’s work in our lives.

May the season of Lent be a time for us to re-orient ourselves to God’s path in our lives and the world.

[1]. Adams, James Rowe. The Essential Reference Book to Biblical Metaphors: From Literal to Literary. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005). 292. 

[2]. Adams, James Rowe. The Essential Reference Book to Biblical Metaphors: From Literal to Literary. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005). 292.


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