Saturday, February 25, 2017

Led Into Temptation

Since we so often pray, "Lead us not into temptation", it is noteworthy that in Matthew's account of Jesus' wilderness experience in 4:1-11, the gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday in Lent, we are told that "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."  There is no mistaking it; this is a purpose clause (i.e. the purpose of the Spirit's leading was to put Jesus in a place where he would be tempted).  This begs the question "Why?  Why would the Spirit want Jesus to be tempted?"  Could it be for our sake?

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  They are meant to focus the Law/Gospel preacher who wants to understand how the Word is functioning in the text as a guide to preaching a Law/Gospel sermon.  My guide is available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This is a very unique text in that the perspective of the reader is one of "a mouse in the corner" - we simply get to watch the action from the sidelines.  The clue to our own place in this story is Jesus' identity as Son of God.   Immediately prior to this story in Matthew, Jesus' identity is made known as the voice from heaven at his baptism announces, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  We too, at our baptism, are announced as children of God.  We too are tempted.  This text functions as Gospel, assuring us that because we "have been crucified with Christ" in our baptism and thus it is no longer we who live, but "Christ within us", the Christ within us is able to withstand the wiles of the devil.

2.  How does the Word not function in the text?  In the text itself there is not a word of Law, that is to say, there is not a word that explicitly exposes our need for Christ.  If however, we take seriously the fact that only as Christ lives within us can we have any hope of withstanding temptation, then this whole text is Law as it exposes our vulnerability to temptation. The three temptations of Jesus are common to us all:  temptations to indulge, to possess, and to impress.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  In almost all texts our role is to identify with the one whom the Word addresses. In this unique text, however, that would mean identifying with the tempter.  That does not seem like a helpful alternative.  In this situation we identify with Jesus.  We are the ones who find ourselves tempted.  We, like Jesus, call upon resources outside of ourselves to overcome these temptations.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by the text?  The most obvious couplet is, of course, temptation presented/temptation thwarted.  Another the story suggests is devil asserts power/Jesus claims power.

5.  Exegetical work:  The Greek text is very helpful here primarily because it shows us what kind of conditional phrase we are working with here.  Conditional phrases can either be condition-of-fact, condition-of-nonfact, or condition-of-uncertainty.  This is clearly a condition-of-fact. This is important in that when the tempter says to Jesus "If you are the Son of God..." he is not implying that Jesus might not be the Son of God, because that would be a condition-of-uncertainty.  No, rather the tempter is really saying, "If you are the Son of God - and you are ..." (Condition-of-fact).  I often translate such conditions using the word "since."  So here, "Since you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.  Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple pinnacle."  This shows us clearly that these temptations come to Jesus precisely because he is the Son of God.  Therefore this story reveals to us that there are temptations that will be uniquely ours as children of God!  Douglas Hare, in his fine commentary on Matthew (Interpretation Series) shows this connection by revealing the parallels between Jesus' temptation and the temptations of the Israelites in the wilderness. (p. 22f)   This is worth studying.  Gregory the Great, long ago, in his commentary on this text drew parallels to the temptation story in the Garden of Eden:  "Our ancient enemy rose up against the first human being, our ancestor, in three temptations.  He tempted him by gluttony, by vain ambition, and by avarice:  Taste it, you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT, Vol. 1a, p. 56f).  Commentators down through the ages have seen the commonness of temptation.  Even Oscar Wilde had some advice:  "The only way to get rid of a temptation, is to yield to it." Ha.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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