Brad Reads the Gospels: Matthew 4:1-8

1. Then Jesus was taken by the Spirit into the country, to be given a test by the Confuser. And after a forty-day fast he was plenty hungry. Well, the Confuser came around and said to him, “So you’re God’s Head Man, huh? Then order these stones to become pones.”

This is a story I find fascinating.  I turned it into a little play once, one I’m quite proud of, and at some point I’ll turn it into a comic book script.  And in so doing I’m trodden a well-worn path, one where the biggest footprints are those left by John Milton. It’s a classic literary bit, the Temptation in the Wilderness, a strong and resonant story with echoes before and behind.  The Wilderness is the place in which the great prophets have been purified, starting with Moses, that prince turned Lonely Shepherd.  All over the world, from Asia to Australia to the Americas, isolation, deprivation and meditation have been regarded as essential steps on the path to enlightenment.  The vision quest is a common thread uniting Elisha, Jesus, Galahad and Crazy Horse.  So here stands the Son of Man, starving in the Palestinian Desert, face to face with the Me and the Devil Blues.  Here’s the test, the weighing and measuring.

But Jesus told him, “The scriptures says,

‘A man shall not live on pone alone,
But on every word falling from the lips of God.’ “

5. Next the Confuser takes him into Atlanta and stands him on the steeple of First Church and says to him, “Okay, let’s suppose you’re God’s Head Man; now, jump down from here, for the scripture says,

‘He will make his angels responsible for you,
And they’ll carry you along on their hands,
To keep you from stumping your toe on a stone.’ “

Jesus replied, “Yes, but it is also written, ‘You shall not try God’s patience!’ “

8. Again, the Confuser gets him way up on a mountain and points out all the nations in the world and their splendor, and he says to Jesus, “Now if you just let me be boss, I’ll turn all this over to you.” Then Jesus tells him, “Scram Satan! The scripture says, ‘You shall let the Lord God be your boss, and you shall give your loyalty to him alone.’ ” At that the Confuser leaves him, and you know, angels came and began waiting on him.

Some things to think about:

*Against temptations, truth is our armor.  Traditionally, we might say that scripture is our armor, but Scripture is Scripture because it contains truth.  Truth, and good sense.  “I’ll let you rule the world if you let me rule you”?  That is a terrible bargain.  And, of course, there are places where truth and sense may be found outside the bounds of Scripture.  C.S. Lewis’ road to Christ led through Norse myth and Classical philosophy.

*I do not believe this story’s meant to tell us about the nature of the Devil, or indeed whether there is a Devil.  No witnesses were there to see what happened between when He walked into the desert and when He walked out again.  This story, then, whence comes it?  Did Jesus emerge from His vision quest telling wild tales of the Devil?  If so, are we sure He was speaking literally, who so very frequently spoke in metaphors, fables and riddles?  It might be suggested that the Temptation of Christ may be a story given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, without being a literal history of a literal conversation with the literal Devil.

*Granting that this is the literal Satan, this dialogue is entirely in keeping with the way that literary figure was used in the Poem of Job.  Here, as there, he’s God’s prosecuting attorney, the left hand of an adversarial system of justice, putting to the test that which must be tested.  Old Nick with his bifurcated tail and his hayfork, crouching in the basement of the Universe and trying to rip Creation apart with his bare hands out of pride and spite, in short that according-to-Milton bastard Lucifer, he is not to be found in this passage, so if that conception of the Devil is, for some reason, important to you and to your relationship with God, then this bit of Gospel may not be of real use to you.

If, however, the heart of your faith lies with the rejection of sin, restored communion with the Almighty, and following the example of the slain and risen Christ, well, there is much meat to be chewed on here.  For from it may we take the lesson that, in the face of direst temptation, we are still expected to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  That he who endures, God will reward.  And that, in the times when we are most desperate to achieve communion with our Father, then will the Accuser be loudest in our ears.

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