On the Gospel of Matthew 4:1-11
1st Sunday of LentVery often, the Gospel reading at Mass is best understood in the light of the other readings (especially the first reading, from the Old Testament). In the case of this Sunday’s Gospel, both readings provide a rich background against which to interpret the Gospel.
On its own, the Gospel reads like a simple temptation-scene. Jesus is ‘led by the Spirit out into the wilderness’. There, he fasts for forty days and forty nights (this is the origin of our Lenten fast). After this prolonged hunger, we are told that ‘the tempter’ came to him. He whispers to him to ‘call these stones to turn into loaves’ in order to show his power as Son of God. But Jesus rebuffs him. Then they move the parapet of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus is counselled by the tempter to throw himself off the building, to show that angels will protect him. Again, Jesus rebuffs him: ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test’. Finally, Jesus is taken to ‘a very high mountain’, and from there he is shown ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’. The next lines are crucial:
“I will give you all these,” [the devil] said, “if you fall at my feet and worship me.”
Jesus replied, “Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.”
How are we to understand this Gospel? Is it simply meant to exhort us not to yield to temptations in our Lenten fast? Is it just encouraging us to avoid biscuits, or sweets, or facebook, or whatever we have given up? No. The real meaning of this Gospel is richer than that, and it is best understood in the light of the first and second readings of this Sunday’s Mass (Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7 and Romans 5:12-19).
The reading from Genesis offers us an account of the creation and fall of our first parents. This passage tells us two very important facts about our human nature: we are made to be close to God, and our pride puts distance between us and Him. ‘The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give’. Here, at the beginning, there is pride and disobedience.
The reading from Romans gives us a picture of Christ as the one who undoes this pride and disobedience: ‘If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall [Adam’s], it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous’. How does this come about? ‘As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’. It is Christ’s obedience to the Father that undoes our disobedience.
It is against this background that we should understand this Sunday’s Gospel. It is not just an exhortation to grit our teeth and resist temptation. Much more than that, it shows us the obedience of the Son to the Father as a template for our obedience. We are to ‘serve him alone’ just as Christ did. The true value of our little Lenten sacrifice lies in the fact that it is a sharing in the obedience of a loving Son.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also 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. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
– Matthew 4:1-11