1999 03 – 1st Sun Lent (Prison Writings)

1999 03 – 1st Sun Lent (Prison Writings)

Cycle A

Mt 4, 1-11


(by Frank Cordaro – Charles County Jail December 29, 1998)

Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. Matt. 4:1

In. this First Sunday of Lent our Gospel Lectionary takes us back to just before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It picks up in Matthew’s story right after Jesus’ baptism by John and his “special effects” commissioning by His Father. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus to the desert to be tempted by the devil.

Deserts are isolated and desolate places. Deserts are places where life is lived sparingly. It is a traditional place where people go to get away from the hectic life of the city-a ready made place for spiritual retreats, a physical setting best suited for one on one struggles with one’s self, with one’s God.

An account of Jesus’ retreat and temptation in the desert is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke. All place the account right after the baptism of Jesus. All three say it lasted forty days and nights, corresponding to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Holy Land. Only Matthew and Luke record the actual three temptations, differing in their ordering of the second and third temptation.  It’s not hard to understand Jesus’ need for a retreat at this point in the story. It was a chance for him to “get his act together” before starting his public ministry. This forty day desert retreat was Jesus’ chance to face the major temptations that he would face later on in his public life. He needed to see clearly what he was going to be up against as he was about to fulfill his mission and at the same time, remain faithful to his Father’s intended ways. The first battles to be fought were with himself before he could take on the larger worldly and other worldly concerns of the Kingdom of God.

Each one of the three temptations covered in Matthew and Luke’s accounts will come back to Jesus later on in the story, in the mist of his public ministry. And by extension, each of the three temptations will plague his disciples and the Church that tries to follow in his footsteps.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to turn to bread.” Matt. 4:3

Jesus was fasting throughout the forty days in the desert. He was understandably hungry. He needed food! The devil capitalized on this legitimate physical need and tempts Jesus to choose a quick fix to his physical hunger. Turn these stones into bread says the devil. Jesus could do this with no trouble. He has the power. Later on in the story, he will feed thousands with much less. Like all temptations, there is at some level, a legitimate claim. Jesus was physically hungry. Why not fix the problem?  Jesus chooses not to succumb to this, the first temptation. He responds to the devil by quoting a verse from the book of Deuteronomy, “Not by bread alone are people. to live but on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God.” The issue is one of hierarchy, what comes first. Jesus’ purpose and mission is more than the meeting of physical human needs. His is a broader, more inclusive agenda. His purpose and mission is nothing less than the salvation of the human race, the making whole and restoration of creation, the reclaiming of God’s rule over all creation. Meeting peoples basic physical needs, especially hungry people, will always be a part of Jesus’ mission, but it can not be an end in itself.

The devil’s first temptation helps Jesus see that he must not be short sighted in his work.  He can’t let the legitimate physical needs of people, especially the needs of the poor and the hungry, whom he will call his blessed, override his larger, more comprehensive mission of proclaiming the fullness of God’s Kingdom.

Let’s be clear about this, Jesus feeds hungry people during his public life. He expects his disciples and his Church to do the same. But feeding hungry people is not a kingdom end in itself. Meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of people is what the kingdom of God is all about.

Jesus rejects the devil’s first temptation. By doing so, he clarifies for himself (and for us) the difference between meeting a physical need for the purpose of fulfilling a mandate of God’s Kingdom from meeting a physical need as an end in itself.  This first temptation truly speaks to the sins of our time. It is where the ideologies of communism and capitalism meet. At their core, both are based on gross materialism, the belief that the needs of the human person can be met through physical things. In the U.S., this sin is most blatantly lived out in our unrestrained consumerism. It is at the heart of the addictive spirit that so plagues our modem age, the belief that our inner most important spiritual needs can be met by outer, material things.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Matt.4:6_

Next, the devil takes Jesus to the highest place on the outer walls of the temple in Jerusalem. The devil tempts Jesus to prove his faith in his Father’s love. Jump off this building and let’s see if your Father will save you, says the devil. Would not the Father want to save Jesus? Isn’t Jesus too important to the story to die now at the beginning of the Gospel? The devil even quotes a verse from the 91st Psalm to prove his case [we learn that every scripture can be used for evil purposes.]

Again, this is a temptation that has some basis in a legitimate claim. Are we not to trust our God? Would God abandon his faithful son? His faithful people? Yes, of course we can trust in God’s love to save us, his faithful people. But it is not a blanket guarantee, a full coverage insurance policy for all faith, good and bad. We have a role to play in our faithful relationship to God.

There is such a thing as bad faith or “cheap grace” as Detrick Bonhoffer called it. These are people who claim to believe in God. They may even mouth the right words, attend all the necessary services, accept all the prescribed dogmas, profess all the correct creeds, but their faith is shallow. They don’t put any real commitment behind it. These are the people who think little or nothing about themselves or others in ungodly or dangerous situations, situations of their own making. Those when faced with the consequences of their ill gotten situations expect God to get them out of their predicaments.

The sin of bad faith can be both an individual sin and a collective social sin. Our modem day nuclear dilemma is a good example of how the collective social sin of bad faith works. Everyone knows that even a little exchange of nuclear weapons would mean death and destruction to untold numbers of people and the poisoning of large areas of the earth. These are weapons from hell of our own making. We are responsible for them. Yet, there are Christians who believe these weapons of mass destruction are necessary and they do nothing to get rid of them. They also believe that God is saving them and will continue to save them from these nuclear weapons. It’s like they have thrown themselves off the temple wall and have not yet hit the ground and fully expect God will intervene to save them. It isn’t going to happen that way. God loves and respects us too much to intervene with the consequences of our own makings. That is what human freedom and responsibility is all about.  Jesus sees through this temptation. He answers the devil with his own verse from the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“All these will I bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me.” Matt. 4:9

For the third and final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to a lofty mountain peak and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and tells him that they can be his to do with as he wishes. All Jesus has to do is give the devil his due and pay him homage in the bargain.

This temptation reminds me of the time I was ending a six month prison sentence in the Minnihaha County Jail in Sioux Falls, SD. A local Presbyterian minister brought his high school church youth group into the jail to talk to me. We met in one of the jail’s classrooms. I shared with the students about my life, why I crossed the line at Offutt Air Force Base and was sent to jail. I talked about the non-violent Jesus and the need for a resistance Church. At one point, a student asked me, “If you were in a room with all the leaders of the world’s nations, what would you say to them?” I told her, “I would tell them to quit their jobs because we can’t do what needs to be done for God’s kingdom from the positions they have.” I then told the class, “The worst thing that could possibly happen for the advocates for the Kingdom of God is for a world super power to adopt the Sermon on the Mount as their national agenda.” That was not the answer the students expected to hear.

When the devil offered Jesus all the resources, power, structures and institutions of all the Kingdoms of the world to use as he saw fit, Jesus was given a similar, yet much more seductive offer than was put to me by the high school student’s question. Like the previous two temptations, this temptation has some basis on a legitimate level. Jesus’ mission and purpose was to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Any kingdom, God’s Kingdom included, is a social communal reality, with its own set of rules, regulations, laws, structures and institutions to keep it going. Access to all the resources of the kingdoms of the world would help get the message of God’s Kingdom into the whole world in a very short time.

So why didn’t Jesus embrace the devil’ s offer? Because to do so meant that Jesus would have to prostrate himself in homage to the devil. This is something he would never do.  But was if the deal was made with no strings attached? What if the devil offered Jesus use of the world’s kingdoms without the prostrate and homage clause? Such a deal is impossible to make because to embrace the ways of the worldly kingdoms is to already give homage and praise to the devil.

Every worldly kingdom in Jesus’ time up to our own time is ultimately backed up by the treat and use of violent lethal power. It doesn’t matter if the country is a democracy or a theocracy, communistic or socialistic ruled by a president, prime minister, premier, king, queen, dictator or tyrant, governed by just laws or whim, whether it is a Christian, Jewish or Islamic based society; they all are ultimately backed up by their willingness to kill to maintain their rule. And as much as they are willing to kill as a means to reach their goals, all the kingdoms of the world are already under the devil’ s rule.  This temptation is all about the means one chooses to reach the desired kingdom’s end. The Kingdom of God’s end cannot be served by the worldly kingdoms violent means for use of violent means themselves are a violation of the kingdom’s end and puts the user of violent means in the devil’s camp under the devil’s rule. Jesus understood this and refused the devil’s offer by quoting yet another verse from the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God; him alone shall you adore.”

This is the temptation that the Church has succumbed to over the last 17 centuries. Ever since Christianity made its peace with the Roman Empire in the 300’s, its proclamation of God’s Kingdom has been diluted and deformed. With the world prepared to destroy itself in so many violent ways, it is imperative that Christians reclaim the essential non-violent character and means of God’s Kingdom message.


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