On A Different Mountain

First Sunday in Lent  |  Matthew 4:1-11

Last Sunday the lectionary marked Transfiguration Sunday, a remembrance of the story of a mountaintop experience in which Jesus transformed into a glorious figure. Moses and Elijah made a striking appearance as well.

Valley thru Trees 003For the first Sunday in Lent, we remember a different story of visiting a mountain. This time Jesus has the devil for company.

We know the story of the temptation of Christ, though we may wonder who told the details to Matthew. Jesus has purposefully fasted for forty days and nights. Along comes the devil with three temptations: turn stones into bread for your hunger, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you, and worship the devil to gain the whole world.

We get that last temptation, because it is reasonably clear to most of us that worshipping anything less than God is wrong, even in order to get everything in the world. The other two, well, it is a little more difficult to find anything wrong with the ideas.

Throwing oneself down from the pinnacle of the temple is not unreasonable, given that one was up there anyway and angels are really going to catch you. No harm done, and it would be amazing. The idea seems to be that one should not put God to the test, just for the sake of doing it. God doesn’t perform circus tricks on demand.

That first temptation, though, is the hardest one of all to understand. What is wrong with having a little bread? Provided one has the power to do it, and nobody in the story seems to question whether Jesus actually could turn stones into bread, why not?

On one level, it seems to be about observing human limitations. Human beings cannot, generally speaking, turn stones into bread. On the other hand, human beings cannot, generally speaking, heal the sick, raise the dead, feed thousands of people with a child’s lunch, or pull tax money out of the mouth of a fish. Yet, in Gospel stories Jesus did all of these things.

Maybe it was also a question of doubt. The devil does not propose the bread simply as food: “If you are the Son of God…” Such a miracle would prove, presumably to Jesus himself or to the devil since no one else is present, that he is indeed God incarnate. Still, self-doubt doesn’t seem to be a problem. The gospels do not record an instance of Jesus wondering about his own identity, except in the eyes of others.

The real problem of these temptations is that they would alter the true nature of Jesus. He was an authentic human, complete, what our species aspires to become. Acts of self-doubt, or self-acclamation, would have torn the fabric of Jesus’ being, would have made him less than he was.

Perhaps that is how we can measure temptations that come our way. Regardless of the hunger that might be filled, or the apparent lack of harm, or the ends that we might achieve, we measure our choices by the injury done to our humanity, to our souls. There are worse things than hunger,  obscurity, and the lack of wealth.

Matthew tell us that Jesus went up on another mountain, and this time he was followed by crowds of people. Maybe when he sat down to speak, he remembered his own temptations.

“Blessed are the poor,” he said. “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the hungry….”