This post comments on Matthew, chapter 4.
Jesus has been baptized, over John’s objections, and received a heavenly message of confirmation. Why does he promptly disappear into the desert?
It might seem odd that the first thing Jesus really does in his ministry is to disappear. Up to the fourth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, he has never actively taken center stage. He was the infant adored by some and sought with murderous intent by others. He did ask for baptism, but the central issue in that story is the crisis of ministry his request created for John the Baptist. The heavenly vision and descent of the dove were just between him and God in Matthew’s telling of the story (unlike some of the others). Only the heavenly voice offers an open sign, threatening to focus public attention on him.
But his first action is to get away from the public (4:1). He goes to a place empty of other people (whether you call it “desert” or “wilderness” in English)—the first of three changes of location he makes in this chapter. He fasts there forty days and nights, like Moses—a sign that something very important is impending. But the only witness is his tempter. He must do spiritual battle in his own soul, without even the help of an angelic cheering section, who will show up only after the fact (4:11).
But why these particular temptations? Isn’t sex the only temptation the church is concerned about?
The church is inclined to get off track at times; Matthew will have more to say about that. In any case, Matthew and Luke both thought other things were more critical and both tell us of these particular temptations. But, where Luke places them in the order bread-political power-miracle, Matthew has bread-miracle-political power. Matthew’s arrangement moves sequentially from the more personal to the more public sphere.
The first temptation, to turn stones into bread, is purely self-regarding, but seems harmless enough: Jesus must eat if he is to continue with his mission. Jesus answers that life, in the truest sense, is bigger than individual survival: we live not just by bread, but by our relationship with God. He will not break that relationship for the sake of physical survival.
The second temptation, accordingly, moves into the realm of faith or religion. If your intimacy with God is really so central, the tempter suggests, make it public and evident from the start. The temple at Jerusalem was the most central and sacred site of Israel. For Jesus to leap from the pinnacle and be carried down by angels would be to assert his authority over that place, pushing aside the the existing religious leadership of the Jewish community. In other words, it would set up the kind of internal religious struggle so familiar to us from later historical examples.
The third temptation, to accept the rulership of the world from Satan, follows directly on the temptation to take religious power, for it was Rome that ruled Jesus’ world and gave local Jewish authorities their power. Religious power and political power in Judea were already intertwined. This was a temptation to seize both at once.
If the temptation to make stones bread is self-regarding, the latter two temptations are the temptations of a reformer, a radical, one who hopes to change the world. Both are temptations to the exercise of coercion: Obey me because (a) I have unfathomed and unfathomable miraculous powers and, if that’s not enough, (b) I control the armies of this world as well.
Jesus’ final response is “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” This not only silences the tempter. It rules out all possibility of coercion because coercion can only create obedience to power, not to God. We’ll see more than once that Matthew’s Jesus deeply mistrusts both religious and political power and, above all, their entanglement with each other. Still, this is a difficult temptation for a reformer, religious and political, to refuse. It closes what might look like the direct path to the desired goal; there remains only the precarious path of getting people to see themselves and their world in fundamentally different terms.
The next segment is a bit of a let down after all this drama.
Yes, at first it seems to be little more than a second relocation. Jesus has gone from the Jordan Valley to the lonely wilderness and now to populous Galilee. Since he has rejected coercion, whether by miracle or by force, he will have to proceed indirectly and gradually. But there are additional ranges of meaning in this move. Matthew says that Jesus “withdrew” to Galilee (4:12). One doesn’t usually use the word “withdraw” for a move from the desert to a populated area. The implication is that Jesus could have started at the center of things—Jerusalem itself—but chose instead to start in a more out of the way place. Not in New York or London. More like the American Midwest or the North of England.
Matthew also reminds us that the full name of this place to which Jesus has withdrawn was “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Isaiah prophesied that it would be the site of a great revelation (4:15-16, quoting Isa. 8:23-9:1). Outsiders again! We’ve already had the Gentile magi and, when we peeked ahead, we found Gentiles at the very end of the Gospel. Isaiah also describes this as the land allotted long before to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the ten northern tribes of Israel whose living descendants, the Samaritans, were viewed by Jews as not much different from Gentiles.
But Jesus, in going to Galilee, isn’t going “home,” where he’s already known. Instead, he goes to Capernaum, a Jewish town on the Lake of Galilee, which was surrounded by Gentile as well as Jewish populations.
There’s not much of a clue yet as to what his mission will be, is there?
No. His message, at this point, is not too different from that of John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or, to get at the real meaning of the Greek verb metanoeite: “Change your way of looking at the world; God is up to something new!”
But Jesus’ ministry isn’t just a message. It’s about the direct relationships he forms with people. He isn’t just out to persuade people of something. He’s looking to see whether anyone will recognize the power of God that he embodies—while refusing to flaunt it. Four people do, almost at once—the four fishermen who become his first disciples. Four ordinary, hard-working men. (Since women were not thought of as “public” personae in that place and time, Jesus could only begin by addressing men.)
And then there’s yet one more move: Jesus moves from Capernaum to the road, traveling all through Galilee to preach the “good news of the kingdom” and show its power by healing the sick. He doesn’t spurn miracles altogether, but focuses on the kind of miracle that gives people new life without suggesting that he might also have coercive powers.
Now he begins to get big crowds (4:25). And with these new crowds plus the inner ring of disciples, Matthew has set the stage for a fuller detailed statement of Jesus’ message, the incomparable Sermon on the Mount.
And the point is?
There’s never just one point, of course. But central to this whole chapter is the recognition that true good news can’t arrive as an expression of power, whether religious or political. Jesus begins where his hearers are, meeting us in our own lives, inviting, healing, changing minds. This is still the mode in which we should expect him. He doesn’t enter with trumpets (or guns) blazing, but in an unexpected form that will take us by surprise.
Next up: IMPLAUSIBLE BLESSINGS