Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, Year A, Matthew 4:1-11, March 13, 2011
Not so long ago, in a proposed bill at the Philippine Congress, Quezon province Representative Danilo Suarez wanted to increase the pork barrel of congressmen by P30 M, and that of the senators by P50M, to be taken from the Motor Vehicle User’s Charge (MVUC). It may be recalled that under present practice, congressmen received P70 M pork barrel, otherwise known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), while Senators have P200 M. Reacting to the proposal, Butuan bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos asserted that instead of giving an increase, the pork barrel should be abolished, and the fund be given directly to the concerned local and national agencies “Who will be in favor if you are in a good mind and in a good sense? Our country is in need actually and many of our poor people are languishing in poverty,” said the good Bishop. “It’s sad that only politicians are getting richer while millions of people are getting poorer,” he noted. According to the Bishop, there is no assurance that the hefty sum would be used properly, because it is one big source of corruptible funds. Of course, greed is not easy to moderate. As Oscar Wilde puts it, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
In today’s Gospel, Matthew brings us to the subject of temptation that is encountered in the Christian community, and he provides us with three typical examples: (1) The Tempter says: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to turn into bread” (Matt 4:3b). In the first example in which Jesus is asked to turn the stones into bread, the Christian community seems to be faced with the temptation of using the powers given by Jesus to satisfy human need. Of course, at first blush, there seems to be nothing wrong with using power to satisfy hunger. Jesus himself multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed the hungry crowd that has been following him (Matt 14:13-21). This is the reason why the Church does something about the problem; it sets up social action centers here and there because social charity or social involvement is not foreign to its mission. Still, this can be a temptation in a Christian community because, even though it is a good thing, it is not the proper mission of the Church. Its proper mission is to bring the Good News to men, and social involvement is meaningful only if it is not divorced from the proclamation of the Word. That is why, in response to the Tempter, Jesus says: “Not on bread alone is man to live, but on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4b). Social involvement that does not proceed from the Word of God is no different from the social involvement of a communist; it is pure humanism. If the Church serves the poor and gives food to the hungry, it is because service to them is a Gospel imperative. But before its serves the hungry, the Christian community must first of all be fed with the bread of life, the Word of God.
(2) “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” this is what the Tempter says to Jesus while they are at the parapet of the Temple (Matt 4:5-6). This temptation has to do with the community’s power and work to attract attention. Of course, we know that with the coming of mass media of social communications, we now live in a culture in which image building is of paramount importance. People often feel the need to parade their personal achievements, and prefer to splash on the front page of the newspapers their works or contributions to charities. They would even employ public relations agents and image-makers to enhance the people’s perception of their appearance. But from a Christian point of view, success in image-building is not evidence that the community is faithful to its mission. The ability to draw huge crowds is not an evidence of the effectiveness of the community’s ministry, even if many people would like to believe it is—that is why they envy tele-evangelists who have thousands of viewers. Before God, achievements count nothing. What is of importance is the community’s faithfulness to God in doing its specific mission, even if it does not win the admiration of men or attract big numbers of admirers. It must simply trust in God’s word, even if doing so is not recognized. For this reason, it might even go against the world and its values (cf Rom 12:2); but certainly it does not need to justify itself before the judgment seat of men, for what the world holds is abominable before God (Luke 16:15).
(3) Pointing to the kingdoms of the world and their magnificence, the Tempter says: “All these I will bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me” (Matt 4:9). This third temptation is about power. Of course, politicians crave for it—and some even become addicted to it, because it gives them the power to control and dominate. Political power enables the politician to conquer territories, subjugate peoples, convert them en masse, establish a personal kingdom and, because political power is convertible to economic power, to get rich. In a secular world where a secular culture prevails, political power is a great temptation. No wonder every President makes his or her own enemies, because the logic of power entails it. Still, political power has no place in the Christian community. It does not and will never advance the cause of Jesus Christ; there is no evidence that the Kingdom of God will spread throughout the world because of political power; if it will, Christ should have said so, but he never did. On the contrary, there seems to be something demonic about it. That is why in today’s Gospel, Jesus rejects it: “You shall do homage to the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve” (Matt 4:10). Political power cannot be exercised in the Christian community, and if at all one should speak of power there, it is the power to serve: “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all” (Matt 20:26). Indeed, Jesus does not mince words in his criticism of political power, for its exercise results in violence and oppression (Luke 22:25).
This account of the triple temptations of Jesus was preserved to teach the Christian community. As Wilde notes, temptations are difficult to resist; but the Christian community has a model to imitate: like the community, Jesus was tempted, but he did not succumb, and therefore in imitation of the Lord, the community must resist it. The community must not copy the old Israel that did not overcome temptation. To make that point, Matthew so framed the story of the temptation of Jesus as God’s Son (Matt 4:1-11) as to make a comparison between Jesus and Israel. Both Jesus and Israel are sons of God (Matt 4:3; Matt 2:15 and Hos 11:1); the number 40 is significant in the life of Jesus (40 days of fasting in the desert, Matt 4:2) and in the life of Israel (40 years of sojourn in the desert, Deut 8:2). But they are different: whereas the community of Israel failed in the temptation in the desert (Exod 17:1-7), Jesus conquered it (Matt 4:1-11). At the same time, this story of the triple temptation of Jesus provides us with a picture of what the Christian community should be: it is a community that lives by the word of God, goes against the values that the world holds dearly, and serves its members even to the point of dying.