Improving Luke’s Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 5, 2017, Firsts Sunday in Lent, Cycle A, are
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; and Matthew 4:1-11.

The Liturgy of the First Sunday of Lent annually presents us with the story of the temptation of Jesus. This year — Matthew’s version. The original version is found in Mark 1:12-13, a very brief note that “The Spirit immediately (after Jesus’ baptism) expelled him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Mark composed his Good News about the year 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke wrote fifteen or so years later. They obviously had before them a manuscript of Mark, used it, deleted what did not fit their agenda, and added what did fit their agenda.

In the brief version of Mark quoted above, what elements are lacking that were filled in by Matthew (and Luke)? What did they change in Mark’s version? They do not approve of Mark’s statement that “the Spirit…expelled him (Jesus) into the wilderness.” That verb indicates that the Holy Spirit forced Jesus into the temptation scene. Therefore Matthew will write, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Luke, always the promoter of the Spirit, writes, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit….” Thus both Matthew and Luke will smooth over many of Mark’s rough edges in their own Gospels. Now to Matthew’s version only. Mark says nothing about fasting forty days. Matthew writes, “And he fasted forty days, (and adds), forty nights.  By these additions Matthew brings Jesus’ experience closer to two great predecessors, Moses and Elijah. Both fasted forty days and forty nights. Fasting is also the perfect setting for the first temptation.  There are also echoes of Israel’s 40 years of desert experience including  fasting.

Three temptations now follow. We cannot know with certainty why Matthew (and Luke) chose these three temptations except that they already had them from oral tradition or, more likely, from another written gospel which can be reconstructed from Matthew and Luke when they narrate the same stories, sometimes even word for word exactly alike. The temptations should be thought of as symbolic examples to catechize their congregations about their current problems and questions. The three temptations are undoubtedly open to many interpretation/applications. The following is one attempt to interpret and instruct.
The first temptation: the antagonist is called “the devil” and “the tempter.” So the tempter approaches a now very hungry Jesus with an offer “he could not refuse.” In the baptism Jesus had just undergone, he was proclaimed “Beloved Son” of God. Therefore the devil proposes,  “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” But the offer that could not be refused is refused by Jesus. and reinforced with a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Meaning: God had a plan for Jesus and he would not deviate from that plan. It is also significant that Jesus is tempted as “Son of God.”

In the second temptation the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. He placed Jesus on some kind of projection high up on the structure. Think gargoyle. Again he is tempted as Son of God. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” because Psalm 91:11-12 makes a promise to the one who trusts in God, that the angels will protect him, The devil is either a biblical literalist or pretends to be one. Jesus “slays” the devil with a quote from Deuteronomy, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Meaning: Either a claim that Jesus, who is tempted, is himself God, or perhaps a caution against biblical literalism. Meaning for the Church and Christians: Rely on God’s love and care in the ordinary course of events and not on the spectacular.

In the third temptation the devil conveys Jesus to a high mountain. From there he shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and their glory. He promises Jesus to give him dominion over all of them under one condition, “If you will fall down before me and worship me.” This time Jesus addresses the tempter by name, “Go, Satan!” Jesus again turns to Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God shall you worship. And him alone shall you serve.” Meaning: a second profession of faith by Matthew that Jesus himself is God and is to be adored and served. Meaning for the Church and Christians: The lust for power over others is devil worship, idolatry. Real power is in serving others through whom we adore and serve God.