22 February 2017

Matthew 4: 1-11, the temptation to do
the right thing for the wrong reason

‘Christ in the Desert’ or ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ (Христос в пустыне), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, oil on canvas, 180 cm × 210 cm, the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Patrick Comerford

In this tutorial group, we are reflecting on the Gospel readings for the Sunday after next.

The Sunday after next [5 March 2017] is the First Sunday in Lent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 2: 15–17; 3: 1–7; Psalm 32; Romans 5: 12–19; and Matthew 4: 1–11.

Matthew 4: 1-11

1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀνήχθη εἰς τὴν ἔρημον ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος, πειρασθῆναι ὑπὸ τοῦ διαβόλου. 2 καὶ νηστεύσας ἡμέρας τεσσεράκοντα καὶ νύκτας τεσσεράκοντα ὕστερον ἐπείνασεν. 3 Καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ πειράζων εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, εἰπὲ ἵνα οἱ λίθοι οὗτοι ἄρτοι γένωνται. 4 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Γέγραπται,

Οὐκ ἐπ' ἄρτῳ μόνῳ ζήσεται ὁ ἄνθρωπος,
ἀλλ' ἐπὶ παντὶ ῥήματι ἐκπορευομένῳ
διὰ στόματος θεοῦ.

5 Τότε παραλαμβάνει αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος εἰς τὴν ἁγίαν πόλιν, καὶ ἔστησεν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸ πτερύγιον τοῦ ἱεροῦ, 6 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Εἰ υἱὸς εἶ τοῦ θεοῦ, βάλε σεαυτὸν κάτω: γέγραπται γὰρ ὅτι
Τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ ἐντελεῖται περὶ σοῦ
καὶ ἐπὶ χειρῶν ἀροῦσίν σε,
μήποτε προσκόψῃς πρὸς λίθον τὸν πόδα σου.

7 ἔφη αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Πάλιν γέγραπται, Οὐκ ἐκπειράσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου.

8 Πάλιν παραλαμβάνει αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν λίαν, καὶ δείκνυσιν αὐτῷ πάσας τὰς βασιλείας τοῦ κόσμου καὶ τὴν δόξαν αὐτῶν, 9 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ταῦτά σοι πάντα δώσω ἐὰν πεσὼν προσκυνήσῃς μοι. 10 τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Υπαγε, Σατανᾶ: γέγραπται γάρ,
Κύριον τὸν θεόν σου προσκυνήσεις
καὶ αὐτῷ μόνῳ λατρεύσεις.

11 Τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτὸν ὁ διάβολος, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄγγελοι προσῆλθον καὶ διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.

Translation (NRSV):

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4 But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,”
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”.’

7 Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”.’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him”.’

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Lenten practices

Unless they have pancakes in the canteen at work next Tuesday, or resolve (yet again) to give up smoking next Wednesday, I am sure many people will not notice that next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

But has Lent become wholly irrelevant in the prosperous and increasingly secular Ireland we live in?

Giving up smoking on Ash Wednesday is one of the few Lenten resolutions that survive in Irish society. But even as I was growing up, Lenten resolutions were broken and forgotten as quickly as New Year’s resolutions. How many of us promise on New Year’s Eve to give up smoking, to drink less, to cut out sugar or to lose weight? How many of us can remember our New Year’s resolutions for this year, never mind those for 2016?

Lent originally began as six weeks of preparation and instruction for the newly-converted Christians before their baptism, before joining the Church, on Easter Eve. Lent should still be a time of preparation for our ministry and mission. And the temptations or distractions that take us away from that mission and ministry are similar to those faced by Christ in our Gospel reading this morning.

Reading the Reading

In this reading, Christ is tempted three times with words from the scriptures, and three times Christ responds with words of wisdom from the scriptures:

● One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (verse 4; see Deuteronomy 8: 3).
● Do not put the Lord your God to the test (verse 7, see Deuteronomy 6: 16).
● Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him (verse 10, see Deuteronomy 6: 13).

As that Gospel passage was being read, did you notice the sequence of events as they are recalled by Saint Matthew? How, as the drama unfolds before us, we are moved in each sequence to a greater height each time?

We start with Christ standing on the ground, amid the stones and boulders of the wilderness. From there, he is taken to the pinnacles of the Temple, and is able to look across the city. And then he is brought to the mountain-top where he looks across the kingdoms of the world.

The movement is from the particular to the general. As readers, we are challenged to move from the temptations that affect our own lives to temptations that have consequences for the lives of those around us, and then to temptations that concern the world we live in. It is a dramatic movement from my own life to the spiritual lives of others, and then to the social, economic and political life of the world. It is a stern reminder that there is no such thing as personal sin unless there is also social sin.

TS Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral was first staged in Canterbury Cathedral in 1935. This verse drama is based on the events leading to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. It was written at the prompting of Bishop George Bell, a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The dramatisation in this play of opposition to authority was prophetic at the time, for it was written as fascism was on the rise in Central Europe. The principal focus of the play he is on Becket’s internal struggles. As he reflects on the inevitable martyrdom he faces, his tempters arrive and question the archbishop about his plight, echoing in many ways Christ’s temptations in the wilderness when he has been fasting for 40 Days.

The first tempter offers the beleaguered Becket the prospect of physical safety:

The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.

The second tempter offers him power, riches and fame in serving the king so that he can disarm the powerful and help the poor:

To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?

Then the third tempter suggests the archbishop should form an alliance with the barons and seize a chance to resist the king:

For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
At once, for England and for Rome.

Finally, the fourth tempter urges Thomas to look to the glory of martyrdom:

You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.

Becket responds to all his tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

In the Gospel stories of Christ’s temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11; Mark 1: 12-13; Luke 4: 1-13), he is tempted to do the right things for the wrong reason.

What would be wrong with Christ turning stones into bread (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 3-4) if that is going to feed the hungry? With showing his miraculous powers (see Matthew 4: 3; Luke 4: 9), if this is going to point to the majesty of God (see Matthew 4: 4; Luke 4: 10-11)? With taking command of the kingdoms of this world (see Matthew 4: 9; Luke 4: 5-7), if this provides the opportunity to usher in justice, mercy and peace?

Let us not deceive ourselves, these are real temptations. Christ is truly human and truly divine, and for those who are morally driven there is always a real temptation to do the right thing but to do it for the wrong reason.

We all know Ireland benefitted in recent years from wanting to be a modern nation, like your neighbours. But that ambition turned to greed, and we were surprised when greed turned to economic collapse. We found we had given in to the temptation to do what appeared to be the right thing for the wrong reason.

Too often when I am offered the opportunity to do the right thing, to make a difference in this society, in this world, I ask: ‘What’s in this for me?’

When I am asked to speak up for those who are marginalised or oppressed, this should be good enough reason in itself. But then I wonder how others are going to react – react not to the marginalised or oppressed, but to me.

How often do we use external sources to hide our own internalised prejudices?

How often have I seen what is the right thing to do, but have found an excuse that I pretend is not of my own making?

I hear people claim they are not racist, but speaking about migrants, immigrants and asylum seekers in language that would shock them if it was used about our own family members in England, America or Australia.

The victims of war in Syria or boat people in the Mediterranean are objects for our pity on the television news night after night. But why are they not being settled with compassion, in proportionate numbers in Ireland?

How often do I think of doing the right thing only if it is going to please my family members or please my neighbours?

How often do I use the Bible to justify not extending civil rights to others? Democracy came to all of us at a great price paid by past generations, but how often we try to hold on to those rights as if they were personal, earned wealth.

How often we use obscure Bible texts to prop up political, racist, social and economic prejudices, forgetting that any text in the Bible, however clear or obscure it may be, depends, in Christ’s own words, on the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love one another?

We can give in so easily … we can convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing when we are doing it for the wrong reason. And when we allow ourselves to be silenced or immobilised, those we should have spoken up for lose a voice, and we lose our own voices, and our own integrity.

A wrong decision taken once, thinking it is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason, is not just about an action in the present moment. It forms habits and it shapes who we are, within time and eternity.

The Revd Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent German Lutheran pastor and an outspoken opponent of Hitler, spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He once said:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me

In each case in this Gospel reading, Christ is asked to be complicit in social sin for tempting, self-centred reasons. Whenever I am tempted to look after my own interests first, there are always consequences – potentially dire consequences – for those around me.

In the first temptation, Christ is invited to take control of the essentials of life for his own personal comfort and gain. He is asked to prove himself by turning the stones into bread. He is asked to take control of nature and the environment and to use them to meet his own personal need for food. The consequences of looking after my own needs when it comes to the supply of food has left us with an abundance of food in northern Europe, both naturally grown and produced food and genetically-modified food.

Controlling the supply of food without fully considering the social consequences for others and the needs of others is one of the first great social sins. When the Church feeds the hungry, we are seen as encouraging charity. When we challenge the reasons people are hungry we are easily accused of interfering in politics and economics. As the late Dom Helder Camara said: ‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.’

Try to imagine how famished Christ was after 40 days in the wilderness. I get a migraine if I do not eat regularly; I cannot imagine how unbearable life is for those who are hungry on a regular and continuous basis, day-by-day, every day.

Desperate people are so willing to do desperate things when they are hungry they are even willing to go against their own better interests. The Children of Israel murmured after 40 years in the wilderness without proper food and shelter. They were so unsettled they were even willing to go back into slavery in Egypt. The fear of hunger allows people to accept structural injustice and unjust societies. Yet, as Archbishop Helder Camara pointed out in his book Spiral of Violence (1971), structural violence is the beginning of all violence.

In the second temptation, Christ is invited to take control of sacred and civic space for personal gain. He is taken to the heart of the city and the pinnacle of the Temple and challenged to show that he can command and hold power.

How many of our religious and political leaders in our society, in our world, use their political and religious leadership to give themselves power and command, to control, and to guarantee their personal gain? The use of political power for personal gain is so common among politicians today that it makes people cynical and alienates them from the political process. But how often have those with religious power also used their power to protect their own personal interests?

From the heart of the city and the pinnacle of the Temple, Christ is then taken to the mountain top, where he is shown all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Why do these temptations start on the ground, move to the pinnacle of the Temple, and reach their climax on the mountain top? Moses receives the commandments on the mountain top; Peter, James and John witness the Transfiguration on the mountain top; Christ is crucified on a hilltop.

The invitation to throw himself from the pinnacle holds no attraction for Christ, who later refuses to come down from the cross. He is not afraid of death. He knows where the true Temple is. Who or what is worshipped in the temple of your heart?

When he was threatened with death and murder during the apartheid era in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared: ‘I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet … But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.’

In the final temptation, we see the real connection between social sin and idolatry. There is a world of difference between being political in the party sense and being prophetic in the unexpected sense.

When I visit people in hospital, I am engaged in pastoral care. When I question why patients are on trolleys, or why we have a two-tier health service in one of the richest countries in the world, I are bringing together pastoral theology and the prophetic call of the Church. But I also run the risk of being accused of being political or, even worse, of being party political.

When we greet others with the sign of Christ’s peace at the Eucharist, we are being liturgically relevant. When I ask why the world is not at peace, why hundreds are killed in clashes and wars in Syria, Iraq, Sudan or Afghanistan, I am bringing the liturgy to life in the world, but I run the risk of being accused of being political.

In each of these temptations we see the subtle attraction of doing the right thing but using the wrong means.

After saying no to each of these temptations, Christ is waited upon by angels (see verse 11). The words in our Gospel passage can also be read as telling us messengers of good news ministered to him, those who proclaim the Gospel served him. At the heart of the ministry and mission of the Church, at the heart of our proclamation of the Gospel and our diaconal service, at the heart of our true worship of God, there is always a call to the Church to minister to and to serve the needs of others in a world that often deprives them of food and shelter, of political and religious rights, and of a true place in this world.

This is the ministry and mission Christ was preparing for during his 40 days in the wilderness. This is the ministry we in the Church need to remind ourselves about during the 40 days of Lent. And if we do this, then we can truly live in – and truly invite others to live in – the light and joy of the Resurrection as Easter breaks into our lives.

‘Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness’ (1942), by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)


Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 22 February 2017.

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