Super Tuesday didn’t go the way I’d hoped. Coronavirus is in my county. My stocks—that measly sum I dumped into a Roth IRA years ago, back when my husband and I were double-income-no-kids, and haven’t added to since—are tanking. All three of these major geopolitical situations were weighing on me this morning as I crawled out of bed.
I had a little extra time today, so I sat down with a cup of coffee after my kids walked out the door, and picked up my Bible. I’m going to be honest with you: I decided sometime in January that I would read through the entire New Testament this year, starting with the book of Matthew, and this morning, two months later, I’ve made it through all of four chapters.
Partly, I’ve only read up to Matthew 4 because I don’t make time for the Bible often enough, it’s true. But also, I got stuck here. In the past several weeks, every time I tried to read on, I couldn’t. There was something about this chapter—the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness—that had me circling back through it, over and over again. Like it was a page in Where’s Waldo? or one of those Magic Eye illusions, and I just hadn’t seen what I was supposed to see, yet.
This morning, I figured out what it was. I couldn’t get past Matthew 4 earlier because I needed to read it today. Because the three major temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness map exactly onto the three categories of anxieties we’re facing right now.
“Turn these stones to bread,” Satan first whispers to Jesus. In other words: provide for yourself. Take control of your economic situation. Jesus’ temptation to turn stones into bread speaks to my fear that we are poised on the lip of another Great Recession, that everything is about to go downhill. If we could turn stones into bread, if we could magically provide for ourselves everything that we need, our fears about the economy would be groundless.
“Throw yourself down” off the highest point of the temple is Satan’s next ploy, and “you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Here, Satan tempts Jesus with the mastery of his physical safety. What if we could jump off tall buildings without twisting an ankle? What if we could waltz among microscopic pathogens without catching covid-19? The temptation to jump and not fall is the temptation to wrest control of our physical bodies from the dangers that lurk all around us.
Finally, Satan tempts Jesus with “the kingdoms of the world.” “All this I will give you,” he promises, and Jesus faces the desire to control his political destiny. It’s anxiety-inducing to be led by rulers we don’t want to follow. What if we could snap our fingers and put our own favorite candidate—or ourselves—in charge, instead?
Bread, buildings, kingdoms. Provision, safety, power. The economy, coronavirus, the national election. These anxieties feel new and urgent to me, now, but they are the same old anxieties that have been pressing in on human beings for thousands of years. How do I get what I need? How do I keep myself safe? Who’s in charge?
And I’m struck, this morning, by the bizarreness of Jesus’ replies. We’d think the standard Sunday School answer to a taunt about having enough to eat would be “God will provide all my needs.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What? Instead of reassuring Satan, or himself, that God’s got him covered in the bread department, Jesus sidesteps the question altogether. He doesn’t say bread’s not important. He just says something else is, too.
Jesus’ response to the temptation about physical safety is also weird. Instead of insisting that God will keep him safe whether he jumps off the temple or not, Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Huh. It’s a head-scratcher. Basically, Jesus is saying, yes, God could keep him safe… but his own physical safety is not a referendum on whether God is still God. It’s okay to pray to God, yes, but we can’t lobby God. We can’t pressure God into doing what we want. And if things don’t go our way—if we do get coronavirus, or cancer, or get in a car accident or lose the baby or fall down the stairs or any one of the vast host of things that can go wrong in this world—those tragedies, while they are tragedies, cannot function as a litmus test on whether God is God. No matter what happens: God is still God. God is still good.
And then, this third temptation. When Satan offers Jesus power, why in the world doesn’t Jesus respond that he already has it? “I’m the Son of God, you fool,” Jesus could so easily say. “Don’t you know who you’re talking to?” But instead, Jesus replies, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Jesus responds to the anxiety of politics by lifting up the supremacy of his Father. There are (or were) many Democratic Presidential candidates in the United States of America in the year 2020. There is only one Lord.
Faced with anxiety after anxiety, Jesus keeps up a steady evasion tactic. It’s not that provision and safety and power are unimportant to Jesus. They just aren’t of ultimate importance. Will we get what we need? Will we be safe? Will we like who’s in charge? Maybe. Maybe not. Jesus cares, absolutely, about hunger and sickness and political turmoil. But Jesus knows that even when all those things go wrong, God is still God. And God is still good.
In Matthew 4, Jesus turns our eyes, again and again, from the pressures of this world to the mystery of God. It’s a radical and captivating and not-wholly-understandable lesson. Maybe I’ll just keep meditating on this one chapter for a little while longer.
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