On Not Being Spectacular (Matthew 4:1-11)

Roman Catholic priest and theologian of spirituality Henri Nouwen outlined the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness as, first, to be relevant; second to be spectacular; and third, to be powerful. Here is my translation of the text:

The Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

After Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. That was when the tempter came to him, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones be made bread.”

Jesus answered, “Scripture says,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes
from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took Jesus him up into the Holy City, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, saying, “If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down, for Scripture says,
‘He will give his angels
charge concerning you,
and in their hands
they will bear you up
if at any time you dash
your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said, “Scripture also says,
‘You will not tempt
the Lord your God.’”

Next, the devil took Jesus up onto a very high mountain, showing him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. The devil said to Jesus, “I will give you all of these if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus to him, “Get you hence, Satan. For Scripture says,
‘You will worship the Lord your God,
and you will serve only God.”

Then the devil left Jesus. And, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Nouwen thought that all three of these temptations boil down to upward mobility. Rather than choosing to be relevant, spectacular, or powerful, Jesus chooses the downwardly mobile and considerably more difficult path of heeding the voice of God.

In overcoming the temptation of food; in overcoming the temptation to see if flights of angels would really come running; in overcoming the need to be rich and admired, Jesus traces the path toward the still small voice.

One point I had missed in thinking about this passage until recently is that the ancients thought of “the wilderness” in exactly the opposite fashion to we moderns—for them, the wilderness was where to go to face demons, not to escape them. For the ancients, the cities were places of light and reason; the wilderness places of darkness and chaos. In going to the wilderness, Jesus was not heading out to commune with nature, but rather to do exactly as he does—to face down darkness and terror.

Yet, then as now, the city contained what we humans most wish for: food; spectacle; wealth and fame. (This is why Matthew resorted to the narrative oddity of having the devil jetting Jesus around.) The only thing that has changed is that our contemporary devils do not live outside the warmth of community and of light but very much at their heart. Today, Jesus would face the demons on our mean streets and the temptations of upward mobility in our glass buildings towering above them.

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3 thoughts on “On Not Being Spectacular (Matthew 4:1-11)

  1. Thanks for wrestling with these images, David. I will admit to my own chills with the idea of “demons”, but taken metaphorically they certainly do exist. And yes, we do seem to face our greatest challenges in the midst of urban America’s streets. Sometimes those who have one kind of wealth are quite destitute in other ways. Thanks again.
    Marcia Marino

    1. I grew up hearing about demons in the Pentecostal tradition. I dismissed them as I got older, until I read Walter Wink’s ideas about the powers of darkness–competition, Capitalism, greed–being a way of externalizing bad human behavior. That makes sense to me.

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