Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly matters in human life. At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion— that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.
Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil—no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: What's real is what is right, there in front of us—power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.
God is the issue: Is he real, reality itself, or isn't he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence. What must the Savior of the world do or not do? That is the question the temptations of Jesus are about. The three temptations are identical in Matthew and Luke, but the sequence is different. We will follow Matthew's sequence, because his arrangement reflects the logic that intensifies from temptation to temptation.
Jesus "fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry" (Mt 4:2). In Jesus' day the number forty was already filled with rich symbolism for Israel. First of all, it recalls Israel's forty years' wandering in the desert, a period in which the people were both tempted and enjoyed a special closeness to God. The forty days and nights also remind us of the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai before he was privileged to receive the word of God, the sacred tablets of the Covenant. They may also serve as a reminder of the rabbinic tale of how Abraham spent forty days and forty nights on the way to Mount Horeb, where he was to sacrifice his son, how during that time he neither ate nor drank anything and nourished himself on the vision and words of the angel who accompanied him.
The Fathers of the Church, stretching number symbolism in an admittedly slightly playful way, regarded forty as a cosmic number, as the numerical sign for this world. The four "corners" encompass the whole world, and ten is the number of the commandments. The number of the cosmos multiplied by the number of the commandments becomes a symbolic statement about the history of this world as a whole. It is as if Jesus were reliving Israel's Exodus, and then reliving the chaotic meanderings of history in general; the forty days of fasting embrace the drama of history, which Jesus takes into himself and bears all the way through to the end.
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread" (Mt 4:3)—so the first temptation goes. "If you are the Son of God"—we will hear these words again in the mouths of the mocking bystanders at: the foot of the Cross—"If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross" (Mt 27:40). The Book of Wisdom already foresaw this situation: "If the righteous man is God's son, he will help him" (
2:18). Mockery and temptation blend into
each other here: Christ is being
challenged to establish his credibility by offering evidence for his
claims. This demand for proof is a
constantly recurring theme in the story of Jesus' life again and again he is reproached for having failed
to prove himself sufficiently, for
having hitherto failed to work that great miracle that will remove all
ambiguity and every contradiction, so
as to make it indisputably clear for everyone who and what he is or is not. Wis
And we make this same demand of God and Christ and his Church throughout the whole of history. "If you exist, God," we say, "then you'll just have to show yourself. You'll have to part the clouds that conceal you and give us the clarity that we deserve. If you, Christ, are really the Son of God, and not just another one of the enlightened individuals who keep appearing in the course of history, then you'll just have to prove it more clearly than you are doing now. And if the Church is really supposed to be yours, you'll have to make that much more obvious than it is at present."
We will return to this point in connection with the second temptation, where it is in fact the central issue. The proof of divinity that the tempter proposes at the first temptation consists in changing the stones of the desert into bread. At first it is a question of Jesus' own hunger, which is how Luke sees it: "Command this stone to become bread" (Lk 4:3). Matthew, however, understands the temptation in broader terms, as it would later confront Jesus even during his earthly life and then throughout all of history.
Is there anything more tragic, is there anything more opposed to belief in the existence of a good God and a Redeemer of mankind, than world hunger? Shouldn't it be the first test of the Redeemer, before the world's gaze and on the world's behalf, to give it bread and to end all hunger? During their wandering through the desert, God fed the people of
with bread from heaven, with
manna. This seemed to offer a privileged glimpse into how things would look when the Messiah came: Did not, and does not,
the Redeemer of the world have to
prove his credentials by feeding
everyone? Isn't the problem of feeding the world—and, more generally, are not social problems—the
primary, true yardstick by which
redemption has to be measured? Does someone
who tails to measure up to this standard have any right to be called a redeemer? Marxism—quite
understandably—made this very point the core of its promise of salvation: It would see to it that no one
went hungry anymore and that the
"desert would become bread." Israel
"If you are the Son of God"—what a challenge!
And should we not say the same thing to the Church1? If you claim to be the Church of God, then start by making sure the world has bread—the rest, comes later. It is hard to answer this challenge, precisely because the cry of the hungry penetrates so deeply into the ears and into the soul—as well it should. Jesus' answer cannot be understood in light of the temptation story alone. The bread motif pervades the entire Gospel and has to be looked at in its full breadth.
There are two other great narratives concerning bread in Jesus' life. The first is the multiplication of loaves for the thousands who followed the Lord when he withdrew to a lonely place. Why does Christ now do the very thing he had rejected as a temptation before? The crowds had left everything in order to come hear God's word. They are people who have opened their heart to God and to one another; they are therefore ready to receive the bread with the proper disposition. This miracle of the loaves has three aspects, then. It is preceded by the search for God, for his word, for the teaching that sets the whole of life on the right path. Furthermore, God is asked to supply the bread. Finally, readiness to share with one another is an essential element of the miracle. Listening to God becomes living with God, and leads from faith to love, to the discovery of the other. Jesus is not indifferent toward men's hunger, their bodily needs, but he places these things in the proper context and the proper order.
This second narrative concerning bread thus points ahead to, and prepares for, the third: the Last Supper, which becomes the Eucharist of the Church and Jesus' perpetual miracle of bread. Jesus himself has become the grain of wheat that died and brought forth much fruit (cf. Jn 12:24).
He himself has become bread for us, and this multiplication of the loaves endures to the end of time, without ever being depleted. This gives us the background we need if we are to understand what Jesus means when he cites the Old Testament in order to repel the tempter: "Man does not live by bread alone, but ... by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord" (Deut 8:3). The German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, once wrote: "Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration."
When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing. It is not just the negative outcome of the Marxist experiment that proves this.
The aid offered by the West to developing countries has been purely technically and materially based, and not only has left God out of the picture, but has driven men away from God. And this aid, proudly claiming to "know better," is itself what first turned the "third world" into what we mean today by that term. It has thrust aside indigenous religious, ethical, and social structures and filled the resulting vacuum with its technocratic mind-set. The idea was that we could turn stones into bread; instead, our "aid" has only given stones in place of bread. The issue is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is a reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good. History cannot be detached from God and then run smoothly on purely material lines. If man's heart is not good, then nothing else can turn out good, either. And the goodness of the human heart can ultimately come only from the One who is goodness, who is the Good itself.
Of course, one can still ask why God did not make a world in which his presence is more evident—why Christ did not leave the world with another sign of his presence so radiant that no one could resist it. This is the mystery of God and man, which we find so inscrutable. We live in this world, where God is not so manifest as tangible things are, but can be sought and found only when the heart sets out on the "exodus" from "Egypt." It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusions of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost by obedience to God's word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all.
Let us move on to Jesus' second temptation; of the three it is in many ways the most difficult to understand in terms of the lessons it holds for us. This second temptation has to be interpreted as a sort of vision, which once again represents something real, something that poses a particular threat to the man Jesus and his mission. The first point is the striking fact that the devil cites Holy Scripture in order to lure Jesus into his trap. He quotes Psalm 91:11f., which speaks of the protection God grants to the man who believes: "For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” These words acquire a special significance by virtue of the fact that they are spoken in the holy city and in the holy place. Indeed, the psalm cited here is connected with the
pray it is to hope for protection in the ,
since God's dwelling place
necessarily means a special place of divine
protection. Where should the man who believes in God feel safer than in the sacred precincts of the Temple ? (Further details are given in Gnilka, Matthausevangelium, I, p. 88.) The devil proves to be a Bible expert who can quote the
Psalm exactly. The whole conversation of the second temptation takes the
form of a dispute between two Bible
scholars. Remarking on this passage,
Joachim Gnilka says that the devil presents himself here as a theologian. The Russian writer Vladimir Soloviev took up this motif in his short story "The
Antichrist." The Antichrist
receives an honorary doctorate in theology from the University of Tubingen and is a great Scripture scholar. Soloviev's
portrayal of the Antichrist forcefully expresses his skepticism regarding a certain type of scholarly
exegesis current at the time. This
is not a rejection of scholarly biblical interpretation as such, but an
eminently salutary and necessary warning
against its possible aberrations. The fact is that scriptural exegesis can become a tool of the
Antichrist. Soloviev is not the first
person to tell us that; it is the deeper point of the temptation story itself. The alleged findings
of scholarly exegesis have been used to put together the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus and
dismantle the faith. The common
practice today is to measure the Bible against
the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history—that
everything to do with. God is to be relegated to the domain of
And so the Bible no longer speaks of God, the living God; no, now we alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do. And the Antichrist, with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; he wants to convince us that only his kind of exegesis, the supposedly purely scientific kind, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast of the times.
The theological debate between Jesus and the devil is a dispute over the correct interpretation of Scripture, and it is relevant to every period of history. The hermeneutical question lying at the basis of proper scriptural exegesis is this: What picture of God are we working with? The dispute about interpretation is ultimately a dispute about who God is. Yet in practice, the struggle over the image of God, which underlies the debate about valid biblical interpretation, is decided by the picture we form of Christ: Is he, who remained without worldly power, really the Son of the living God?
The structural question concerning the remarkable scriptural discussion between Christ and the tempter thus leads directly to the question about its content. What is this dispute about? The issue at stake in this second temptation has been summed up under the motif of "bread and circuses." The idea is that after bread has been provided, a spectacle has to be offered, too. Since mere bodily satisfaction is obviously not enough for man, so this interpretation goes, those who refuse to let God have anything to do with the world and with man are forced to provide the tit illation of exciting stimuli, the thrill of which replaces religious awe and drives it away. But that cannot he the point of this passage, since the temptation apparently does not presuppose any spectators.
The point at issue is revealed in Jesus' answer, which is also taken from Deuteronomy: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deut 6:16). This passage from Deuteronomy alludes to the story of how Israel almost perished of thirst in the desert. Israel rebels against Moses, and in so doing rebels against God. God has to prove that he is God. The Bible describes this rebellion against God as follows: "They put the Lord to the proof by saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?’" (Ex 17:7). The issue, then, is the one we have already encountered: God has to submit to experiment. He is "tested," just as products are tested. He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty. If he doesn't grant us now the protection he promises in Psalm 91, then he is simply not God. He will have shown his own word, and himself too, to be false.
We are dealing here with the vast question as to how we can and cannot know God, how we are related to God and how we can lose him. The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him. For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp. To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too.
From this scene on the pinnacle of the Temple, though, we can look out and see the Cross. Christ did not cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. He did not leap into the abyss. He did not tempt God. But he did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured this leap as an act of God's love for men. And so he knew that, ultimately, when he leaped he could only fall into the kindly hands of the Father. This brings to light the real meaning of Psalm 91, which has to do with the right to the ultimate and unlimited trust of which the Psalm speaks: If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you. Yet this trust, which we cultivate on the authority of Scripture and at the invitation of the risen Lord, is something quite different from the reckless defiance of God that would make God our servant.
We come now to the third and last temptation, which is the climax of the whole story. The devil takes the Lord in a vision onto a high mountain. He shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor and offers him kingship over the world. Isn't that precisely the mission of the Messiah? Isn't he supposed to be the king of the world who unifies the whole earth in one great kingdom of peace and well-being? We saw that the temptation to turn stones into bread has two remarkable counterparts later on in Jesus' story: the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper. The same thing is true here.
The risen Lord gathers his followers "on the mountain" (cf. Mt 28:16). And on this mountain he does indeed say “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Mt 28:18). Two details here are new and different. The Lord has power in heaven and on earth. And only someone who has this fullness of authority has the real, saving power. Without heaven, earthly power is always ambiguous and fragile. Only when power submits to the measure and the judgment of heaven—of God, in other words—can it become power for good. And only when power stands under God's blessing can it be trusted.
This is where the second element comes in: Jesus has this power in virtue of his Resurrection. This means that it presupposes the Cross, his death. It presupposes that other mountain—Golgotha, where he hangs on the Cross and dies, mocked by men and forsaken by his disciples. The Kingdom of Christ is different from the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor, which Satan parades before him. This splendor, as the Greek word doxa indicates, is an illusory appearance that disintegrates. This is not the sort of splendor that belongs to the Kingdom of Christ. His Kingdom grows through the humility of the proclamation in those who agree to become his disciples, who are baptized in the name of the triune God, and who keep his commandments (cf. Mt 28:19f.).
But let us return to the third temptation. Its true content becomes apparent when we realize that throughout history it is constantly taking on new forms. The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use the faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was now expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendor. The powerlessness of faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. This temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus' Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.
The alternative that is at stake here appears in a dramatic form in the narrative of the Lord's Passion. At the culmination of Jesus' trial, Pilate presents the people with a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. One of the two will be released. But who was Barabbas? It is usually the words of John's Gospel that come to mind here: "Barabbas was a robber" (Jn 18:40). But the Greek word for "robber" had acquired a specific meaning in the political situation that obtained at the time in Palestine. It had become a synonym for "resistance fighter." Barabbas had taken part in an uprising (cf. Mk 15:7), and furthermore—in that context—had been accused of murder (cf. Lk 23:19, 25). When Matthew remarks that Barabbas was "a notorious prisoner" (Mt 27:16), this is evidence that he was one of the prominent resistance fighters, in fact probably the actual leader of that particular uprising.
In other words, Barabbas was a messianic figure. The choice of Jesus versus Barabbas is not accidental; two messiah figures, two forms of messianic belief stand in opposition. This becomes even clearer when we consider that the name Bar-Abbas means "son of the father." This is a typically messianic appellation, the cultic name of a prominent leader of the messianic movement. The last great Jewish messianic war was fought in the year 132 by Bar-Kokhba, "son of the star." The form of the name is the same, and it stands for the same intention.
Origen, a Father of the Church, provides us with another interesting detail. Up until the third century, many manuscripts of the Gospels referred to the man in question here as "Jesus Barabbas"—"Jesus son of the father." Barabbas figures here as a sort of alter ego of Jesus, who makes the same claim but understands it m a completely different way. So the choice is between a Messiah who leads an armed struggle, promises freedom and a kingdom of ones own, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that losing oneself is the way to life. Is it any wonder that the crowds prefer Barabbas? (For a fuller discussion of this point, see Vittorio Messori's important book Pati sotto Ponzio Pilato? [Turin, 1992], pp. 52—62.)
If we had to choose today, would Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, the Son of the Father, have a chance? Do we really know Jesus at all? Do we understand him? Do we not perhaps have to make an effort, today as always, to get to know him all over again? The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes. Soloviev attributes to the Antichrist a book entitled The Open Way to World Peace and Welfare. This book becomes something of a new Bible, whose real message is the worship of well-being and rational planning.
Jesus' third temptation proves, then, to be the fundamental one, because it concerns the question as to what sort of action is expected of a Savior of the world. It pervades the entire life of Jesus. It manifests itself openly again at a decisive turning point along his path. Peter, speaking in the name of the disciples, has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah-Christ, the Son of the Living God. In doing so, he has expressed in words the faith that builds up the Church and inaugurates the new community of faith based on Christ. At this crucial moment, where distinctive and decisive knowledge of Jesus separates his followers from public opinion and begins to constitute them as his new family, the tempter appears—threatening to turn everything into its opposite. The Lord immediately declares that the concept of the Messiah has to be understood in terms of the entirety of the message of the Prophets—it means not worldly power, but the Cross, and the radically different community that comes into being through the Cross.
But that is not what Peter has understood: "Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, 'God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you'" (Mt 16:22). Only when we read these words against the backdrop of the temptation scene— as its recurrence at the decisive moment—do we understand Jesus' unbelievably harsh answer: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Mt 16:23).
But don't we all repeatedly tell Jesus that his message leads to conflict with the prevailing opinions, so that there is always a looming threat of failure, suffering, and persecution? The Christian empire or the secular power of the papacy [blogger: Christendom] is no longer a temptation today, but the interpretation of Chris-tianity as a recipe for progress and the proclamation of universal prosperity as the real goal of all religions, including Christianity—this is the modern form of the same temptation. It appears in the guise of a question: "What did Jesus bring, then, if he didn't usher in a better world? How can that not be the content of messianic hope?"
In the Old Testament, two strands of that hope are still intertwined without distinction. The first one is the expectation of a worldly paradise in which the wolf lies down with the lamb (cf. Is n:6), the peoples of the world make their way to Mount Zion, and the prophecy "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks" comes true (Is 2:4; Mic 4:1—3). Alongside this expectation, however, is the prospect of the suffering servant of God, of a Messiah who brings salvation through contempt and suffering. Throughout his public ministry, and again in his discourses after Easter, Jesus had to show his disciples that Moses and the Prophets were speaking of him, the seemingly powerless one, who suffered, was crucified, and rose again. He had to show that in this way, and no other, the promises were fulfilled. "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" (Lk 24:25). That is what the Lord said to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and he has to say the same to us repeatedly throughout the centuries, because we too are constantly presuming that in order to make good on his claim to be a Messiah, he ought to have ushered in the golden age.
Jesus, however, repeats to us what he said in reply to Satan, what he said to Peter, and what he explained further to the disciples of Emmaus: No kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God, the total condition of mankind's salvation. Earthly kingdoms remain earthly human kingdoms, and anyone who claims to be able to establish the perfect world is the willing dupe of Satan and plays the world right into his hands.
Now, it is true that this leads to the great question that will be with us throughout this entire book: What, did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?
The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature—the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth.
He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that, we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God's power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God's cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory, their doxa, has proven to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.
Jesus has emerged victorious from his battle with Satan. To the tempters lying divinization of power and prosperity, to his lying promise of a future that offers all things to all men through power and through wealth—he responds with the fact that God is God, that God is man's true Good. To the invitation to worship power, the Lord answers with a passage from Deuteronomy, the same book that the devil himself had cited: "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve" (Mt 4:10; cf. Deut 6:13). The fundamental commandment of Israel is also the fundamental commandment for Christians: God alone is to be worshiped. When we come to consider the Sermon on the Mount, we will see that precisely this unconditional Yes to the first tablet of the Ten Commandments also includes the Yes to the second tablet—reverence for man, love of neighbor. Matthew, like Mark, concludes the narrative of the temptations with the statement that "angels came and ministered to him" (Mt 4:11; Mk 1:13). Psalm 91:11 now comes to fulfillment: The angels serve him, he has proven himself to be the Son, and heaven therefore stands open above him, the new Jacob, the Patriarch of a universalized Israel (cf. Jn 1:51; Gen 28:12).
 Benedict asks frequently in his writings: What did Jesus Christ come to bring us?
Progress, a better world…? No. He came to bring us God.