Reading: Matt. Ch 4: 1-11
Most chapters of the Gospels are very short. It only takes a few minutes to read, say, Ch. 1 to Ch. 6 or 7 at an average rate of reading. So upon skimming the beginning of Matthew, it shouldn’t have surprised me that, less than a minute after reading about Christ’ birth, I was reading about his Temptation. It is almost foolish to point out the obvious- Christ’s life went at a much slower rate than how it is actually recorded. That span of a minute it took me from reading his genealogy to his Temptation by the devil took 25+ years in Christ’s life. C.S. Lewis gives an illustration of this obvious point when he attempts to puzzle out the infinitely more complex question of the concept of time in relation to God. He envisions an author writing one action of a character, then taking off for a cup of tea, before sitting down to write the character’s next action. The time between the one action of the character and the next (say, opening a door and then stepping inside a room) takes no time at all to the reader or the character, but the author is aware that much time has passed. To the opposite effect, we know as readers that much time has passed between Christ’s birth and his Temptation though Matthew has truncated the events in short passages.
I should also point out the view that, although this is not dogma or doctrine, most elders of the Church would say and have said over the centuries this is not really a useful or helpful way to read the Bible. You don’t read the Book like a book. In the practice of lectio divina, a small portion of scripture is chosen and reflected and meditated upon with care. A phrase of Christ’s is worth a day’s meditation would be the adherent’s motto. Take it slow. The goal is not the finish line, but the journey itself. Etc. One should avoid starting at Matthew in the morning and finishing up with Revelation by lunchtime.
All that said, and with full knowledge that God is able to reveal Himself despite our rushed reading habits, I realized something about the nature, force, and will of Temptation and sin through my fast reading of the first gospel of the New Testament: temptation is a speedy little stinker.
It is worth noting that in Ch. 3 of Matthew, Christ is baptized by John. The end of the chapter presents the iconic image of the dove descending from Heaven, and God saying “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” The very next line, which begins Ch. 4, reads “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” I am no Biblical scholar, but I have no doubt that alternating forms and languages throughout the centuries have modified and adjusted segues in Scripture, but let’s play with the form as it is presented to us in the Revised Standard Version. That being said, allow this English teacher a grammatical knee jerk reaction with what is presented before his eyes. I would be stunned if any of my students began a paragraph, much less a chapter with a sentence beginning with the adverb “then.” “Then” is a conjunctive adverb, linking two ideas together. Therefore, a prior thought is needed that connects the two thoughts together. One thing follows another, and you cannot start a new chapter with an after-thought. The prior thought followed by “then,” inextricably binds the two thoughts together. While I was having this (rather garbled) grammatical hissy fit, I looked at the two statements this aberrant “then” was connecting. By grammatical logic, Christ’s baptism led directly to His Temptation. “’This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Then, Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It certainly seemed like an odd transition. Or was it? Why did Matthew write it this way? Does it mean anything?
This strange little conjunctive adverb, I believe, can teach us a great deal about something we already know quite a bit about. Ask yourself the following questions: “How soon after you were baptized, or committed your life to Christ, were you tempted? Tempted, even, to throw it all away for the comfort of one pleasure or another? How often are you tempted every day? How quickly does the temptation set upon you? How quickly do you rationalize in your mind to act upon that temptation?”
If you are like me, the answers are “Too soon, a lot, fast as lightening, faster than lightening.” And, if you are like me, or were at one point of your spiritual journey, a sense of despair and hopelessness creeps in, compounding the temptation and all the more leading to acting on it.. All too often this sense of hopelessness and despair comes because we are trying to be “good Christians.” We are endeavoring to be like Christ, to live His life- and of course (in our mistaken, “green” perception), how can we be like Christ with these lustful, selfish, angry, power-hungry, gluttonous, prideful (etc.) thoughts and temptations swirling through our heads? How can we walk when we constantly struggle? Christ walked on water, and here I am unable to dog-paddle! What gives?
So I admit it was a bit of a relief, in skimming Matthew, to see how “quickly” Christ had to face temptation. Immediately after His baptism, when God Himself spoke to Christ in all His Glory, Christ was “led away to be tempted.” No reveling in His Divinity, no comfortable resting place, no after Baptism party- the conjunction “then” prohibits it. He was led away, brought to His lowest point- 40 days and nights of fasting would certainly wipe the smile off my face- and tempted. The God-Man faced what we face every day. And from there comes another realization. In the previous paragraph I talked about the sense of hopelessness and despair that comes from trying too hard to be “like Christ,” from getting discouraged by the bombardment of temptation around us all the time, that pulls us away from his Divinity. In fact, to face temptation is to be like Christ. We should not feel hopeless or depressed. Instead of banging ourselves over the head constantly about a failed effort to “measure up,” we should pause to consider the earnestness and desire of Christ to bring Himself down to our measure. Ridicule, pain, awkwardness- despair, even- he experienced it all. And He built the bridge that overcomes it all, as well. He does not expect us to build another, just to cross His.
I’ll end on a note from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
The practical upshot is this. On the one hand, God’s demand for perfection need not discourage you in the least in your present attempts to be good, or even in your present failures. Each time you fall He will pick you up again. And He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realize from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for.