The story of Jesus’ temptations,
in all three synoptic gospels,
is set in the wilderness—
which for those with ears tuned to the larger story,
hearkens back to the escape of the children of Israel
from Egypt and their time in the wilderness
and the temptations they faced—
the basic temptation, actually,
not to trust and rely
on God and God alone—
for direction, sustenance, protection and hope.

I. The first of Jesus’ temptations named in both Matthew and Luke
(Mark does not name specific temptations)
is for food security as a famished Jesus
is tempted to turn a stone to bread.
And we hear more
echoes of the fundamental food concern of the famished people,
“Have you brought us out here to die of hunger?” (Exodus 16:3)
than the assurance of God’s provision of manna from heaven.

This temptation raises the question: who will provide for our basic needs?
Is that something for which which we appropriately look to God?

II. One of Jesus’ other temptations is set on a mountain—
another link to a particular story within the wilderness wandering—
to Sinai—the giving of the law—
and the mutual expectations of covenant—
the mutual expectation of a consistent faithfulness.

Jesus’ specific temptation is to bow down to Satan
and receive worldly authority from him,
and thus raises the authority issue.
Less the question who has authority on earth,
as whom do we acknowledge as authority?

And there are resonances again to temptations of the Hebrews:
manifest in the querulous “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt,
‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’?
For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians
than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12)
and in the manufacture and worship of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).

III. The other of Jesus’ temptations is set at the temple—
representing in some ways, don’t you think,
the epitome of the promised land?

Jesus’ particular temptation is to throw himself off the temple
and have God’s angels save him.
This one asks us to consider faith and vindication.
What (and whose?) actions vindicate faith?

For ears twitching in accord with two stories now,
one might look to the God depicted in the Exodus,
the God of such mighty acts one has to wonder
how faith could not be vindicated,
but also to precisely those mighty acts of God,
throughout the Exodus,
that nonetheless did not engender consistent trust or faith.

I-III. But the order in which Luke places the tests is
different from Matthew’s.
In Matthew, the temptations move from the wilderness,
to the temple, to the mountain top.
Luke has them go from the wilderness,
to the mountain top, to the temple.

Then again, Matthew’s whole gospel ends on a mountain top.
Luke’s whole gospel ends (and begins, for that matter)
in the temple.
Interesting, eh?

As if Matthew appeals back to the wilds—
the undomesticated God
who institutes liturgy before there is institution—
as if the temple was an anomaly
between the wilderness and the mountain
and the more direct, unmediated divine presence.

Sheer coincidence, surely, that Matthew’s community
was trying to establish itself against Judaism.

And then it’s as if Luke builds on tradition—
the temple an appropriate part of a process
from which we move on—
the process honoring the God within tradition
ever-changing it, ever-growing it, ever-transcendent.
And Luke will trace the development of process
in the formula “from Jerusalem through all Judea and Samaria,
to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

And it’s more coincidence, surely,
that in the missionary journeys of Paul
conversations so often began with the Jews in the local synagogue—
in the institutions of diaspora Judaism.

Of course it’s not either/or
for us as people of the book—
tempting as it might be to think otherwise.
We read both Matthew and Luke
and are so reminded (warned?)
that as people of such predictable institution,
we are also of the unknowable mountains,
and, of course, simultaneously,
that as much as we think to claim
the freedom of the peaks,
we are the structure of the steeples.


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