Immediately after his baptism by John, Matthew’s Jesus goes into the wilderness for a 40-day fast. This action suggests monastic discernment of call into a community dedicated to the work. Scholars generally agree that Jesus probably did spend some time among the Essenes or with the followers of John the Baptist. However, there is controversy over whether, when, or why Jesus later left John’s apocalyptic message behind.
The Jesus Seminar scholars are of the opinion that Jesus’ understanding of time did not distinguish between present and future. In other words, the present and the future were intertwined, or simultaneous in Jesus’ mind. This kind of subtlety was lost on Jesus’ followers, “many of whom started as disciples of John the Baptist, and are represented in the gospels as understanding Jesus poorly” The Five Gospels p. 137. The Apostle Paul, who was the first known interpreter of Jesus’ message, also was an apocalypticist. Given this, and the confusion or inability to understand what Jesus was talking about when he announced the arrival of the Kingdom, it is no wonder that Christianity today, with its emphasis on life after death (not to mention the Rapture) is dismissed as irrelevant to post-modern realities.
The Elves who put together the Revised Common Lectionary do not consider the story of the test in the wilderness until the first Sunday in Lent. The focus is on temptation into sin by the Devil, and the 40 days of Lent are supposed to be a time of fasting and regretting all the bad things Christians have done, including, of course, the horrifying concept that not only are believers themselves guilty and responsible for Jesus’ death, but that Jesus was crucified in order to atone for (make up for) those sins. The result is that believers go to heaven when they die, because Jesus made it possible.
This theology needs to be scrapped. One way to begin the process of consigning it to the dungeons of time with other heresies is to look at Matthew’s story in the order and context within which Matthew wrote it.
Three times the Trickster attempts to get Matthew’s Jesus to succumb to the easy path into the normalcy of political power. First, he declines to turn stones into bread; next he refuses to jump off the highest point of the Temple to prove he is the Son of God; finally he will not pay homage to the splendor of empire. What these images may have meant to Matthew’s first-century listeners is impossible to guess. But the underlying subversion of imperial claims is clear.
The Elves suggest a portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans to go along with the temptation story, which seems to reinforce the idea that Jesus died to pay for the sins of humanity. The NRSV says, at Romans 5:18: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass (sin) led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness (Jesus’ self-sacrifice) leads to justification and life for all.” And just to be sure we get it, “For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It’s all about justification by faith – or being saved for heaven in the next life by believing in the resuscitation of a corpse.
Ironically, the portion from Romans selected by the Elves does indeed enhance the understanding of Matthew’s scene between Jesus and the Devil. But it only can be understood if we accept the changes in language – the new translation – by the scholars who produced The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new reading of Paul’s rhetoric and meaning.
Paul is not talking about petty sin, or the inherent evil lurking in the souls of human beings. He is talking about the “corruptive seduction of power.” We all know the opinion expressed by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902), in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” In a footnote to Romans 5:12, the scholars write, “The corruptive seduction of power; Greek: hamartia [is] usually translated as ‘sin.’ Paul refers to hamartia here as if it were a spiritual power that effectively holds sway over the human mind and heart and seduces humans into a way of life that is ultimately, if not always immediately, self-destructive” p. 222.
When Paul talks about “death” what he is referring to is “self-destruction.” When he talks about unending life, he is talking about this life, on earth, as a radical abandonment of self-interest. (Paul’s underlying apocalypticism has more to do with his concept of Jesus being raised from Sheol, a godless realm where the dead remain, into God’s presence. According to Paul’s argument in 1 Thessalonians, when we sign on to Jesus’ Way, we are then eligible to also be raised into God’s presence when in some future time, the Anointed one returns. Paul expected that those followers of Jesus living at the time of the Anointed’s return will also be raised into God’s presence — hence the development of the concept of “The Rapture.” )
As for the “corruptive seduction of power,” all we have to do is consider what happens to the most idealistic contenders for elective office once they are sworn in. But whenever anyone does anything from the standpoint of self-glorification, that person is likely to succumb to that seduction. Paul puts it like this:
What this means is that just as through one man the corrupting seduction of power entered the world and death entered with it, so death spread to all human beings inasmuch as all human beings proved to be corruptible. The corrupting seduction of power was in the world before the law was given [to Moses], but corruption was not counted against people in the absence of that law. . . .
So then, just as one man’s blunder led to a death sentence for all humanity, so one man’s getting it right leads to an affirmation of life for all humanity. Just as through one man’s rebellious mindlessness many were led to become wayward, so also by one man’s trusting mindfulness many will be led to getting it right. Law was introduced as an afterthought to make the blunder even more offensive, but where corruption increased, God’s generous favor proved to be even more abundant, so that, just as the corrupting seduction of power reigned in death, so also the power of God’s generous favor, through what God counts as getting it right, could be shown to lead to unending life through Jesus, the Anointed our lord. [Emphasis mine.]
Would-be leaders, from local church boards to nationally elected or appointed officials, need to beware of the threat to personal integrity that is inherent in the political process. Correlatively, the electorate needs to beware of believing promises that cannot possibly be kept. Stones have often been offered as and mistaken for bread.
The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that “Like Luke, Matthew has placed a legendary story in which the hero is tested between an account of Jesus’ remarkable birth and the beginning of his career as a way of foreshadowing the kind of life and destiny he faces.” Once Jesus has bested the Devil, he hears that John the Baptizer has been arrested. He leaves Nazareth and settles in Capernaum “so that the word spoken through Isaiah the prophet would come true.”
Matthew is careful to document his assertions with prophecy and history. It is no accident that in Matthew’s story, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, just as the ancient Hebrew people spent 40 years in the wilderness. See especially Deuteronomy 6:10-16. Moses tells the people that once they have arrived in the promised land and have seen the fine houses, the rich harvests, and have eaten their fill, “take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . Do not put the Lord your God to the test. . . .” Then later, Matthew reflects what Isaiah wrote, “he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined!”
In Galilee, Jesus begins to proclaim John’s message: “Change your ways because Heaven’s imperial rule is closing in.” Then one day as he is walking by the Sea of Galilee, he meets Peter and Andrew, James and John, and calls them to leave their nets and become “fishers of people.” He toured all over Galilee, proclaiming Heaven’s imperial rule. He attracted huge crowds, and cured every disease and ailment the people had.
Matthew’s Jesus is now set up for the five discourses that follow, which the writer may have intended to represent a new Torah among the people who accepted Jesus as the Anointed – the Messiah. What was not intended, however, was the anti-Semitism that Matthew’s gospel has generated throughout the centuries. We must read it with that caveat in mind.