The Temptation of Bread

The First Sunday of Lent: Matthew 4:1-11

In today’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus spent forty days in the desert. This is an important detail. It allows us to connect Jesus’ time in the desert with the forty years that Israel spent in the desert journeying to the promised land. In fact, what the Gospel wants us to do is interpret what happens to Jesus in light of Israel’s experience. When we make this connection, we can understand why the devil temps Jesus to turn stones into loaves of bread. Why bread? How is that a temptation? For forty years Israel was fed in the desert because God provided bread from heaven. Each day flakes of bread, called manna, would fall to the ground. The Israelites would eat these and have the strength to live another day. They could not keep any of the bread for the next day. If they tried, it would spoil. That meant that each day Israel had to trust that God would give more bread tomorrow. Each day Israel had to trust that God would provide.

This is what is behind the devil’s temptation of Jesus. He is tempting Jesus to provide for himself rather than trust that God would provide whatever he needed. This, in one sense, is the most fundamental temptation we face. Do we trust in God or do we trust in ourselves?  Do we think that we can provide all that is necessary for our lives or do we trust that God will provide what we need? Of course, there are things we must provide for ourselves. We have to invest in education, so that we can learn a skill or profession and provide for ourselves and our family. We should set aside some money, so that we have a cushion and can provide for ourselves if things get tough. We should make plans for retirement, so that when work stops, we still have a goal and purpose.

There are many things that we provide for ourselves and most of us here are pretty good at it. But that is the danger. The more successful we are in providing for ourselves, the greater temptation it is to believe that we can survive on our own efforts alone. That is exactly what the devil wants us to think. The devil would like us to believe that all that we need is up to us, that we can change stones into loaves of bread.

The devil whispers, “Look how successful you are at school. How well your business is running. Your value is in your work. Keep working. Never stop!” But a time comes when we have to stop work and hand our responsibilities over to others. At that moment we will have to trust that God will provide for what comes next. The devils tempts us, “Save your money, as much as you can. You will never have enough. Your value is in what you own.” And so we save as much as we can and one day we have more than we need. But we cannot give any of it away because our value is tied to our money. The devil says to us, “Look how successful your retirement is. You’re financially secure. You have friends. This is the good life. Enjoy it! It will never end.” But of course it will end. And at that moment we will have to trust that God will provide a way from this life to the next.

The devil is the father of lies. His greatest lie is that we can provide all we need to live. In the flush of success, we are tempted to believe that is true. But a day will come when it will be very clear that we must depend on God to provide for us. Today’s Gospel invites us not to wait until that day to trust in God’s love. We should begin to see how each day God feeds us with manna so that we have the strength for all our accomplishments. If we take on this perspective today, we will be prepared for that day when we must depend on what God provides. If we take on this perspective today, we will be ready one day to hand over our entire life into God’s hands.

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