In the beginning

Column: Matthew saves the worst for last

by Father Mike Stubbs

Like any parish bazaar worth its salt, it included a raffle. There were three prizes in the raffle. To build up the suspense, the winners of the two smaller prizes were announced first, and the grand prize last, as the climax of the evening.

We can approach the three temptations of Jesus in the desert in a similar way. Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 4:1-11, describes that scene.

We should notice that Luke’s Gospel (4:1-13) presents the same three temptations of Jesus in the desert, but with one significant difference. They come in a different order. Luke offers as the third temptation the one set in Jerusalem, where Jesus stands on the parapet of the Temple. The devil challenges Jesus to jump off and test God’s love — to see if God will save him or not.

On the other hand, Matthew offers as the third temptation the one where the devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain. From there, Jesus views all the kingdoms of the world.

The devil promises them to Jesus if only Jesus will worship him.

Matthew and Luke produce strikingly similar accounts of the temptations. They contain the same details, similar wording when not exactly the same, and even the same quotations from the Old Testament. This all suggests that both Matthew and Luke drew upon the same source. (Most biblical scholars refer to this source as the “Q” document.)

The question then arises: If Matthew and Luke inherited this material containing the three temptations, why do they present them in a different order? Who has tampered with the order, and why?

Let us explore the possibility that Matthew has made an editorial decision to present the temptations about the kingdoms of the world as the third and last temptation. Let us search for a motive for that decision.

First of all, recall the raffle which offered three prizes. The last prize to be announced was the grand prize. I believe that Matthew operated along similar lines in presenting the three temptations. The third temptation would be the most serious of all, the grand temptation, so to speak.

The seriousness of this temptation would not involve the bait offered to Jesus: all the kingdoms of the earth. Rather, the seriousness of this temptation would rest upon what the devil hoped to induce Jesus to do: “Prostrate yourself and worship me.”

The theme of worship pervades Matthew’s Gospel. Only a month ago, on the feast of the Epiphany, we heard how the Magi worshipped the child Jesus: “They prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Mt 2:11). Similarly, on the feast of the Ascension, we will hear the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, which includes a reference to the disciples worshiping Jesus: “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” (Mt 26:17).

In Matthew’s Gospel, an encounter with Jesus logically leads to worship of Jesus. When the devil suggests that Jesus worship him, he is setting up the exact reverse of the order of things. The devil should worship Jesus, not the other way around. That is why it is the third, and worst, temptation.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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