St. Matthew's Episcopal

Bread and Circuses or Son of God?

Posted on: March 7th, 2017 by Robin Jarrell
Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus Ministered to by Angels (Jésus assisté par les anges), James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.                                                                                           Matthew 4:1-11.


I will continue my practice of summarizing the sermon for the previous Sunday because in these turbulent times, it is important to keep the Good News ever before us.

There are some very specific ways in which Matthew’s Gospel shakes its fist against the Roman occupiers and offers the Kingdom of God as the direct antidote to living in the shadow of the empire.  I have long been puzzled by these temptations that Satan offers to Jesus until I remembered the gospel writer Matthew’s criticism of the Roman occupiers.  Long before the time of Jesus, Roman politicians passed laws to keep getting the votes of the poorest citizens – providing them with cheap food (bread) and entertainment (circuses).  Bread and Circuses thus became a very efficient method for the politicians to rise to power, until it was eventually taken over by the Roman Emperors.

Satan begins the first test by comparing Jesus’ divine status as God’s son to the Roman Emperor’s “divine” status.  “If you are the Son of God,” the devil begins, “forty days and nights is a long time to be hungry.  But you don’t need to open the doors of the imperial granary – why, you can just change these stones right here into bread.”

For the second test, Satan again makes a comparison between Jesus and the Emperor.  “Why don’t you do what Emperors do – talk about providing a spectacle!  Forget mock naval sea battles in the colosseum, or chariot races.  Can you imagine the power you’d display (and the disciples who would flock to your side) if you hurled yourself from the pinnacle of the temple and a host of angels came rushing to your aid?”

And finally, Satan’s third test is the culmination of his comparison between Jesus and the Emperor.  The devil takes him to a high mountain where he shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world.  “All these I will give you,” Satan begins.  “No need to march with legions of soldiers and wage war until you’ve conquered every kingdom – it will be a bloodless coup, no one would get hurt, and I’ll hand it all over to you now if you will fall down and worship me.”

That’s the thing about temptation – it’s always tailor-made.  It can slip on as easily as a perfectly fitting glove or suit that was made exactly for you.  But notice how Jesus responds to his tailor-made temptations.  He doesn’t appeal to his status as fully divine Son of God in order to refuse each of Satan’s offers – he responds as a righteous human being who depends upon God’s mercy.  Every single response of Jesus to Satan comes right out Hebrew scripture (all from Deuteronomy and Psalm 91) and is available to each and every one of us, both in the time of Jesus and now.

And while we who are journeying though Lent are not THE Son of God, we are heirs to God’s kingdom through our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus.  We can’t command stones to turn to bread, but we might be tempted to overindulge – whether with food or substances, gossip or worry,  instead of being fed by “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  We may not have dazzling abilities to create spectacles to witness to the Gospel message, but we can get distracted by our own importance in the community of the faithful, or be distracted by video games, Netflix or self-absorption so that we neglect being part of Christ’s body. And finally, we can come to understand that nothing of Jesus’ real power is ever accomplished through the violence of Empire – whether it exists in 1st century Palestine, or 21st century America.

May we walk the path of our Lenten journey in such a way that the angels come often and minister to each of us.

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