Matthew 4:1-11

The story is told of a young man who went to an older gentleman who was an expert in precious gems.  He told the elderly man that he wanted to learn the trade and wished to become his apprentice.  The older man peppered him with questions because he doubted that the young man had the patience required for such an occupation.  The young man kept pleading his case and begged for the opportunity to prove himself.  Finally, the gem expert relented.  "Come back to my shop early tomorrow," he said.

The next morning, the young man appeared at his door, eager to begin his training.  The gem expert led him to a chair and said, "Sit here and wait."

The elderly man disappeared in the back of his shop.  After a few minutes he reappeared.  He walked over to the young man and said, "Hold out your hand."  And when the young man stuck out his hand, the gem expert plopped a jade stone in it.  "Hold it and study it closely," he said.  Then, he went over to his desk and went about his work for the day; cutting, weighing and polishing gems; setting them in beautiful and intricate settings.  The young man sat patiently and quietly all day, awaiting further instructions.

The next day when the young man arrived, the gem expert again sat him down and placed a different jade stone in his hand and gave him similar instructions as the day before.  "Move it around in your hand and study it closely."  Then, the elderly man went about his business.

It was the same treatment on day three, day four and day five.  Finally, on the sixth day, after holding the stone for several hours, the young man broke the silence.  "Sir, when will I learn something about this trade?"

The expert replied, "Oh, don't worry, you will learn soon enough."

This ritual continued for three more days and the young man could barely contain his frustration.  Then, when he showed up the next morning it began with the usual pattern.  The old man led him to the chair, brought out a jade stone and placed it in his hand and said, "Hold it and study it."

The young man took the stone, barely glanced at it and then blurted out, "I'm getting tired of this treatment.  And today, you didn't even give me a real jade stone!"

A smile crept across the expert's face.  "Ah, you have begun to discern the difference."1

The young man needed to learn the difference between the authentic and the inauthentic.  He needed to distinguish between the real and the imposter.  And isn't that our daily challenge?  To discern God's way from the many other ways that vie for our attention.

In this morning's passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is put to a test and he must discern between good and evil.  According to the gospels, this event occurs before Jesus launches his public ministry.  He has yet to preach a sermon or to recruit any followers.  We are told that he was baptized and then immediately he went into the wilderness to spend time in solitude with God.  There, without the distractions of daily life, he prays and fasts, and after forty days, the devil appears and tries to tempt Jesus three times.

You may have heard about the old-time revival preacher who was whipping up the congregation into a fury and trying to save souls by scaring them with threats of the devil.  He said, "The devil has his eye on you and wants to tempt you into wicked and perverted behavior.  The devil is a master of deception and you cannot rid yourself of him easily.  And if you take away the "D" on devil, you have "evil."  Satan is a master of slime whose thoughts and actions are always focused on tricking you into doing something evil!  And if you take away the "e" you have "vil."  The tempter wants to coax you into all sorts of vile and disgusting behavior!  And if you take away the "v" you have "il."  And that's what you will be if the devil has his way.  You'll be ill in body, mind and soul!  And if you take away the "i" all you have left is "l" and that's where you'll spend eternity if you don't straighten out your life!

We intellectually sophisticated people of the 21st century, have fun trivializing the devil.  We have often turned the devil into little more than a cartoon character - a red fellow with horns, sinister eyes, a pointed tail and a pitch fork in hand.  We have made him into an easily indentified being that we can spot a mile away.  This oversimplification of the devil goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to think of sin as simply doing bad things, such as stealing, killing and committing adultery.

Whether or not we believe there is an evil spiritual being whose mission is to tempt us, there is no denying the fact that human beings are routinely tempted to sin.  But sin is much more complex than a list of bad actions we are to avoid. Sin is not limited to the sinister actions of corrupt individuals.  We point to a scoundrel like Bernard Madoff, who wiped out people's retirement savings, devastated humanitarian organizations and college endowment funds.  We point to the greed of CEOs like John Thain who fire thousands and then reward themselves with hefty bonuses.  We point to the arrogance of bank executives who take over a billion dollars in bailout money, lay off hundreds of workers, and then spend millions on parties and entertainment.

Our economic crisis has provided numerous examples of people who have been enticed by dark forces to commit destructive deeds. Unwittingly, they have reminded many people that our view of the world is incomplete if we lose the language of sin.  They have demonstrated for everyone the ways that greed and arrogance can destroy people's lives.

Generally, when we think about what it means to be tempted, we think of being lured into doing what we know is wrong.  Yet we fail to appreciate the depth and complexity of the nature of sin if we confine it to the category of bad deeds.  Sin is not simply doing what is wrong; it is failing to do what is right.  Sin is missing the mark. 

In our passage from the Gospel of Matthew, it's important to note that the devil does not tempt Jesus to do anything bad.  He does not try to entice Jesus into stealing or lying or picking a fight with his neighbor.  Those would be a cinch to resist.  The devil is much shrewder than that.  Instead, Jesus is tempted to carry out a ministry that highlights himself.  He's tempted to thrust himself, not God, onto center stage.

Look again at what the text says.  Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days without food.  The devil appears and says, "You must be famished.  Why not turn these stones into bread so that you'll have something to eat?"  No?  How about bungee jumping from the top of the temple, and doing it without a rope?  That will demonstrate God's power for everyone to see.  No?  Well, then how about this. You can become the ruler of the world!  Think of all the good you could accomplish with that kind of authority.

The temptations are not vile or sinister.  In fact, they are attractive.  And that is precisely why evil can be such a formidable power and so difficult to resist.  It's why we can be lured into doing things we ought not do.  The darkness appears to be light, the bad takes the shape of good.  Evil is able to lure us away from the path of God because it appears so inviting.

Jesus is presented with three scenarios, each of which is designed to establish where Jesus places his trust.  Is it with himself or is it with God?  Will he manage his own future on his own terms, or will he follow where God leads him?

As we embark on the season of Lent - our own 40 days of introspection - we are challenged to wrestle with the same question.  Will we place ourselves in the position of prominence or will we reorient our lives and make God our ultimate authority?

Keep your eyes peeled.  Temptation comes in many forms and is constantly whispering in our ears: "Look out for number one, possessions will bring you happiness, people are here for your personal pleasure.  Insist on having things your way, beware of people who are different, avoid sacrifice, don't worry about tomorrow, live for the moment."

But God is also constantly whispering in our ears.  God's message is different.  "Extend compassion to others, strive for justice, work for peace.  Return no one evil for evil, forgive others and forgive yourself.  Exhibit self-control, be generous, persevere in adversity and be trustworthy." 

Different voices are vying for our attention.  Which one will we follow?


  1. Brian Cavanaugh, "The Sower's Seeds," as told by Susan Langhauser in Lectionary Homiletics, (February, 1999), p.21.