Formations 03.05.2017: Taking Off Our Masks

Matthew 4:1-11

Russian icon depicting Jesus’ Temptation

It’s that time of year when cheap plastic purple and green and gold masks are sold at the front of party stores. This means that it’s almost that time of year when we follow Jesus and those early Israelites before him out into the wilderness. Jesus goes out there, whether he knows it or not, to be tempted by the devil (4:1).

If Twitter is any indication, a growing number of people are following Jesus into the desert, though in a more digital way, by removing themselves from social media. And whether our Lenten practices reflect the context of Jesus’ temptation or whether they reflect the specific ways the devil tempts Jesus, we hope that we’ll see God more clearly and recognize our own place in relation to the divine.

Thomas Merton, the twentieth-century Trappist Monk, said, “we do not go into the desert to escape people, but to learn how to find them” (80). So while these deserts tempt us with isolation, they promise union too.

And Merton describes the mystical life as learning to remove the masks that hide the image of God we bear. In the same way that the desert holds the potential for both connection and separation, it appears that Jesus’ identity as the Son holds the same possibilities.

So the devil tempts Jesus with masks that would distort, but not negate, his identity as the Son. He says, “since you are God’s son,” eat and be filled, jump and be saved, take power and worship me (vv. 3, 6). Masks tell us about the wearer, but they also cover their faces, at least part of them. Jesus is God’s Son, but the devil offers him a partial view of sonhood. Jesus understands that being God’s Son does not lead him first to satisfy his hunger but to feed those around him. And being God’s Son doesn’t lead him to save himself first but to protect others. And it doesn’t mean taking power but empowering those around him.

For all of God’s children, it may be worth following Jesus into the desert. There we might learn that what power, influence, and stability we have is not ours. We might learn to live in ways that are more human. And there we might learn from Jesus that life is sweeter, not when we engage in those practices that cut us off from the world, but when we follow Jesus in recognizing God in all places.

Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation (Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1961), 80.

Lisa Gutierrez, “Twitter Tracker Gives Up the Top Choices for Lent This Year,” The Kansas City Star, 10 February 2016.


• What masks do you wear and what activities do you engage in that promise protection and safety? How might you follow Jesus in a more vulnerable way?
• In what ways are you tempted to cut yourself off from the world around you? How might you live into the connection modeled by Jesus?
• Where in your own life do you recognize God’s presence? How might these parts of your identity be sources of temptation?

Reference Shelf

The Wilderness

Jesus has been proclaimed son of God by a voice from heaven at his baptism; he is then sent into the wilderness to probe his fidelity and filial obedience (cf. Deut 13:3). Jesus recapitulates the history of God’s covenant son, Israel; but he proves true at the very points where Israel failed: hunger (Exod 16), testing God’s faithfulness (Exod 17), and idolatry (Exod 32). Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1 in 2:15 makes it clear that for him, Jesus is Israel, God’s son, who is called out of Egypt (see Exod 4:22-23; Deut 1:31; Jer 31:9). Jesus passes through the waters and is taken up into the wilderness for forty days and nights (the verb “taken up” is used in the LXX, Num 20:5, 1 Kgs 12:6, and Ps 80:1, for Israel’s ordeal). The number forty alludes to the period of Israel’s wilderness sojourn. Forty days is equated with the forty years in Numbers 14:34 and Ezekiel 4:6. Jesus’ rejoinders to Satan come from the section in Deuteronomy 6–8 that recall Israel’s disobedience in the wilderness and explain why God allowed his “son,” Israel, to wander forty years in the desert (4:4=Deut 8:3; 4:7=Deut 6:16; 4:10=Deut 6:13).

The devil bids the son to do for himself what the Father did for the children of Israel in the wilderness when they were weak from hunger: “Speak that these stones become loaves!” Jesus responds that it is not his word but God’s that sustains life (Deut 8:6; see Wis 16:26). The devil then shifts Jesus to the temple and cites a psalm of assurance that no evil will befall the faithful (Ps 91:11-12; see Wis 2:16-20). The temple is the place where God’s protection is particularly effective as God’s shelter, refuge, and fortress (Ps 91:1-2); and the devil invites Jesus to see if he will find safety under God’s wing: “Jump, the angels will catch you!” The temptation challenges Jesus to test God as Israel did. Even though the wilderness generation had been spared the plagues, delivered through the divided sea, led by a cloud by day and a fire by night, and given the bread of angels to eat, they still demanded that God provide them with certified proof of his presence among them (see Deut 29:2-6; Exod 17:2, 7; Num 14:22; Deut 6:16; Pss 78; 95). Jesus will not impugn God’s power or faithfulness by putting them to the test. Finally, the devil sheds all pretense of piety when he escorts Jesus to a high mountain to view all the kingdoms of the world and their glory and demands to be worshiped. Moses was taken to Mount Pisgah and shown the promised land that the people would eventually enter (Deut 3:27; 34:1-4; see also 2 [Syriac] Apocalypse of Baruch 76:3), and he warned the people that when they enter the land they are not to turn to other gods. That is exactly what transpired (Deut 31:20; 32:15-17; Ps 106:35-37). Jesus, however, will not submit to false gods and forcefully dismisses the devil. The angels then appear without Jesus having done anything to compel their coming (26:53-54; see Testament of Naphtali 8:4). Their arrival is another token of God’s approval of his son.

David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 39–40.

Jesus and the Devil

The devil is portrayed here as not just the archetypal tempter but also as someone wicked and envious who longs to destroy God’s righteous one by having him worship the tempter. Before he begins his ministry, Jesus must renounce the temptation to take matters, even stones, into his own hands and use his power in a way that would make him a self-serving and unrighteous king not living according to the wisdom of God. Like Solomon, Jesus does not ask for long life, nor for wealth, nor to wield great power in an inhuman way, nor to destroy his enemies. Instead he relies on the resources available to all who walk in righteousness—the word of God, which is God’s great deposit of revealed Wisdom, and the indwelling Spirit of God. Only when Jesus the royal one has passed the test in regard to these things, in regard to the will to power especially, is he able to go forth and begin his ministry. It is also noteworthy that only after his having passed this test do we begin to hear Jesus’ paradigmatic wisdom in Matthew 5–7, where the renunciation of the use of power inappropriately and of unwise and ungodly ways is taught.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 87–88.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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