09. Stones To Bread

The Temptations of Jesus

9 – Stones to Bread

Matthew 4:2-4 

And 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, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’.”

Luke 4:3-4

The devil said to him, “if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’.”

Stones to Bread

What’s so wrong with feeding oneself?  It is a natural instinct.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this.  So where is the catch?  What is going on behind this suggestion?

Earlier, John the Baptist had said, “God is able from these stones to raise children unto Abraham.” (Matt 3:9) This interesting metaphor may have triggered Jesus’ mind to think about the possibilities that lay in stones.  Later during the triumphal entry he will declare that the stones will cry out if the children are forbidden to shout praises. The wilderness was littered with small round stones that looked suspiciously like loaves. Maybe the stones in the wilderness seemed to be calling out, “eat me!”

Several temptations may be present in this one suggestion.

He must have been very hungry during and after the forty days.  Any food looks great after forty days of deprivation.  How does Jesus know that it is not time to feed himself?  He must have entertained that option.  Was he aware of the passing of days, and was he marking off each day, ////  and when he reached forty, perhaps he had made his goal, and now he must eat or die! There seems to be no sin in this basic act of survival.

In Luke’s Gospel, it is interesting to note that the stone is singular and the bread is singular.  “Command this stone to become bread.”  The temptation in Luke may indicate that he wished only to satisfy his personal hunger than for any other presumed reason, though there are other reasons why transforming stones may be tempting.

  • Tempted to assert his independence from God?

Adam & Eve first fell over the temptations to food, though they did not suffer hunger.  Is Jesus reversing what Adam & Eve failed at, by repudiating this temptation?

The Israelites grumbled in the wilderness, craving food that God had not provided. If it was a test way back then, is it a similar test now?  Listen to Deuteronomy 8:3: “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord…. Know then in your hearts that as a parent disciplines a child, so the Lord disciplines you.”

Is the bread temptation asking Jesus to assert his independence from God, rather than trusting God to supply all his needs in due course?   That of course is the desire of the tempter in suggesting this.

As we will note later, the will of God is for his son to suffer. It would be insubordination towards his Father if he cut short the lesson his Father was teaching him.  If he is to be a true son to his father, then he will trust the Father, who has moved him to fast, and will grant him relief when the Father is good and ready.  Jesus is prepared to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” and all other needful things will be added unto him. “ (Matt 6:33)

Was Satan suggesting, however, in one way or another, that “If you are the Son… then how come God is letting you suffer so?  No earthly father would “instead of bread give him a stone, would he?” (Matt 7:9) “Could it be that God is asking you to handle it yourself.”  The insidious advice might suggest that “God helps those who help themselves!”

Instead Jesus would assert in another time and place, “I have food to eat you know nothing about.” (John 4: 32)  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me….” (John 4:34).

Satan infers that sonship is a privilege to be exploited. Jesus knows that sonship is a responsibility to be accepted.  He will wait for the Father to provide for him.

  • Tempted to prove to himself that he really is the Messiah after all?

If Jesus had wanted food, he would not have had to do a miracle.  It would not have been too far to the nearest village.  He could have left at any time if he wished to feed himself.  He could have ended the fast by leaving the wilderness when he was ready.

But the Messianic Jesus had done no deed of power yet.  Is this the time to test his wings? Should he do a test run, here where he is all alone, with no spectators around?  If it fails, only he knows. Is he suffering from self-doubt? The words of God, “You are my son…” are made into a question by his opponent. To suffer from self doubt may be the natural result of true humility. But self doubt can be crippling and cause a person to fail to fulfill the mission given. But tempted or not, Jesus rejects the suggestion.

  • Tempted to use his power to feed the world the food they craved?

But perhaps the true focus of this temptation is not just to feed himself, but to feed Israel and the world.

Had not God provided manna in the wilderness through Moses? (Exodus 16:13-21) Had not Elisha fed 100 men in the wilderness from a few small loaves? (II Kings 4:42-44)  Why not duplicate the deed and prove yourself greater than Moses or the prophets?  Isaiah 49:8-13 and Isaiah 55:1-2 seems to suggest that feeding the hungry was part of Messianic expectation.  Was this seen as a mandatory sign to prove Messiahship to Israel? (Read John 6:1-40 for the connection of Jesus to bread of all sorts.)

Studderd Kennedy paints a picture of Jesus being surrounded by an innumerable phantom host of hungry people.  He saw them stretching out into the distance like an empty sea; mothers clasping puny children to their dry breasts, fathers holding our bony hands begging for food for their little ones. Children crying hungrily for food, or so listless because they had not eaten for days and weeks.

The compassionate Christ must have been moved, if he had had such visions, to want to turn all stones into bread for the good of the world.  Had not Elisha done something like that for the poverty stricken woman and her son when he caused the flour in the barrel and the oil in the cruise to continue to flow?

A Messianic Banquet was part of the dream of the Messianic Kingdom. Wouldn’t it be great to set up the bread lines and use the moment to win converts?  The way to any man’s heart is through his stomach, right!?  “Bread-line Christians” may be grateful for having been fed, but will they feel that they have been bribed, made to swallow the bait that always carries a hook?  Will they feel themselves treated as charity cases, which will lower their self-esteem? Such an activity might have corrupted both the getter and the giver.

He will feed with bread later, 5,000 on one occasion, and 4,000 on another,  but he will not do it to bribe people to follow him, but out of compassion for them.

God may have had a purpose in Jesus fasting and being tempted to create bread

Jesus is in the school that God has designed.  He needs to become hungry.  Desperately hungry.  So famished he cannot get bread off his brain.  Through this experience God will develop a deep empathy in his Son for the lot of the poor.   Jesus may have lived among the poor in Nazareth, but perhaps never before had he been this hungry, this tempted, to eat at all costs.

He may also need to know that hunger for food can block out other desires so easily.   Hungry people can become materialists quite quickly.   The hunger for finer things can be displaced by the hunger for nourishment.  He will be taught a sympathy for those who sin as a way to fend off this terrible vulnerability.  It may be why he was more understanding of the sins of the flesh, than of the spirit. It may be why he treated thieves and prostitutes better than scribes & Pharisees.

So what answer can Jesus give to such Satanic suggestions?

It Stands Written! “Gegraphtai”

Jesus responds with, “Gegraphtai”, “it stands written”, the phrase used by the Rabbis to point to the scriptural word.  The written word of God is his guide.  Jesus puts himself under the authority of the scriptures, as a way of putting himself under the authority of his Father.  He is not only the Son of God, he is the Servant of God.

He does not even appeal directly to God as far as we are told. He does not ask for special revelation.  He points to the printed text.  The same book we read, he read.

Man shall not live by bread alone

He directs the tempter’s attention  to the passage in Deuteronomy 8:3, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna … in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord…. Know then in your hearts that as a parent disciplines a child, so the Lord disciplines you.”

He does not say “The Messiah”, the Son of God, shall not live by bread alone,” but “man” shall not live by bread alone…” and here again he identifies himself as one of the human race.   He will submit himself to the human condition, but not as man without god, but as man being taught by God.

And he does not say “not by bread at all”.   Man lives by bread at least.  We must eat to live.   Jesus will teach us to pray for it in the prayer he taught his disciples.  He fed the 5,000 and the 4,000 because we do live by bread at least.  We do live by means of bread.  We are consumers by our very createdness.  We are “carbon based units” who die without food.

But we are not simply consumers.   We are not simply bellies on legs!   We are more than animals scavenging for food.  Some things are more important than food!  And Jesus has food to eat that neither the devil nor disciples can conceive of.

But the Messiah must eat.  He is man.  The Immortal God has become mortal flesh, and if he doesn’t eat he will die prematurely, and that will be the end of the Messiah!

Paul says, “If a man shall not work, he shall not eat.”  The reverse is also true.  “If a man does not eat, he cannot work.”  In recent studies it has been well documented that hungry children cannot learn.  And Jesus has a great work to do.  So he must eat.

But we all need more than food.   We cannot live by bread alone.  We need bread for the belly, but we need God for the nourishment of that deepest hunger in humanity.

There is enough bread in the world for everyone; the problem is one of distribution.   But if the deeper appetites of human hearts could be satisfied, then we would all want to share our bread, and that would be better than a miracle a day.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9.  No I am my brother’s brother, my sister’s sister, and sharing was to be the goal of life, rather than the robbing and defrauding of one another.

The curse passed on to Adam was, “by toil will you earn your bread.”  (Genesis 3:19) C.S. Lewis reminds us that this toil was a result of “The Fall” and a partial cure for it.  We may not be saved by works, but cannot be saved without working!  But here we have a temptation to reverse the curse illegally.  He is being tempted to remit the consequences of the fall rather than cure the disease that causes the consequence.

By every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God

It is Matthew the scribe who quotes the fuller text, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. The word “proceed”,  “ekporeuomeno”, is the word for “pouring out.”  God’s word comes pouring out of his mouth like a cornucopia of abundance. It is as though God’s mouth overflows with good words that nourish the soul.

Jesus spent significant time in the synagogue for 30 years.  Every Sabbath day, in a three year cycle, he heard the word of God.  Like a hungry bird he devoured it.  He did not have a written text for private use. Such a hand-copied set of scrolls was absolutely unaffordable.   The words of scripture always came from the lector’s mouth.  But Jesus knew that they came from God’s mouth first.  He must have listened to the Law and the Prophets and the Writings week after week.  At his Bar Mitzvah he would have read the Scriptures at his entrance into manhood.  When he was 12, he discussed what he had been hearing with the Rabbis.  He is now come of age.  He can read in public and ask questions, and give his own understanding to the texts.  When Luke continues the story after the temptation is ended, he immediately takes him to Nazareth where Jesus was asked to read from the Isaiah scroll.  This word for him was food and drink and nourished the man who continued to grow “in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.”

Conclusion

It is of interest to note that in the sacrament of Holy Communion we take bread and wine. Not enough bread to satisfy our gargantuan appetite for food and drink, but bread and wine sufficient to whet our appetites for something, or someone, more fulfilling that the very best of Sunday dinners. And during the Lenten season we fast to remind ourselves each year that we cannot live on bread alone.

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