I was a chaplain in an Anglican school for some years. Each year I would ask the Year 7s what they thought was the human failing that lay behind each of Jesus’ three temptations. What sin would Jesus be committing if he fell into these particular temptations? (See Matt 4:1-11.) The second and third temptations were the easiest to understand. Flinging oneself off a high building to test God and make God serve you appears to be
something to resist. And taking control of the nations of the world, well, that’s just asking for trouble. But what about turning rocks into bread? Yes, as the commentators make us aware, in the narrative Jesus waits for God to provide. (See 6:11; 7:9) And, yes, the hunger and fasting remind us of Israel’s testing in the desert and Moses’ fasting before receiving the stone tablets of the covenant. (See Deut 8:2-3; 9:9) But even so, the students couldn’t see the fault in turning rocks into bread. There was no crowd around, just rocks. And Jesus was hungry; it seemed practical and reasonable. (Matt 12:3; 21:18) I suggested to the students that if Jesus were to succumb to this temptation here, he would not be able to deny the same miracle to the hungry masses he would meet in his ministry. “Well, what would be wrong with that?”, they said.
Well, what would be wrong with it? A struggling rabbi wanted to make an impact in the world. Why not feed the hungry? He multiplied loaves, why not stones into bread? And besides, scripture is replete with admonition after admonition to feed the hungry. (See also Matt 25:31-46.) People have a right to be fed … the world is unjust … the system is wrong if people starve … don’t worry I won’t let the ministry become a cypher for justice and feeding the poor … I won’t ask my Father to send twelve legions of angels to get me off the cross (Matt 26:53 cf. Matt 4:5-7) … although it does seem practical and reasonable, and if I did I could then help more people…
The above is one way of saying that in the temptations Jesus chooses the way of the cross, and not some other path more amenable to worldly recognition, practicality and “success”. The temptations are a salutary reminder to a church that finds itself in a difficult situation in Australia, yet a church that finds itself closely identified with justice and social change (and successfully so). The temptations remind us that making bread is no substitute for the vulnerability of a cross. Discipleship of the Crucified-Risen One is inconceivable without feeding the hungry (Matt 25:31-46), but we are asked to offer people the bread of life, Jesus, not a substitute.
- See Craig S Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 136-144; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 158-169 on these possible interpretations and biblical references.