Blasphemy (An Ash Wednesday meditation)

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  (Matt 4:1-3, NIV)

Today begins the season of Lent, marking forty days (plus six Sabbath days) of preparation for Easter, mirroring our Lord’s forty-day fast in the wilderness.  It’s a season to meditate more fully on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, to rejoice and to repent.

For more than two years now, on Sunday mornings, I’ve been teaching through the gospel of Matthew.  Here is part of last Sunday’s text:

Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!  Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matt 27:39-40, NIV)

Matthew tells us that Jesus was not crucified alone.  On either side of him were two other men who were being executed for conspicuous crimes, quite possibly what we would now consider acts of terrorism.  The people passing by would have found nothing to ridicule in these deaths.

But the man in the middle was different.  The sign above his head marked him to be a king, and a less regal spectacle could hardly be imagined.  The people therefore jeered at him, cruelly, taking what they remembered or had heard rumored about his teaching and turning it against him.

The gospel of John records an incident in which Jesus made a whip of cords and forcibly drove out all the people doing commerce in the courts of the Jerusalem temple.  When the people challenged him to provide a sign that would prove he had the authority to do such things, Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19, NIV).  But of course, no one–not even his disciples–understood that he was referring to the resurrection of his own body.  The claim must have sounded like sheer, nonsensical boasting.

The story, apparently, made the rounds.  When Jesus was arrested in the garden and hauled before the Sanhedrin, the only piece of testimony against him that Matthew records is that claim about the temple (Matt 26:61).  And it came back yet again in the words of those who mocked Jesus on the cross.  Hey, Mr. Big Shot–you who claim to be able to raise up a temple that took decades to build!  Surely you can get yourself down from there!  Or is that too much for you?

Then Matthew gives us a detail not found in the other gospels.  The people didn’t just challenge Jesus to come down from the cross because he claimed to be able to raise the temple in three days (cf. Mark 15:29-30): they challenged him to do it in order to prove his identity as the Son of God.

This doesn’t mean they had a theology of the Trinity in mind.  Roman emperors and Jewish kings could use the language of sonship as a way of claiming divine favor.  Rather, the people were probably ridiculing Jesus’ unique way of speaking of God in the most intimate terms as his Father, in statements like, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27, NIV).

That must have sounded pretty uppity to anyone who didn’t believe.

“If you are the Son of God.”  Where have we heard those words before?  Twice, at the end of Jesus’ wilderness fast, Satan used those very words to tempt Jesus to use his power to prove himself.

Perhaps that is why, when choosing a word to describe the verbal abuse hurled at Jesus from the foot of the cross, Matthew uses the verb “blasphemed” (“hurled insults” in the NIV).  Such careless and callous language, mocking the Son of God, was blasphemy.  Ironically, that was the very charge the Sanhedrin had sought against Jesus in the first place, in order to justify engineering his execution.

Do we ever demand in some way that God prove himself to us?

It was just such arrogance that nailed Jesus to the cross, and for which he died.