Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.” Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”
— Matt 4:1-4, CEB
As mentioned in a previous post, the tradition of a forty day Lenten fast looks back to this story in the gospel of Matthew. Satan tempts Jesus to prove his power by turning stones into scones. There’s no question that Jesus can do it: this is the one who would later turn water into wine and miraculously feed an enormous crowd with nothing more than a sack lunch.
But he refuses. One might speculate that during his fast, Jesus meditated long and hard on his mission, and the other-directed sacrifice it would entail. He wasn’t about to launch that messianic mission with a self-directed use of divine power, even if the need was a legitimately human one.
Instead, he declares that humankind — God’s people in particular — must look beyond a life of satisfying one’s bodily needs to a life of obedience to God’s word. As he would say later, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work” (John 4:34, CEB).
And quite appropriately, he declares this by quoting Scripture.
The verse in question is Deuteronomy 8:3: “He humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you the manna that neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced, so he could teach you that people don’t live on bread alone. No, they live based on whatever the Lord says” (CEB).
The Israelites are on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Moses has gathered the people, and is reminding them of all that has happened and God’s longsuffering grace. He warns them: When you enter the land, settle down, and get comfortable, you’re going to forget — forget the story, forget who brought you here. Don’t do it. Remember. Teach the commandments to your children, and tell them about who God is and all he has done (Deut 6:1-12, 20-25).
In particular, they are to remember the story of the manna — and indeed, it is that story whose moral is summed up in Jesus’ response to Satan. Time and time again, the people complained to Moses that they were starving in the wilderness, and time and time again God provided. But still their desire was more for the bread than the God who gave it (cf. John 6:25-59).
Thus, in his response to the wiles of Satan, Jesus echoes the ancient story of God’s provision. We are probably meant to understand that where God’s people failed in their grumbling, God’s Son would succeed.
As a religious observance, fasting is of little value if it doesn’t break our dependence on the daily satisfactions that we take for granted. That’s no small feat in this consumerist culture of ours. But letting go of that dependence isn’t an end in itself. We are to live and breathe, not only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.