“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4, 3).
“If you are the Son of God” we will hear these words again in the mouths of the mocking bystanders at the foot of the Cross – “If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross” (Mt 27, 40). The Book of Wisdom already foresaw this situation: “If the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him” (Wis 2, 18). Mockery and temptation blend into each other here. Christ is being challenged to establish his credibility by offering evidence for his claims. This demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the story of Jesus’ life.
The proof of divinity that the tempter proposes at the first temptation consists in changing the stones of the desert into bread. At first it is a question of Jesus’ own hunger, which is how Luke sees it (Lk 4, 3). Matthew, however, understands the temptation in broader terms, as it would later confront Jesus even during his earthly life and then throughout all of history.
Here the tempter brings into opposition belief in the existence of a good God and a Redeemer of humankind and a world in constant hunger. Shouldn’t it be the first test of the Redeemer, before the world’s gaze and on the world’s behalf, to give it bread and to end all hunger?
During their wandering through the desert, God fed the people of Israel with bread from heaven, with manna. This seemed to offer a privileged glimpse into how things would look when the Messiah came. Did not, and does not, the Redeemer of the world have to prove his credentials by feeding everyone? Is not the problem of feeding the world – and more generally, are not social problems – the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured? Does someone who fails to measure up to this standard have any right to be called a Redeemer?
It is hard to answer this challenge, precisely because the cry of the hungry penetrates so deeply into the ears and into the soul. Jesus’ answer cannot be understood in the light of the temptation story alone. The bread motif pervades the entire Gospel and has to be looked at in its full breath. There are two other great narratives concerning bread in Jesus’ life.
The first is the multiplication of loaves for the thousands who followed the Lord when he withdrew to a lonely place. Why does Christ now do the very thing he had rejected as a temptation before? The crowds had left everything in order to come and hear God’s Word. They are people who have opened their hearts to receive the bread with the proper disposition. This miracle of the loaves had three aspects. It is preceded by the search for God, for his word, for the teaching that sets the whole of life on the right path. Furthermore, God is asked to supply the bread. Finally, readiness to share with one another is an essential element of the miracle. Listening to God becomes living with God, and leads from faith to love, to the discovery of the other. Jesus is not indifferent toward people’s hunger, their bodily needs, but he places these things in the proper context and in the proper order.
This second narrative concerning bread thus points ahead to and prepares for, the third: the Last Supper, which becomes the Eucharist of the Church and Jesus’ perpetual miracle of bread. Jesus himself has become the grain of wheat that died and brought forth much fruit (cf Jn 12, 24). He himself has become bread for us, and this multiplication of the loaves endures to the end of time, without ever being depleted. This gives us the background we need if we are to understand what Jesus means when he cites the Old Testament in order to repel the tempter: “Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8, 3). Here bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.
When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing.
The issue is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is a reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good. History cannot be detached from God and then run smoothly on purely material lines. If human’s heart is not good, then nothing else can turn out good, either. And the goodness of the human heart can ultimately come only from the One who is goodness, who is the Good itself.