Matthew 4:1-4 Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 Jesus did not eat anything for 40 days and 40 nights. At the end of that time, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “Scripture says, ‘A person cannot live on bread alone but on every word that God speaks.'”
Jesus’ first temptation focuses specifically on the provision of food. Notice that the temptation begins with fasting for forty days and nights. Fasting has not been a spiritual practice I have done often or feel very competent or confident in. The few times I have fasted for a day my hunger pangs were noticeable and uncomfortable. I can’t imagine the hunger one feels after a lengthy period of days. It may not have literally been forty days, but the number is intended to tell us that it was a ridiculous length of time.
There are lots of ways people think about fasting, what it means and what it’s for. I remember reading John Piper’s book on fasting and understanding for the first time that the intention was not merely ascetic, but to use the time to draw nearer to God. Scot McKnight just released a book on fasting. Some people believe that fasting is a way of accomplishing things that ordinary prayer can’t, citing Jesus’ words, “These can only be cast out through prayer and fasting.” I think this last meaning for fasting is often self-serving. “Fasting will get me what I want.”
Fasting in this passage seems to be about purification and testing. Often fasting is seen dualistically as separating the spiritual from the earthly. We don’t eat or abstain from something in order to somehow escape this world and be more spiritual. On the contrary I think fasting grounds us more by highlighting our absolute connectedness to this earth and body. Fasting from food for a period only serves to point out the necessity of eating for our continued survival.
Jesus’ identity is being questioned by the tempter and each temptation asks him to take a shortcut to the goal of his life. The tempter’s only real temptation is “The end justifies the means.” In some ways fasting also is a reminder that there are no shortcuts. Food is a necessity.
How does this jive with Jesus’ quotation from Deuteronomy? The context of the whole verse is telling, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of YHWH.” I’ll save a more detailed post of this text for the Old Testament series. Suffice it to say that the point is not that food is not necessary, but that we recognize the source of our food, God and God’s creation.
To relate this to our modern food system, we have bought the lie that the end justifies the means as far as food production goes. GMO seeds are supposed to increase yields and reduce hunger (studies cast considerable doubt on these claims). The food industry has tried to take shortcuts in food production, turning corn into a commodity rather than a crop. The result is an obesity epidemic, rising diabetes and other consequences we have yet to uncover or understand.
The recent studies showing HFCS to contain amounts of mercury is telling. Companies used a particular process to create caustic soda, one element needed to make HFCS. There are ways to make caustic soda that do not produce or use mercury, but they took a shortcut, probably assuming the amounts of mercury were too small to matter. Shortcuts can have disastrous consequences and some suggest this one may have contributed to the rise in cases of autism.
This passage reminds us that we must remember the source of our sustenance, both our Creator and the creation that sustains us. We must also recognize the lie that shortcuts can achieve our desired results, that the end justifies any means.