For there to be tension in a story there has to be something at stake. So far Matthew has squandered any tension with the deus ex machina of angels prodding Mary and Joseph to do the right thing or steering them away from enemies that would do them harm. Matthew 4 continues this tradition of screwing the pooch of reader engagement by pitting Jesus against Satan in a battle for… what?
As you’ll remember fight fans, one page ago Jesus was being baptized by John the Baptist and having the light of heaven descend upon him for reasons unknown. Presumably there were others watching the baptism at the end of Matthew 3, otherwise you’ve got to wonder why God would bother with the sky show when Jesus obviously knows he’s the Messiah and John is already convinced of it. But in its typical way of using 100 words when 1000 would suffice, Matthew omits telling us about an audience. It’s better if we imagine there is one otherwise God is showing off for the purpose of the Gospel yet to be written. Sorry, I was supposed to be writing about Matthew 4.
So now, with absolutely no setup, Jesus is mano a mano with Satan. These first eleven verses of Matthew 4 are prosaically titled ‘Jesus is Tested in the Wilderness’, but Matthew doesn’t bother to inform us what the test is about, or what happens if Jesus fails. Satan a.k.a the tempter, challenges Jesus to perform two miracles, and when that fails he makes Jesus an offer he can refuse. The tempter has put as much thought into this plan as you’d expect for a Spider-Man villain-of-the-week. Tempter, why are you robbing a bank in New York when you know that’s the web-slinger’s city? Tempter, why are you offering one-third of the Holy Triumvirate dominion over all the lands, when you know his dad could create another universe for him? Tempter, when you stop and think about it, it just doesn’t make any sense.
And we the reader are in the same position; this makes no sense because we’re given no explanation of what will happen to Jesus if he should do what Satan requests. There doesn’t seem to be a downside no matter whether Jesus chooses to do them or not. For us to be invested in the tension we have to know what the stakes are, and we don’t.
Satan obviously knows Jesus is the Messiah, so he’s not finding out anything he didn’t already know. And Jesus could just as easily do those things not because he was told to do them but because he wants to do them. And even if he does fall into Satan’s cunning trap, whatever it may be, and makes bread from stones and/or jumps off the temple to no injuries, we’ve got no clue what the consequences are for him. Really, what can Satan do to the the Son of God? Matthew doesn’t bother to tell us, and I can’t imagine anything that Satan could do that wouldn’t make a mockery of the God-given prophecies that have been fulfilled and are yet to be fulfilled, or the power of God Himself. To mutilate a little Shakespeare, Jesus is in a battle of wits with an unarmed man, but we the reader are the loser.