The First Temptation: Turning Stones into Bread

September 28, 2018

Glimpses of God

By Christopher Menzhuber

Most people imagine that Jesus’ first temptation in the desert was to turn stones into bread. This makes perfect sense because the text literally states the Tempter told him “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Mt 4:3. But without undermining this traditional interpretation or minimizing the importance of fasting, what if for a moment we considered that scene may not have played out exactly as many have imagined? What if, instead of loaves, the devil was really tempting Jesus with human hearts?

Human hearts? What could possibly suggest Jesus was being tempted with anything other than bread, much less hearts of all things? To begin answering this question, listen closely to what just happened in the same Gospel a few verses earlier. When the presumptuous Pharisees and Sadducees came to John in the wilderness he warned them “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Mt 3:9.

Were these stones John was referring to similar or perhaps even the very same stones scattered around the scene of the temptation? Was the devil’s temptation influenced by listening to John the Baptist’s reproach of the power brokers of that time? Who knows? But what is significant about John’s statement is that God –who made the whole universe out of nothing – can surely raise up faithful people from stones.

Next, recall how the prophet Ezekiel described the new covenant that God would forge with his people. “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26. Of course this was not meant to signify a literal organ transplant. Rather, it describes in symbolic language what God was promising to accomplish through his Messiah, a promise which Jesus would of course have been aware of and very much desired.

And so if we allow these Biblical texts to provide a background for this temptation, then it is not really a contortion to imagine that during the deadly mystical showdown between the savior and the father of lies, while they were indicating the physical stones in front of them, there was an awareness these stones signified something far greater: They represented the hearts of men.

But how would Jesus be tempted to turn hearts of stone into faithful ones? The text states that Jesus was hungry. Of course, there is no need to downplay the significance of real physical hunger after fasting. But we also know from the Gospel of John what Jesus hungers for even more than food. After speaking with the Samaritan woman his Apostles offered him something to eat and he explained, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and accomplish his work.” Jn 4:34. The exchange with the woman at the well fed him. His food –his bread- was the changed heart of the Samaritan woman.

When we put these ideas together and re-read the story, as the devil points to the stones, he is at the same time indicating all those faithless, obstinate, “stone”- hearted people who fall so very short of what really satisfies Jesus. The temptation to “make stones into bread,” takes on a new level of meaning: “Since you have the power of God, why don’t you just snap your fingers and change those hard-hearted people into good people? It’s what you’re most hungry for, after all.”

Considering the temptation in this way contrasts two very different ways of using power. To someone who is concerned exclusively with themselves, it is incomprehensible that you wouldn’t use power to satisfy yourself, commanding, intimidating, and coercing others to get your way, especially if what you want is something good. Those who mocked Jesus on the cross revealed their misunderstanding of divine wisdom when they taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” Mt 27:40.

This temptation to use power to change others into something for my own consumption has reiterated down the centuries to our present day. In politics, entertainment, industry, media, education, and even tragically within the Church itself –we can observe instances of capitulation to this diabolic temptation: I command you to be my bread; I’m going to use my power to turn you into what I desire.

But what was Jesus’ way? How did Jesus -the great I AM- wield his omnipotence? What did Jesus ultimately do that not only repelled the temptation, but completely subverted the devil’s notion of how to use power?

Jesus did not turn us stone-hearted people into his bread. Jesus turned himself into bread for us.