You might recall that last Sunday’s Gospel reading was about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. After his baptism in the Jordan River, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) He remained in the desert for forty days. (Matthew 4:2)
The term “forty days” was not a detail gleaned from Jesus’ appointment diary. Rather, the number “forty” is a symbolic number in the Scriptures; it signifies “a long time.” The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, by which is meant “a long time.” (Exodus 16:35) This Sunday’s Gospel contains another detail that recurs in the Scriptures, and has symbolic meaning.
Matthew’s Gospel says that “Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” (Matthew 17:1) In the Scriptures, mountains are places where significant revelations of God’s will take place. Abraham made a sacrifice to God on a mountain. (Genesis 22:14) Moses spoke with God on a mountain (Exodus 3:1), and received the Ten Commandments on yet another mountain. (Exodus 19:20)
In Jesus’ culture, mountains were thought to lie on the border between earth and heaven. As such, mountains were locations where one was close to God. On the mountain in this Gospel reading God’s voice revealed Jesus’ identity to the three disciples, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)
This Gospel reading, and last Sunday’s, contain another symbolic element that recurs in the Scriptures. At Jesus’ baptism “a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Matthew 3:17) It was this divine revelation of Jesus’ identity that led to his temptation in the desert.
In Jesus’ culture any claim made publicly was expected to be followed by proof of the veracity of the claim. Unlike our culture, in which anyone with a website or blog can make any claim that enters their imagination, Jesus’ culture actually expected to see proof for claims made. Can you imagine how different our world would be if the Albanian teenagers who send phishing emails in order to steal your identity were required to prove their claims that “Natasha has placed $3,428 in your Paypal account”?
The temptation in the desert was the proof that was demanded of Jesus regarding the claim that God was “well pleased” with him; he was expected to act in ways that were pleasing to God, and he did so by avoiding temptation. We might expect, then, that the claim in today’s Gospel reading would also require validating proof.
Although it is not included in today’s reading, the necessary proof follows immediately after the event of the Transfiguration. On the mountain, the divine voice had said, “listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5) When Jesus descended the mountain he was faced with a child afflicted with a severe malady. “Jesus rebuked” the malady, and the boy was cured. (Matthew 17:18)
In this case, the proof took the same form as the claim. A voice had commanded those present to listen to Jesus; Jesus then commanded an unclean spirit, and it obeyed. Jesus demonstrated that his words carried divine power. This dynamic of a claim followed by a proof of its veracity is common in the Scriptures because, among other reasons, believers need to have proof of the validity of their belief. We should expect to be able to find proof of the veracity of the claims made in the Scriptures. We should also expect to be tested in order to supply proof of the authenticity of our personal faith. Fortunately for us, both the test of the truth of the Scriptures and the test that we face in our personal faith lives use the same criteria.
The kinds of things that are accurate tests of the truthfulness of the claims God makes in the Scriptures and of the authenticity of our personal faith are the things mentioned repeatedly in the Scriptures. If we can answer an unequivocal “yes” to the question of whether our world is a better place because of our faithful and charitable actions, then we have measurable proof of the claims made by God, the Church and ourselves. If we can see growth in forgiveness in our lives, namely, that we have experienced forgiveness and are more forgiving of others, then we have proof that God is real and our faith is real. If our individual lives as believers and our communal life as a Church provide credible witness to the presence of God in the world, then we have assurance that our beliefs are true.
It should be pointed out that these criteria above must be observable, and not only to ourselves. It is too easy to substitute a conviction about our own righteousness in the place that should be reserved for God’s power; the criterion of a real benefit to the world is not permission to think of ourselves as God’s gift to creation. Our culture tells us that forgiveness is equivalent to permission for antisocial behavior; the Gospel’s command to forgive those who offend us is not permission to play the role of a victim. Our witness to God’s presence and action in the world is credible only when we focus on God’s power and not on our own accomplishments.
It’s probably a wise choice to test the various claims that vie for our trust. A demand for proof might prevent a lot of the fraud and destruction that occurs with regularity in the world. It is an absolute necessity for us to test the claims made by the Catholic Faith because in testing those claims we find the criteria by which our lives are judged. The truth of the Faith and the reality of trust are clearly demonstrated by the lives of those who accomplish God’s will for the world. Those who follow God’s command to listen to Jesus (Matthew 17:5), and who put Jesus’ words into practice, are living proof of the real possibility of reconciliation, wholeness and trustworthiness. In listening to Jesus, we hear the truth that our hearts desire.