Historical Cultural Context

Spirits

The Mediterranean world lives by a deeply rooted belief in spirits who exist in numbers too huge to count and whose major pastime is interfering capriciously in daily human life. Contemporary Mediterranean cultures, like the Italian or Spanish, rely upon a broad range of amulets, formulas, or other symbols to ward off attacks from spirits.

Blue is a favorite color believed to be an especially powerful protection against spirits. People paint their window frames and door jambs blue or wear blue ribbons or clothes precisely for this reason. Others prefer red or scarlet, or wear specific medals, charms, or amulets that are guaranteed to impede attacks.

When the voice from heaven identified Jesus at his baptism as “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17), all the spirits heard this compliment. Every Mediterranean native knows what must and will happen next. Spirits will test Jesus to determine whether the compliment is indeed true, and just in case it might be true they will try to make him do something displeasing to God.

It is no surprise, then, that the very next scene Matthew presents is “the temptation” Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. He was led by a good spirit into the wilderness, the normal habitat of spirits, where he did battle with an evil spirit, the devil.

What is surprising in Matthew’s narrative is that Jesus is not reported to be wearing blue garments or using an amulet or even special formulas for protection. Rather, he engages in direct one-on-one dialogue with this evil spirit in a Scripture-quoting contest.

Matthew’s purpose in this story is to present Jesus as the faithful and obedient Son of God, just as he was presented in the baptism story (Mt 3:13-17). The implied contrast of the obedient son, Jesus, with the disobedient son, Israel in the Exodus story, is deliberate.

Those among Matthew’s first readers who asked: “Why should I believe in Jesus?” are given culturally appropriate answers. Jesus is a model of obedience to God. He emerges victorious from his combat with the devil. He can safeguard and maintain his honor and avoid shame. Until his arrest, trial, and death, no one—human or spirit—succeeds in shaming him, tripping him up, or causing him to fall from his stated position and goals. This is the consequence of unflinching obedience to God.

Americans in general do not believe that spirits cause them any problems. This cultural conviction is what made the comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, so amusing every time she resorted to her favorite excuse: “The devil made me do it!”

But Americans do understand power. They especially understand and resent abuse of power by those who should wield it for the benefit of others. Scholars point out that in the Gospels Jesus wields no power at all except in regard to spirits and demons. The story of Jesus’ refusal to abuse the power he possessed offers Americans something very relevant to ponder.

John J. Pilch

John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.

 

**From St. Louis University

Kristin Clauson