Last Sunday’s Gospel [March 26-27] of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15 is the third parable in Chapter 15, a series of scenarios involving the dynamic of losing and finding. The famous Prodigal Son forgiveness narrative we heard proclaimed at Mass last weekend follows the parable of the man losing a sheep and leaving his herd to find the lost one; and then the woman who lost one of her ten coins and who “lights a lamp and sweeps the house, searching carefully until she finds it.” Barbara Reid and Shelly Matthews in Luke 10-24 clustered these three Lukan parables under a chapter heading, “Losing, Finding, Rejoicing.” These two scholars use another set of pithy chapter headings for the parables in Luke 14, “Who is Coming to Dinner?” and in Luke 16, “Rich Men and Their Money.”
For readers who are interested in the nature and purpose of parables, I am pleased to see that the venerable scholar Gerhard Lofink has written The Forty Parables of Jesus, released in July 2021. Luke is the king of the parable genre, though he did not invent it. The parables are believed to be an independent source—written and/or oral—that was accessible to Luke and Matthew but not to Mark, the first author. John, author of the last Gospel, does not employ the form. Luke records more parables than Matthew, including eighteen unique parables that include the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and this week’s Prodigal Son.
Parables are one of the most intriguing literary forms in the Gospels. It is important that we do not reflect upon them simply for moral nuggets, though there are certainly moral overtones in many of them. But the common denominator of all parables is mystery; we fool ourselves if we believe we have exhausted “the meaning” of any parable—whether they are the short ones or the long ones. One analogy for a parable is a magnificent work of art which take us to new planes of logic and existence. In a few weeks I hope to visit the Basilica of The Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain, as well as St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice [on a May European study sabbatical through the auspices of the “University of Royal Caribbean.”] Can words alone express the visceral and spiritual experience of being, let alone worshipping, in these aesthetic environs? Or the writings of Homer and Shakespeare?
So it is with parables. It is important to quickly dispose of the minimalist definition of a parable, i.e., that it is a moral maxim on a par with Aesop’s Fables or Poor Richard’s Almanac. It is true that there are moral impulses to be cherished, but as often happens, we are in such a rush to extract the ethical point that we overlook the full mystery of the piece. One of my favorite parables—it never fails to spark a decent meditation—is this one: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air can come and shelter in its branches.” [Matthew 13: 31-32] One can address this tiny parable in its parts—the kingdom of heaven, a mustard seed, an unknown planter, a remarkable growth spurt from seed to shrub to tree, the birds taking shelter in its branches. How—and when—is the kingdom of God like this? To what level of spiritual consciousness is Jesus taking us? In what way does this little vignette foretell the final glory of the Kingdom at the end of time?
In the case of parables, the mystery of the telling takes us to the heart of the Kingdom of God and points to the end of time. There is a particular kind of openness necessary to enter a parable beyond its face value. Luke 15, and specifically the parable of the Prodigal Son, is delivered after Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem” for one last prophetic encounter with the enemies of God’s kingdom on earth. As he progresses toward his death, he puts forward the mysterious nature of the Kingdom for which he is about to die in a string of captivating stories. Given the placement of parables in Luke’s timetable, Jesus is attempting to explain the Kingdom of God for which he will soon die. If his listeners cannot at least open themselves to a logic or imagination beyond the strictly rational, they will be utterly scandalized and demoralized by the rapidly approaching terror of Calvary.
Which brings us to the dynamics of last Sunday’s Gospel. The “default sermon” of most churches and preachers is the forgiveness line. The young son seeks it, the father more than generously bestows it, and the other son is angry and alienated. And we in the pews are exhorted to be merciful like the father, who in this analysis is a surrogate for God the Father.
But does this exalt the mystery of the parable? Is it even a correct rendering of the parable? Luke states that the younger son asks for his share of the property, that in the law and custom of the time would have amounted to one-third of the full value of the estate, in land and livestock, allowing the father and other son to retain their two-thirds holdings. The Paulist Biblical Commentary faults the son for “tackiness” as much as anything, asking for his inheritance before the old man is cold. But the father divides the land between them without comment.
Next, the younger son left—having converted his share into liquid holdings—and goes to a distant country where “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” I checked a sizable number of commentaries on-line and at my bookcase, and none elaborates on the word “dissolute;” The assumption seems to be that he spent his money on sin, but the Scripture does not specify that. There are many ways to spend money that one might call dissolute—ill-advised stock investing, flying first class from Orlando to Tampa, Trump University—that do not attain the level of moral turpitude, just bad judgment. Today fathers give sons a financial boost early in life—as the father in the story does--to attend Harvard or Notre Dame. If the son fritters away his educational opportunity, that is a grave mistake, but again, not outright evil.
We do not know how the youth got into a financial fix, and he had nothing to do with causing the regional famine. As a foreigner he took the initiative to hire himself out to a citizen to feed himself by feeding pigs. He made a cool, rational determination that he would not starve if he worked for his father’s estate in the same capacity, and the Gospel quotes him as satisfied to return as a farmhand with no sonship claim on the healthy operation of his father’s estate. A kid grows up. Nothing to see here.
It came as a bit of a shock to me to discover that on occasion I do interpret life through the eyes of a feminist theologian, for in reflection on this parable I came to see the younger son as a “throwaway person.” In the story’s narrative, the younger son serves a purpose and then virtually disappears to the wings so that the listener can shift attention to the main protagonists who possess both the power and the major moral dilemmas in the piece. Even as an imaginary figure, it is sad to think of this youth’s miscalculation proclaimed from thousands of pulpits as a sin against heaven requiring an extraordinary outpouring of mercy from a father who, for centuries, has taken on the role of the God the Father figure in the parable’s retelling. But, as my friend Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friend.”
The younger son disappears in 15:22 and the story turns to the two senior members of this family, the father and the older son. This elder offspring is a psychological enigma. There is nothing that would have stopped this older son from cashing in his inheritance and striking out on his own except, perhaps, his insecurity. Clearly, he is not happy in his father’s house. “All these years I have been working like a slave for you…” is how the elder son describes his “cheerful” home life. Luke is not careless about his words. “Slave” is an extraordinarily strong adjective in the context of father and son. It is also intriguing to hear the older son’s imaginings about his younger brother’s life off the farm. It is the older son who introduces the term “prostitutes” late in the narrative; one wonders if we are seeing a “cold celibate” for whom love of any sort is a distant hope at best. [For best supporting actor, my vote goes to the slave who briefs the laboring older son: “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has him back safe and sound.” Turn the knife.]
Then there is the father, and the pastoral “default” in sermons and religious education classes is to identify him as a divine template. I must agree, though, with theologian Ann-Jill Levine who “sees the owner, the woman, and the father [in the three sequential “lost and found” parables] as having been responsible for losing their sheep, coin, and son, thus compromising the reading of the protagonists in the parables as metaphors for God.” [Luke 10-24, p. 446]
There is no indication in Luke’s text that the father attempted to dissuade his young son from the latter’s course of action. Jewish custom would have supported the father if he demurred such a request. Was he an overly indulgent father? And if he was, did his indulgence go out only to a younger, favored son? The older son noted that “you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” The literary contrast between the fatted calf and a young goat is striking.
The language of the parable strongly suggests that the father was always hoping and watching for the return of the young son. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….” For all of that, he seemed indifferent or unaware of his older son’s anger and pain. And despite his valiant eleventh-hour effort to unite his family, there is the nagging sense that something has not been right in this family’s dynamic. Luke does not tell us if this “intervention” has legs—will the younger son continue to be the celebrated one, will he again discover his taste for wanderlust? Will the elder son discover his own capacity to forgive, not just his brother, but more importantly his father, who seems to have taken the faithful son for granted? Will the father grow in wisdom in his vocation of fatherhood?
As in all parables, there is a future oriented sense of mystery. Given Luke’s placement of the story of the Prodigal Son, during Jesus’ final journey to die for the Kingdom of God, it may be that this parable gives us a glimpse of what the Kingdom will deliver us from—the chronic alienation of humanity, even in blood families. It is an interesting point that when Luke records Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3: 13-28, he carries his lineage back to Adam, the father of Cain and Abel. [Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham.] Jesus, in Lukan theology, is a universal savior sent to save us from universal sin. As if to reinforce this point, Luke describes the post-Pentecost Church in Jerusalem in Acts 4 in this fashion: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.”
Back in the Advent Season I read the Wisdom Commentary treatment of “The Infancy Narrative” of the birth of Jesus. Wisdom’s Luke 1-9, like all the biblical commentaries in the Wisdom series, is the product of a team of women professional Biblical scholars, in this case Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., whose doctoral degree was awarded by my alma mater, The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and Dr. Shelly Matthews, who holds a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School. Both are actively teaching and researching as of this writing. They represent the growing number of professional women theological scholars in today’s Church; there are over 300 alone cited in the commentary Luke 1-9.
Scripture study, with a few exceptions, has been a man’s field in Western Christianity since its modern revival in the late 1700’s. In the United States, as a rule, no woman was even accepted for graduate studies in Catholic theology until after World War II. See two fine essays from a 2012 series from US Catholic, “How the Door Was Opened for Catholic Women Theologians” and “What Women Theologians Have Done for the Church.” In the introduction to Luke 1-9, the authors write that “in bringing feminist lenses to this approach [to modern Biblical study], the aim is not to impose modern expectations on ancient cultures but to unmask the ways that ideologically problematic mind-sets that produced the ancient texts are still promulgated through the text.” [p. xxxi] Put another way, Scripture study must include analysis and critique of male dominance at the time of composition and reassess male supremacy’s distortions of Revelation in the Scripture, Old and New Testaments.
It is hardly a secret that women did not fare well in many Hebrew texts: Deuteronomy 22: 23-24; Deuteronomy 22:13-21: Judges 11: 34-40; and the infamous story of Lot’s poor daughters in Genesis 19: 7ff. “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Irony of ironies, Lot was attempting to forestall homosexual rape of his two male houseguests by offering up his daughters, who presumably had no say in the decision.
Twentieth century feminine scholarship on sexism in the Bible follows upon the heels of the Vatican’s teaching regarding antisemitic overtones of several New Testament texts which have been employed—and sadly still employed by some religious/political extremists—to justify hatred of the Jews on the grounds that they are “Christ-killers.” Most infamous is the trial scene from Matthew 27:25, “And all the people answering said, "His blood be on us, and on our children." For a full explanation of the Church’s corrective of New Testament texts, see this essay from America Magazine, “The Bible, the Passion, and the Jews,” February 16, 2004. God’s revelation is pure; its accurate deciphering is a sacred duty of the Church.
In this spirit present day biblical scholarship examines the treatment of women in the Bible, and in our post here, the role of Mary on this observance of the Feast of the Annunciation. Luke’s Gospel is the only New Testament text to describe Mary’s interaction with the Angel Gabriel. In Matthew 1: 18-25 we get a masculinized Annunciation, as the angel appears to Joseph and delivers a full explanation only to him. Mark and John have no accounts of Christ’s birth, beginning their Gospels in Jesus’ adulthood.
In Luke’s account, the Angel’s first revelation comes to Zechariah, married to Elizabeth, and then to Mary, the future mother of Jesus. [Luke 1: 5-38]. Despite their righteousness and blameless living, Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless. Luke states that Elizabeth was barren; in biblical times the inability to conceive fell to the woman’s provenance, though modern science has discredited this one-sided medical analysis. Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary follow the same formula: a greeting, an announcement of how God’s will be fulfilled in each, a question from the recipient of the message, and an answer and closing summary by the Angel.
In the first instance, the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah as he offers sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah seems to overlook the immensity of the honor and the importance of what he is hearing, for after this momentous proclamation from Gabriel, the senior priest points out the biological impossibility of conceiving a son due to the couple’s advanced age and previous childlessness. Gabriel is not pleased with Zechariah’s skepticism. “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke notes that Elizabeth, upon hearing of Gabriel’s message second hand [a miracle in itself considering her husband’s speechlessness] is overjoyed and expresses no reservations. Quite the contrary. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Even serious scholarship has its humorous moments, and I note here the observation of biblical scholar Brittany E. Wilson, who comments: “Zechariah’s silence opens up space for both Elizabeth and Mary to speak” in Luke’s narrative. [p. 11] Whether Wilson intended to be funny or not, it is true that after Zechariah’s speech is restored at the circumcision and naming of his son, the future John the Baptist, we hear next to nothing from Elizabeth or Mary hereafter in this Gospel.
As the narrative progresses, Gabriel next appears to “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” The authors of Luke 1-9 make a critical point here: “Many Christians see in this scene a Mary who is a docile, sweet, compliant servant, totally submissive to God’s will, and therefore a model for women to emulate. [Dr. Reid] stands among many feminist scholars who have argued, instead, that Mary is a strong woman who has a direct encounter with God, who does not hesitate to question, and who does not need the mediation to accomplish God’s purposes.” [p. 15] The authors go on to contend that Luke has depicted Mary as a prophet in the Biblical sense of the term.
Luke’s Annunciation narrative is as theologically complex as any text in the Bible. He is providing the Church—already half a century old when he wrote in around 80 A.D.—with its first systematic way of thinking about the Incarnation, God become man. It was important for him to describe Mary as a virgin, to eliminate any possible doubt that her child was fathered by anyone else besides God. Any doubt on this point effectively negates the basic Christian tenet that “God became man.” At the same time, Luke must respect the autonomy and free will of Mary, given that God has granted free will to all humans. To suggest that Mary was “programmed” diminishes the dignity of human free will in the critical moment when a human freely accepts the intervention of God into her life. It is the undoing of the first misuse of free will, Adam in the garden.
We have heard the Annunciation narrative countless times in our churches over the years, Gabriel’s joyful address to Mary. What is curious is why Gabriel took no umbrage when Mary replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ Zechariah had asked Gabriel in effect, “How can this be? We are old and my wife is barren.” For his hesitation, he was struck dumb. In Mary’s case, however, the stakes are incredibly higher. Her question allows Luke to assure the reader that her child is truly God’s son. But it also gives Luke/Gabriel an entrée to deliver another eternal truth: Mary’s child would be conceived of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who overshadowed Jesus at his baptism and which overshadowed the infant church on Pentecost. Luke’s Gospel and its continuation, The Acts of the Apostles, explains the nature of the Church and from whence it draws its saving power, i.e., through the living Holy Spirit.
Reid/Matthews, in their commentary, point out that most English translation bibles have softened, so to speak, Luke’s terminology for Mary’s obeisance. Many major translations render Mary’s response to Gabriel as “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Others use the phrase “servant of the Lord” or “maidservant.” None of these correctly renders the Greek doulos as “slave,” in the hard sense of that term. The authors correctly point to a Lucan textual inconsistency: did Mary have to become a literal slave to accept a prophetic mission in which she proclaims liberation from powers that dominate, as she does so eloquently in the Magnificat [Luke 1: 46-55] [p. 33] What I sense in their commentary is a concern to preach and teach the life of Mary in a fashion that does not in any way imply unhealthy subservience to male domination or unjust societal structure which oppress women.
If anything, Luke’s depiction of Mary in what we call “the Infancy Narrative” is that of a very strong woman, and it is a misuse of this Gospel to interpret it as a catechism on “the proper place of a woman” in a pejorative and demeaning fashion. Although I am getting ahead of things, I need to quickly address Luke’s description of Mary after the visit of the shepherds [many of whom were women] in Bethlehem. Luke writes that Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” The Greek word suneterei, usually translated in English bibles as ponder, has multiple meanings, including these: “to preserve against harm or ruin, to protect, defend” and “to keep in mind, to be concerned about.” Reid/Matthews write: “Mary’s action is not the least passive. Like the shepherds who keep watch, Mary guards all that has occurred, putting things together, connecting, and interpreting. Like a feminist theologian, she continually interprets what God is doing in her life and that of her family and her people.” [p.82]
I have barely scratched the surface of Luke 1-9’s remarkable commentary on Mary. What is clear is that the new generations of women theologians are opening or rediscovering rich avenues of appreciation in every branch of Catholic theology, including Mariology
I am embarrassed to be late with today’s post, as I wanted to talk about the event described in last Sunday’s Gospel [Second Sunday of Lent, March 12-13], the “Transfiguration of Jesus” on the mountaintop, particularly with an eye toward the interpretations offered by the feminist theologians in Luke 1-9. However, Reid and Matthews are in general agreement with their male counterparts on the richness and interpretations of this text, which is strategically placed in Chapter 9. The Transfiguration or “changing” of Jesus on the mountaintop in the presence of the three disciples is one of the special narratives that appears in some form in the three synoptic Gospels [and possibly in the Epistle 2 Peter 1: 16-18]. When a text or event is mentioned uniformly across the Gospels and the other New Testament writings, it is said to meet a high score of historical probability under the principle of “multiple attestation.”
However, the best we can say with historical certainty is that a mystical event took place. The Gospels describe the Transfiguration in different ways and with different people, in different narrative sequences, and with different impacts. Reid/Matthews categorize how scholars have tried to account for what might have happened, and I will quote them in ascending order of probability.
Third, and least probable, “Some others think it was not a supernatural experience but an experience of a mountaintop sunrise illuminating Jesus or a night storm with lightning and thunder that that the disciples interpret as a divine manifestation.” [p. 287] This is not as offbeat as it seems. Jesus revealed his power over nature when he calmed a storm and saved the fearful disciples. John’s Gospel [John 12: 28-29] has this account in a different setting shortly before the Last Supper: Jesus exclaims before the crowds, “Father, glorify Your name!” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said that an angel had spoken to Him. In response, Jesus said, “This voice was not for My benefit, but yours.…” John may be citing the historical tradition in a different place for somewhat different purposes, but there are significant differences, too, in the Johannine account.
The second possibility—and this was taught to me in the early 1970’s—is that this Gospel text from Luke actually describes an event after the Resurrection, when Jesus had risen from the dead and the disciples were in a considerable state of confusion and even despair. [p. 287] Consider the sad state of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, which only Luke describes, where Jesus is changed and not recognized till the bread is broken at dinner. And then there is this to consider: if the three disciples actually beheld the changing of Jesus, the presence of Moses and Elijah, the enveloping cloud, and the very voice of God affirming his beloved Son, during the active ministry of Jesus, how does this square with the disastrous performance of these three men—notably Peter—at the events following the Last Supper of a few months later, when all the disciples abandoned Jesus? But hold the thought until we have looked at the first one.
The first option is actually the “default sermon” of many preachers, and I heard it many times as a youth. In fact, Luke’s narrative of the Transfiguration was read every Second Sunday of Lent at least as far back as 1570 when Pope Pius V reformed the Roman Missal after the Council of Trent. Pastorally speaking, when the faithful of the Church were encouraged to observe a strict fast and abstinence, this reading from Luke 9 served as something of a morale boost, a taste of the glory that was to come if we remained faithful to carrying our cross. [Alas, in my church this weekend the diocese was observing “safe havens from pornography.” At my Mass, that was filtered down in the sermon to “Nowadays we have the internet. People sin on the internet. If you sin on the internet, you need to go to confession.” I am not lying.]
The traditional Lenten placement of Luke’s Transfiguration narrative is probably not too far from what Luke had in mind. Chapter 9 of his Gospel is very pivotal in his full narrative. Consider everything that transpires in this chapter:
Luke 9: 1-17 The Mission of the Twelve
Luke 9: 7 Herod is “perplexed” about Jesus, recalls fate of John the Baptist
Luke 9:10 “Apostles” return full of joy over their first missionary venture
Luke 9: 12-17 Jesus feeds the five thousand miraculously
Luke 9: 18-27 Peter’s Confession and the Nature of Discipleship
Luke 9: 18-21 Peter confesses “You are the Messiah of God”
Luke 9: 21-22 Jesus predicts his suffering and death in Jerusalem
Luke 9: 23-27 Jesus states that his chosen must take up their cross daily if they are to save their lives as his faithful ones.
Luke 9: 28-36 The Transfiguration of Jesus
Luke 9: 37-50 The Misunderstanding of the Disciples
Disciples fail at exorcism attempt, argue about who is greatest among them.
Luke 9: 51-62 Jesus’ Departure for Jerusalem. He “sets his face” for Jerusalem and final showdown with Jewish authorities.
If you study this outline long enough, you may conclude the event of the Transfiguration could be removed and the narrative of Chapter 9 would still have a logical flow, perhaps even a more coherent one. For Luke has encapsulated the rocky road of Jesus’ mission and the formation of his followers. Having sent his newly named “apostles” [messengers] on their first missionary journey, they return flushed with victory. They have worked signs, but they have not yet asked anyone to take up a cross and die. They do not yet grasp the full cost of discipleship. While they are on the road winning superficial victories, Jesus learns that he is now under Herod’s scrutiny and may face a similar fate to the Baptist’s imprisonment and beheading.
Jesus must now begin the harder work of explaining “the cost of discipleship,” and it will be high. Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah of God,” but without the connection to the Prophet Isaiah and “The Suffering Servant” motif. It is after Peter’s confession that Jesus predicts his own death, as if to explain to Peter that the cross is the destiny of both the Messiah and his followers. Interestingly, Luke is the first evangelist to use the adjective daily in the context of the cross, as in “take up your cross daily” and follow me.” Writing around 80 A.D. when the Church was taking on a universal setting, Luke had to render the call of Jesus as an acute challenge to those who were not undergoing immediate persecution; Mark’s earlier Gospel had simply exhorted disciples to take up the cross, period.
It is in this context that Luke inserts the Transfiguration. I encourage you to reflect upon it again even if you attended Mass this past weekend. Some things to note: Jesus ascends the mountain to pray, not to orchestrate a mystical event. Jesus prays at several major moments of decision in Luke’s Gospel. He is at prayer in the Jordan River when the Holy Spirit descends upon him; he prays deeply in the Garden of Olives before his arrest and crucifixion. The disciples, by contrast, sleep. The word “sleep” in the Scripture sometimes carries the connotation of “asleep at the switch;” this was certainly true of the Apostles on Holy Thursday night, for example.
Luke emphasizes sight: the appearance of Jesus’ face is changed, his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear “in glory” and talk to Jesus “about his departure,” i.e., his plan to leave for Jerusalem and his final confrontation with his enemies in the Temple. Luke makes a point to tell his readers that the three disciples “saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” But seeing is not necessarily understanding. For as Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were discussing the necessity of the final journey to Jerusalem and its urgency, Peter proposes the construction of three “dwellings” presumably to preserve the joyous intensity of the moment. But there is work to be done, a mission to be fulfilled, and the endorsement of the Father to be conferred. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” This is the second time that the Father has embraced his Son so dramatically; the first was Jesus’ Baptism.
It is disconcerting that after such a powerful experience, the disciples and his followers become embroiled in embarrassing missteps. The crowds want more miracles. The disciples are jockeying for position. They jealously call out another man expelling demons in Jesus’ name, perhaps stealing something of their own thunder. They do not hear a second warning from Jesus that he must go up to Jerusalem “and be delivered into human hands.” We are reminded of last weekend’s Gospel where Jesus rebukes the devil three times. Luke’s text adds the ominous indication that after this desert encounter, the devil left him “for a time.” Now the devil—the power of evil—is digging in for a pitched battle. For Jesus, there is no more time for the victorious skirmishes in the countryside. The time has come to carry to battle to Jerusalem, and there to render the one eternal sign for all time, the sacrifice of himself on the cross and his Father’s loving intervention on Easter.
I have been reading the Wisdom Commentary series volume on St. Luke’s Gospel during this Year C of the Liturgical Cycle. The Wisdom Commentary series is the first scholarly collaboration to offer detailed feminist interpretation of every book of the Bible. This is an extraordinary undertaking and financial commitment by a Catholic publisher, and from what I have seen so far, the text I am reading combines a good translation of Luke, a clear commentary/explanation of the text, the meaty kinds of footnotes that tantalize novices and experts alike, and literary inserts from artists, philosophers, saints, ad other sources which enhance the explanation of the text.
By happy fault I have reached the Fourth Chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and specifically the Temptation narrative of Jesus in the desert, which will be proclaimed in our churches this coming Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert or a wilderness place. The term “desert” is rich in Biblical symbolism, and the presence of Jesus in the desert embodies multiple meanings. The most obvious is the forty years of wilderness endured by the Israelites which served to purge them of their past and prepare them for their future. Did Jesus need an exile in the desert to “find himself?”
Recall that the previous Chapter 3 in this Gospel had described Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan where the Holy Spirit “descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” and the Father’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus’ identity to himself, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” [Luke 3: 21-22] Biblical and Christological scholars identify the historical baptismal moment as symbolic of Jesus coming to full awareness of his ministry through this intervention of the Spirit and this “affiliation proclamation” by the Father. It is on the heels of this powerful revelation that the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, that place of hard discernment and awakening, to put forward the full implications of being the Son of God.
The desert is also a symbol of the great cosmic battle of good and evil to be played out at the end of time. Jewish Apocalyptic literature is rich in this metaphor, and it survived into Christian life as the image of the armies of Michael the Archangel and Lucifer fighting for dominance at the end of time. So, it is not surprising that all four Gospel writers depict the meeting of Jesus and the devil in the desert context, given that after his desert sojourn Jesus will expel demons and announce the triumphant coming of the reign of God. But the battle will not be easy, noy in the desert and not in the ministry.
In the waters of the Jordan, the Father had declared that Jesus is his Son. By contrast, the devil’s first volley reads: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” This is the first of three temptations in which the devil challenges Jesus to abandon the integrity of his ministry. The Wisdom Commentary puts them thus:  temptation to self-interest and expedience;  temptation of power and glory gained by false worship;  temptation of invulnerability, self-importance, and entitlement. [pp. 118-119]
I can say from personal experience that the Temptation narrative is a bear for preachers. Over the years most preachers of my experience—and me, on my bad days years ago—resort to the fallback message of “don’t fall for the wiles of the devil.” This approach loses the distinctiveness of each of the Temptations as well as the theological richness of what St. Luke is trying to do with an imagery that is truly startling. I am always surprised that when this Gospel is read at Mass there is never much affect of surprise in the building, either from the celebrant or deacon or from the congregation. But here we have the devil beginning a series of temptations, only one which takes place in the desert. St. Luke’s narrative goes on to tell us that the devil transports Jesus to a point where all the kingdoms of the world are visible! We are now entering Elon Musk territory. And then, the devil brings Jesus to the pinnacle or highest place in the Temple of Jerusalem. Let your imagination take you on this incomprehensible sequence.
Geography is our friend here in getting some insight into each of these temptations. The desert is the land of scorpions and cobras; there are no fruit trees or wheat fields. I appreciate this reading much better since my trip last summer to Zion and Arches National Parks in the desert of southern Utah. St. Luke records that after forty days in this environment Jesus was “famished.” The devil’s first temptation makes sense in a way— “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” True, the Gospel records Jesus’ working miraculous deeds, but only as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not abuse his power for his own convenience, or what the Wisdom Commentary calls “temptations to self-interest and expedience.” [p. 118]
The second Temptation, as narrated by St. Luke, loses something in the English translation. As The Paulist Biblical Commentary observes, “It gets lost in translation, between Matthew’s word for world [Greek, kosmos] and Luke’s [oikoumenē]. This is significant. Luke almost always uses oikoumenē in an imperial context…Luke is referring to the Roman Empire, not to the entire population of the earth…This fits a vision of history seeing the kingdom of Satan, embodied especially in the Roman Empire, now challenged by the emergent manifestation of the kingdom of “empire” of God being inaugurated by Jesus. [The Paulist Biblical Commentary, pp. 1046-47] This second Temptation, referred to as an invitation to “power and glory gained by false worship” [WC, p. 119] is the devil’s way of saying that Jesus’ life would be much more rewarding were he to venerate the status quo of the Roman Empire rather than tackle it head on with his liberating message of the Good News.
The third Temptation, that Jesus throw himself off the highest point of the Temple, is a call to test the power of God. There are multiple examples in all the Gospels where signs are demanded of Jesus to “prove” his divine calling and his legitimacy as God’s Son. In St. Luke’s Passion Narrative, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, who was happy to see him and hopeful that Jesus might work miracles in his presence. Recall Herod’s lyrics in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar: “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.” The “proof” of Jesus’ legitimacy is his absolute trust in his Father which he would never abuse as a substitute for faith. Miracles only serve faith. Again, the ministry of Jesus would have been much easier if he had called upon his Father to smooth out every risk and rescue him from the ardors of his identity as the Suffering Servant.
The theme which runs through the Temptation narrative is power, its use and abuse. What is the catechetical and homiletic stance for this Gospel vis-à-vis those without power, those who are abused? Feminist sociologists and theologians have been reflecting upon and debating this question for going on a century. In a 1960 essay in the Journal of Religion, Valerie Saiving Goldstein famously wrote: “The temptations of women as women are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specific feminine forms of sin—“feminine” not because they are confined to women or women are incapable of sinning in other ways…but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character—have a quality which can never be expressed by such terms as “pride” and “will to power.” [cit. pp. 119-120]
The Wisdom Commentary authors Reid/Matthews caution against gross simplification—feminist theology has diversified and intensified since the mid-twentieth century. All the same, Gospel narratives such as the Temptations of Christ are male dialogues which discuss moral issues of men who enjoy much more power in the worldwide quilt of cultures. Reid/Matthews cite the example of the devil’s command that Jesus change a stone into nourishing bread to feed his “famished” self. The authors states that “this would not be as strong a temptation for many women, especially those from cultures where feeding others is considered their prime responsibility. A greater temptation would be to neglect their own selves as they ensure that everyone else is fed. For women with scarce resources, this means giving the best portions of food to their husband and children while taking only scraps for themselves.” [p. 120]
Commenting on the second Temptation, Reid/Matthews argue that “the will to power tends to be a stronger temptation for men than for most women. A more prevalent shortcoming for women is failure to claim and exercise our power or unwillingness to challenge the systems that limit our power. Another temptation for some women is to regard power as a bad thing, something we shouldn’t try to grab, rather than see it as collaborative energy to accomplish good.” [p. 121]
Following this stream of thought, the Wisdom Commentary authors offer this analysis of the third Temptation. “The temptation to consider oneself invulnerable, self-important, or entitled to special protection takes on a different contour for most women and other members of minoritized communities…Women who are socialized always to put men’s needs and aims before their own rarely are tempted to self-importance, just the opposite. And those who live with a batterer or who struggle daily against poverty know how very vulnerable they are and would not be tempted to think otherwise.” [p. 124]
I stated earlier that preaching and catechizing the Temptations of Christ is a bear. Indeed, the true challenge comes into focus when we realize the extraordinarily strong possibility that the sinful challenges of Satan and the responses of Jesus as recorded by St. Luke take place not just in extraordinary settings, but in a male world, the Roman Empire male world at that. Given that only males in sacred orders are empowered to preach, particularly at the weekly gathering of the Catholic family on Sunday, we find ourselves in a situation where an uncritical or superficial reading of Gospel texts is profoundly lopsided. The preacher faces the challenge of unpacking the Word of God in its linguistic and cultural setting [then and today] to penetrate the full meaning of Jesus’ teaching at this instant in history. This is demanding work, and it assumes, among other things, an openness to the fresh thinking of a growing generation of women academics in our schools of theology [and, most of all, in our seminaries.]
The frequent practice, as I alluded to earlier, is for the preacher to default to a safe and familiar ground—something like “resist the devil” and “do good.” Warmed over apple pie from mom that does injustice to the fullness of Revelation and the theological genius of the Spirit-guided pen of the evangelist Luke. The greatest temptation for all of us this weekend is to run from the task, throw up our hands in the face of such genius, and, to cite another Gospel text, “walk away sad.”