NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
LUKE 4:1-13 USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.
For regular Tuesday readers we are going to interrupt the sequential flow of St. Luke’s Gospel in Ordinary Time for the next fourteen weeks or so (that seems like a long time) as we observe the Lenten/Easter/Pentecost observance. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is Ash Wednesday, the formal opening of Lent, though in early times Lent as a season of public penance began on a Sunday when the whole assembly could be gathered.
The Gospel readings for Lent, not surprisingly, are chosen in symphony with the Christian’s Lenten journey from sin and death to Resurrection life and the fullness of the Holy Spirit. The first two Sundays, this coming week and February 21, represent something of the low and the high watermarks of Jesus’ public life and mission. This Sunday’s reading is an account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert; the following week will present the transfiguration or glorification of Jesus on the mountain in the presence of Peter, James, and John. For these first two Sundays the Church draws the Gospels from the evangelist of the year; thus it is Luke’s accounts of these events that we will hear this year.
To appreciate Luke’s unique telling of the story, it might be useful to compare his text with the other Evangelists who narrated the scene, Mark and Matthew. (John does not include a transfiguration account.) Mark, as the first account in actual time, is sparse but rich in symbolism. In fact, let me quote it in full (Mark 1:12-13). “At that point the Spirit sent him out toward the desert. He stayed in the wasteland forty days, put to the test there by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.” This is one of the most economical texts in the Bible in terms of squeezing rich meaning out of few words, and Mark established a template for Matthew and Luke to build upon.
“At that point” (in Mark) refers to Jesus’ baptism, when God’s spirit descended upon him “like a dove.” The first command of the Spirit is the prompting into the desert. The word “desert” is double entendre. As Mark himself says, the desert is a “wasteland,” the same word used to describe the state of affairs before God began the act of creating in Genesis 1:2. Mark certainly knew this. There is, then, a connection made between Jesus and Creation—he was present at the beginning, and has come to begin the New Creation, a reordering of human chaos into everlasting life and glory. The second meaning of “desert” comes from the Jewish apocalyptic sources as the site where the final great battle between the forces of good and evil will occur, the showdown between the powerful angels Michael and Lucifer. Jesus is understood in the Gospels as the conqueror of demons, including their chief, by his miracles, and ultimately by his Resurrection.
“Forty days” in Mark’s context is clearly a reference to the years of Israel’s desert, establishing Jesus as the father of the New Israel who will shortly call twelve followers as the foundation of the new Twelve Tribes of Israel. The “wild beasts” metaphor has multiple biblical references—to the days before the fall when Adam and Eve lived in harmony with nature, and the apocalyptic passages from the Prophet Isaiah, where in God’s glorious future lion and lamb, cobra and child, will one day again live in harmony.
We can bring all of Mark’s magnificent theology forward into our Sunday reading from Luke and carry it as a foundation into Luke’s much lengthier narrative which is built around a dialogue between Jesus and Satan. Joel Green parallels the three temptations of Jesus in Luke to the history of Israel: (1) Israel was allowed to hunger in order to learn that one does not live by bread alone; (2) Israel was instructed to worship the one and only God, and not to follow after any other god; (3) Israel was commanded not to put the Lord God to the test. Luke is harkening back to Deuteronomy, the famous “second telling” of the Israelite experience and law. (Green, 190f)
Satan, in our account here, is actually playing “Bad Israel” to Jesus’ “New Jerusalem.” Luke makes Jesus the embodiment of the restored Israel by making these temptations very personal. For example, the first temptation is to change one rock into one loaf of bread, enough to feed one very hungry man. (Matthew 4:3, by contrast, reads, “command these stones…”) Interestingly, the devil does not question Jesus’ identity as the Son of God; what he is trying to pry out of Jesus is whether he actually trusts his Father to feed him. “Trust in feeding” was a major breakdown for Israel in the desert that led to much murmuring. In that instance, God did provide by the miraculous appearance of manna.
The second temptation involves the devil’s offer of rendering to Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,” noting that in fact the devil currently does possess them. Green makes an intriguing point: up to this point in Luke’s Gospel “the world” has been essentially the Roman empire. Here the Greek original implies all of the world, Jew and Gentile alike. A man of Luke’s erudition knew something of Alexander the Great and the existence of other kingdoms of the world.
The gist of the temptation is truly existential, suggesting that Jesus give up his very identity as Son of God. We know already from Luke that life as God’s Son would be anything but easy. Certainly this temptation had a long history of Israel, which fell into idolatry and bad political arrangements precisely because it had lost its soul. Jesus, however, remains faithful to Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth [the whole world] for your inheritance. On the face of things, the devil is making a good material offer, but Luke’s reader is able to see that upon analysis Satan is offering something he cannot claim as his own, given the reality of Psalm 2, and that Satan’s world is in fact something that has been given to him. Satan is not equal to God.
In the third temptation, the devil, now aware of Jesus’ profound devotion to the Scriptures, attempts to dissuade Jesus from his mission with another Psalm. Psalm 91:1 makes reference to “you who live in the shelter of the Most High,” that is, the Temple of Jerusalem. Green notes that this temptation is related to the upcoming passion of Jesus in Jerusalem, in the virtual shadow of the Temple. Satan’s temptation is to test God in this critical juncture, that Jesus might escape the cross. Satan has overlooked two things: Psalm 91 is addressed to those whose obedience to God makes them worthy to dwell in God’s house, and that divine rescue comes through suffering and death, and not before. (Green, 195)
For Luke, the temptation scenario is the first round of Jesus’ final confrontation with the power of evil, for he records that “[Satan] left him for a time.” But from this encounter in Chapter 4, the reader comes away with the model of Christian faith and life. While there is so much to take away from our next Sunday reading, one thought remains with me in particular: that for all of the cosmic and Biblical forces in play, good and evil, Luke reminds us that faith, at its heart, rests upon my individual response and my willingness to entrust my own destiny with the Lord of the Scriptures.