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.”