In the wilderness

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent, Lectionary Cycle C. The season of Lent has its own end and purpose, so we should not expect continuity from the previous week that was part of Ordinary Time. Last Sunday the gospel was part of Lukan “Sermon on the Plain.” Depending on the calendar year and the celebration of Easter we might have an early or late start to Lent.  We’ll hear the opening verses of the “Sermon” on the sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, but it is not unusual to not celebrate the 7th and 8th Sundays which carry lots of the details. This year (2022) we did celebrate those two Sundays. (Note: in 2016 we had a very early Easter and so even the 6th Sunday was not celebrated.)

As we move from Ordinary Time into the Lenten Season, we experience a shift in trajectory of the Sunday gospel readings as the order changes to align with the liturgical season – and rightly so. The readings between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent primarily dealt with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the 3rd-6th Sundays of Ordinary Time. On this 1st Sunday of Lent, we drop back on the timeline, Jesus was just baptized by John and is now preparing for his public ministry, “filled with the Holy Spirit.

Remember that in the gospel narrative just preceding the account of the temptation, Jesus had been at the Jordan River. “21 After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22).  Immediately following this account Jesus will begin his public ministry: “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (4:14).  It is no surprise that Luke continues to remind us of the animating and invigorating power of God’s spirit: “Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus…was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.” By using the divine passive (“was led”) and the preposition “in” before the Spirit, Luke is emphasizing the fact that it is God who is leading Jesus by means of the Spirit – into the desert/wilderness. The wilderness is no less part of the divine presence in the life of Jesus than is the serene scene at the Jordan River.

The Palestinian wilderness is not the sandy waste of the Sahara. The parts around the Dead Sea are utterly barren, but most of the Palestinian desert is semi-arid, with some vegetation, particularly in the winter. It was a dangerous place, uncharted, inhabited by wild animals and bandits. The wilderness was believed to be the haunt of demons (Isa 13:21; 34:14); it is no surprise that Jesus met the devil there. No surprise that Jesus encounters struggle, temptation and testing. The wilderness is where holiness is put on trial.

It was the place of struggle, temptation and testing for Israel during its 40-year sojourn in the Sinai. The specific mention of Jesus’ forty days in the desert is meant to trigger an association with Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Stephen describes those years of wandering as years of testing and failure for the people of God (Acts 7:39–43).

In slowly drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses-led Israel, this episode highlights that Jesus is also tested in the desert but remains faithful.  Perhaps one can look to the OT to find a divine purpose for Jesus’ temptation: “testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut 8:2).  At the Jordan Jesus was declared to be the Son of God – thus the divine sonship of Jesus is not in question (Luke has even included a genealogy to that fact).  Rather it seems as though the wilderness is the place where Jesus must come to accept and embrace what it means to be the Son of God.  And so, the devil begins the temptations with “If you are the Son of God” (also validly translated as “Since you are the Son of God). It is no less a question for us – “since you are the Son of God” – we have expectations, hopes, and more. As Culpepper [97] notes: “On one level the story describes Jesus’ response to calls for misuse of his power and sonship. On another level, the story educates, disabusing the reader of any expectation that Jesus would manifest his sonship by a series of theatrical demonstrations. The work of the Spirit requires faithfulness; neither compromise with Satan nor concessions to popular demands could be allowed.”

The Lucan Gospel unfolds in such a way that it creates misunderstanding, disappointment, confusion, and shattered expectations. One would not expect someone who is the Son of God to face the opposition and hostility, as Jesus will. And the greatest of all paradoxes, this Son of God will be rejected by his own people as well as the Romans and will be condemned and executed on a cross. It is in this larger context, that we must understand the thrust of these three temptations in the wilderness.

Sources:

  • R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 9 of the New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 96–101

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