The first test

This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent and the gospel is the temptation/testing of Jesus in the desert.  Jesus has been fasting for forty days. He is hungry and vulnerable – and in a weakened physical and mental state.

1 Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert 2 for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

In years when Lent allows us to celebrate the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, that gospel proclaims: “Blessed are you who are hungry.” Jesus is now one of them. In the midst of his hunger, Jesus is tempted to take care of his own needs.  If the sons of Israel were miraculously fed by manna, why shouldn’t the Son of God enjoy the same care?  Jesus is challenged to repeat the sign of God’s provision by providing for his own needs rather than depending on God’s provision for his needs.

But the question also points past Jesus’ immediate need.  How will Jesus respond to the physical needs of others?  Will he meet their expectations and provide abundant food, having people follow him because he satisfies their temporal needs.  As essential as eating is, it is not essential to the kingdom of God (cf. Luke 9:58, 10:4, 12:29-31).  To respond to the people’s pressing needs in ever-miraculous ways does not lead others to a true experience of the kingdom of God.  The temptation that Jesus faces is the compassionate response to people and their needs and all the while also calling them to a life of discipleship that calls for wholehearted seeking after the kingdom of God rather than food and drink.

There is no question that Luke presents Jesus as one who is genuinely concerned for the poor, the outcasts, the needy, and the hungry. In the beatitudes in 6:20-23 Jesus pronounces a blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping. How will Jesus conduct his ministry of compassion to the poor and needy? One easy way would be to use his miraculous powers to turn stones to bread. But his answer to that suggestion was that one does not live by bread alone. The kingdom of God is more than bread.

A theme that Stoffregen presents with other passages is that Jesus is not primarily motivated by needs, neither his own or those of others, but by the Word of God (which frequently leads Jesus to care for human needs). Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is not to seek needs that we might fulfill, but to seek to live by the Word of God. Meeting human needs is certainly a very good thing to do; but can it not also be a temptation from the Slanderer to lead us away from God’s Word?

I think that we frequently see temptations as doing bad things, as enticements to break the latter commandments of the Law: to steal, to lie, to commit adultery, etc. These tests are attacks on the first commandments, especially the first commandment. Can “doing good things for the needy” become another god whom we worship? Whom do we allow to run our lives? Does it lead to codependency, where the other person, the needy one controls our lives, rather than God?

Sources:

  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes”

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