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Wednesday, 17 February 2010 00:00

Gospel Reflections for Lent: Year C Sunday 1

Written by  Michael Winstanley SDB
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Each year the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent presents us with the temptations or testing of Jesus. This year, year C, we are invited to reflect on Luke's version.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.

And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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 protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The initial reference to the Jordan links this episode with that of Jesus' baptism, when he is anointed by the Spirit for mission. The Spirit which fills his being now leads him in (not into) the wilderness. He spends a period of forty days there, eating nothing, and he is subjected to testing by the devil. This culminates in the threefold form which today's narrative describes.

The desert in scripture has a twofold significance. It was the place of escape and refuge, the context for Israel's privileged encounter with God. It was also traditionally considered as the place not blessed by God, the haunt of demons, awesome and evil. The verb which is translated as 'test' is used of God testing the faith and obedience of Israel (Exod. 16:4; 20:20; Deut. 8:2; 13:2), and also of men testing God by doubting God's goodness and power (Num.14:22; Ps 95:8; 106:14). The duration of the experience, forty days, perhaps recalls the fasting of Moses and Elijah prior to their inaugurating their respective missions (Exod. 24:18; 1Kings 19:8), and the fast of Moses on the Sinai mountain (Exod. 34:28). More clearly, it is a reminder of the forty year Exodus experience of Israel in the wilderness.

Mark gives no content to these wilderness temptations, whereas Matthew and Luke, presumably following the same 'Q' source, list three. In both versions the content is very similar, and the scriptural references likewise, but the order of the second and third temptations is reversed. It is quite likely that Luke wishes the climax to take place in Jerusalem, consonant with his theological interests throughout his Gospel.

In the first temptation the devil approaches Jesus and says:

If you are Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.

In this and the third temptation, the devil opens with a reference to the divine sonship of Jesus proclaimed in the baptism scene, insinuating a doubt as to the genuineness of this status, and suggesting a course of action which would both solve the immediate and pressing personal hunger problem, and prove the authenticity of Jesus' sonship and God's dependability. The situation recalls Israel's wilderness experience, when God allowed the people to go hungry, and in longing for the Egyptian fleshpots they complained against Yahweh, doubted his word and his care, and exacted a manna-bestowing miracle (Exod. 16:14-21).

To this Jesus replies in the words of scripture, as he does each time:

Human beings live not on bread alone.

This is the exact quotation of Deuteronomy 8:3a LXX. (Matthew continues the quotation: 'but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God', which completes the verse). Human life does not depend primarily on physical food; it is more important to obey the word of God, even when suffering physical hunger. The working of a miracle, the using of his power to satisfy his own material needs, to alleviate his deprivation, to escape from the human condition, would be to misconstrue the nature of sonship. Sonship is expressed in obedience and unconditional trust.

So the devil changes tack and adopts a fresh line of approach. Like a prospective house or land agent, he leads Jesus to a high vantage point and shows him 'in a moment of time all the kingdoms of the world' (or possibly the Roman Empire). In what seems to be a visionary experience, the devil says:

I will give you all this power and their splendour, for it has been handed over to me, for me to give it to anyone I choose. Do homage, then, to me, and it shall be yours.

The devil claims control over these kingdoms; they are still under his sway. He offers Jesus authority over them, and the glory which such power would entail, on condition that Jesus acknowledges him in worship. In replying, Jesus again quotes a text from Deuteronomy (6:13):

You must do homage to the Lord your God, him alone you must serve.

Jesus will not allow the centrality of God to be usurped. He rejects the allure and glamour of earthly power, be that political or military. "The paths of this world do not lead to the Kingdom of God, and to pin one's faith in worldly wisdom or authority is to worship that which is not God. To worship God is to trust him and leave the results in his hands." (Caird)

The devil now moves on, and for the third, climactic and most severe test leads Jesus to Jerusalem and sets him on the parapet of the Temple. The pinnacle of the Royal Porch of the Temple is probably intended, from which there was a sheer drop of 450 feet to the Kidron valley below. He challenges Jesus once again to prove his divine sonship, this time by throwing himself down, and in this way verifying the words of the psalmist, who expressed confidence that God would protect him in danger. The devil quotes psalm 91:11-12 (more completely than in Matthew, who omits 'to guard you'):

He has given his angels orders about you, to guard you, They will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone.

If God commands the angels to protect David from stubbing his foot, how much more would God protect the Messiah who is God's son if he throws himself down. The temptation is to prove the truth of God's promise by putting it to the test.

In reply, Jesus returns to Deuteronomy (6:16):

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Frequently in her history, especially when in a tight corner, Israel had invoked her God to intervene in a spectacular manner to vindicate her trust in him (see Sir. 36:1f). Jesus' reply recalls the classic desert incident when the thirst-tormented travellers tested their God at Massah or Meribah: 'Is Yahweh with us or not?' (Exod. 17:7), and God provided them with water from the rock at the hammering of Moses' staff. Jesus does not betray his filial relationship with God; he does not attempt to force the Father's hand; he needs no proof of God's choice and faithful care. His response is to trust without imposing conditions or making demands.

Luke then brings his narrative to a conclusion, without any mention of ministering angels:

Having exhausted every way of putting him to the test, the devil left him, until the opportune moment.

In observing that every possible form of testing has been exhausted, the Evangelist brings out both the comprehensive nature of the assault and the quality of Jesus' victory. He leaves the reader wondering about the meaning of 'the opportune moment' when the devil is set to return. The phrase is usually taken to refer to the devil's powerful re-emergence at the time of the passion. In Luke 22:3 Satan is said to enter into Judas; in 22:31 Satan is said to have obtained his wish to sift the apostles like wheat; in 22:53, at the close of the arrest scene, Jesus affirms that the reign of darkness has arrived. However, the conflict between the rival kingdoms of God and Satan continues throughout Jesus' ministry, and there are recurring temptation scenes, so some scholars prefer the translation 'until an opportune moment' or 'for a while'.

The substance of Luke's temptation narrative is found in the Johannine tradition also, though not en bloc (see John 6:14-15, 26-27; 7:2-5). The tradition of the testing of Jesus also occurs in Hebrews (2:14-18; 4:15). There may have been some special inner experience in the wilderness after Jesus' baptism in which he faced the question of the nature of his vocation and mission, an experience which he later communicated to his disciples, possibly even in dramatic form. Or it could be that the bare facts referred to by Jesus were later filled out by the christian community in the light of the Old Testament, illustrating how Jesus recapitulates the history of his people, but unlike them responds instead with faithful obedience. On the other hand, the source behind the Matthaean and Lukan narratives may be responsible for focusing in concentrated and dramatic form in the wilderness scene, in a typically folkloric structure, real moments of testing which punctuated the whole of Jesus' public life right up to the cross, as people and circumstances demanded that he clarify what faithfulness to God and to his mission entailed.

In his ministry Jesus found himself in conflict with the various messianic expectations and presuppositions of the people and the leaders. They were interested in a social gospel aimed at the amelioration of the material conditions of life, particularly difficult under Herod and Rome. They were open to the sensational and the flashing lights. They wanted tangible and uncontrovertible proofs. They longed for a political, messianic leader who would rid them of the Roman eagle, the jackboot of pagan imperialism, and introduce an era of prosperity, splendour and greatness. Perhaps the temptations had to do with his having to clarify the true nature of his mission in the light of these expectations in concrete situations and circumstances, and in the light of his own experience and understanding of God and God's ways.

At a deep level, and more insidiously, the temptations attack the relationship of Jesus to the Father, and the nature of his mission - his sonship and servant way. In the face of alternative messianic options, the lack of results, and considerable outside pressure, he is asked to trust unconditionally without demanding guarantees or proofs or verification - not only for his disciples and the authorities and the crowds, but also for himself - confirmation that God has chosen him, is faithful, is with him, and that his servant way really is the vehicle for the inbreak of the Kingdom.

Through our baptism we are drawn into Jesus' relationship with the Father and into the realising of his mission, the dream of the Kingdom. But in the circumstances of our daily living it is not always apparent what faithfulness entails, what love really demands. Often a variety of avenues lie open before our step. We face the constant danger of succumbing to false messianisms, forms of domination and oppression, power and control, the lure of success and the spectacular, the adopting of methods inconsistent with the Gospel. We can worship at other shrines. There is often the urge to take short cuts to success, to find instant and easy solutions, to become bogged down in the practical and the immediate, to use God for our own purposes. Because our vision is blurred, it is often far from easy to know what is required in living and action to make the Kingdom dream come true, what being a child of God entails. And when we have discovered what seems asked of us, there remains the challenge to accept and carry it out, especially when love demands a trust in God which is unconditional. Jesus, trusting Son, stands before us and walks with us in our daily testing.

Read 1741 times Last modified on Friday, 14 March 2014 15:05

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