Jesus in the Desert

The readings for February 14, 2016, First Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, are
Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; and Luke 4:1-13.


The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of the temptation of Jesus. That Jesus was tempted in his human nature is a tradition embedded in all four Gospels and in the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 2:18 we read, “Because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” An old Negro Spiritual expresses the same theme in the words of suffering people imported from Africa, “Nobody knows de trouble I have seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the original story of the temptation of Jesus. Mark is brief. Jesus is expelled into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit who had just descended upon him at his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The temptation by Satan in the wilderness is ongoing for forty days.  There is no fasting in Mark’s version, nor any specific temptation. There is enough material in Mark’s version with its implied references to the temptations of Israel in the wilderness for forty years and its implied reference to Psalm 91 (the angels) to inspire Matthew and Luke to greatly expand their versions with the use of a form of literature called  Midrash. In this form of literature an author develops a theme by combining previous oral and written traditions with Old Testament passages. The author reinterprets them to apply to a new situation, different from their original setting in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.

First of all, Luke does not approve of Mark’s opening words, “The (Holy) Spirit … expelled him into the wilderness ….” Clearly Luke has a more beautiful introduction, “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.” Quite a fulsome beginning to clarify Mark’s “expelled.”  It was noted above that Mark said nothing about fasting. Luke writes, “He (Jesus) ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry.” Jesus’ hunger provides the setting for Luke’s version of the first temptation, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to turn into bread.” What is this about?

We may never know just what Luke (and Matthew) intended to say by this temptation, but it is surely a reference to the hunger of the Israelites wandering in the Sinai wilderness for forty years. Jesus’ answer to the devil makes that clear, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” These words are part of a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses says to the Israelites, “He humbled you and let you hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know, that he might make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.” The ancients failed their test of loyalty to God’s word. The One who now represents Israel is about to bring the word of God to all nations. He passed the test to be true to God’s plan which is about to enfold.

The second temptation: the devil “took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” Luke relies on a tradition that God turned over to the devil authority over the earth and the right to pass on that authority.  Luke’s devil persona is paraphrasing the words of the Lord God in Jeremiah 27:5, “It is I who by my great power…have made the earth, with the people and the animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.” But there is a condition to be met before the devil can turn over all this authority to Jesus. “All this will be yours, if you worship me.” What is Luke’s intention? A possibility is a condemnation of the seeking after political power by the Christian Community.  At the Last Supper in Luke only, Jesus will say to the disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them …. But not so with you. Let the greatest among you become as the least, and the leader as one who serves.”

The third temptation: the devil takes Jesus to a high point on the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” The devil quotes words that echo Psalm 91, “He will give his angels charge over you to guard you. On their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.” That the devil uses this quote literally should warn hyper-literalists from doing the same with all the Scriptures.  Is this temptation Luke’s condemnation of lust for popularity and recognition, a condemnation of seeking personal glory? All three temptations are open to various homiletic interpretations.