Lent 1: 17 February Luke 4:1-13
Why tell this story? Because it happened? But many things happened. Because it must have happened? This would certainly have been a widespread view: heroes must have had to struggle, must have been tested and won through to be able to reach their height of achievement. Such a story was almost as necessary to such a life story as birth narratives which symbolically prefigured events and significance to come.
The testing in the wilderness, the outback, was in that sense paradigmatic. To tell such a story was to provide major clues about what was to come. But why tell such a story? The interest was less in history than in the religious and political values which the story embodies. Why should we retell the story? Because as bearers of story and tradition we believe these values still connect to people’s experience.
There are many layers of meaning to the story. Historically we know that it was not uncommon for leaders and would-be leaders of change to make their way to the wilderness. The hopes for liberation lived from the stories of liberation, especially the story of the exodus from Egypt, but also the return from exile. Revolutionaries gathered their troops in the wilderness. Pious groups, like the Essenes, made their interim settlements there, waiting for the great climax. Individual figures like John the Baptist made the wilderness their starting point.
Wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. It also connected then, as it does now, to very basic spirituality: a place to grapple with God, a place to learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, of wild beasts and desert. It is the Lenten space par excellence. So it was natural that people expected Jesus headed for wilderness and very likely that he did. He went to John there and was baptised. It is not hard to imagine that behind the story of the baptism is some memory of raw beginnings in the outback.
As with the birth stories, so with the testing, there are two versions. Both are situated in the wilderness. Mark’s brief account in 1:12-13 has Jesus tested for 40 days and nights. The Q version upon which Matthew and Luke draw, has the temptations taking place after 40 days of fasting. In both cases the figure 40 is the storyteller’s hint of the connection with Israel’s story. That is as far as Mark goes, whose story seems to envisage a struggle between Jesus and Satan in which Jesus emerges victorious and ready to embark on a successful ministry of baptising people with the Spirit through exorcism and healings. The presence of wild animals may indicate additional danger or perhaps it evokes memories of paradise.
Q’s version has more elaborate allusions to Israel in the wilderness. The offer of bread recalls the gift of manna; the offer of power recalls Moses’ view of the holy land; the temple miracle recalls the miracles of the wilderness days. Jesus’ responses are drawn directly from Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy. Jesus is faithful and obedient in contrast to Israel’s unfaithfulness in the wilderness, a typology which Matthew has already been developing in the birth narratives. Here is the true ‘son’. He is also the new Moses, able to view far flung kingdoms. But the devil is fooled in offering Jesus all authority from the high mountain; God will grant him that at his resurrection (28:18)
The links with Israel in the wilderness are certainly also there in Luke, as they were in Q, but Luke has not concentrated on the Israel typology in the same way as Matthew. His order is different: the climax is not the ascent of the mountain, but the pinnacle of the temple. While some think Luke has changed Q’s order from what we have in Matthew, I think the opposite is more likely. Temple miracles were often a feature of future expectation along with times in the wilderness. It is true that for Luke Jerusalem is central, but the temple miracle is likely to have been also the original climax of the story and would make good sense in the light of Jewish hopes.
Many of the details of the story only make sense in the light of such hopes. In fact the story then emerges as a subtle way of defining just what Jesus was and what he was not. Yes, he is the liberator, but to say that or think that then raised a host of difficulties. Just what kind of liberator was he? It almost makes little difference whether we imagine ourselves listening in on early Jewish Christianity at this point or listening to Jesus’ own thoughts on retreat in the Judean wilderness. The central question was: who am I? who is he? And for us: who are we?
He is not primarily a wonder worker - as many aspirants to divine agency sought (and seek) to be, though no one was wanting to deny his miracles. Mark 13:22, describing the situation of revolution, tells of such miracle workers. Such sons of God were mighty in the Hellenistic world, although here we should probably be thinking of messianic aspirants. This fits the offer of worldly power such as befits a messianic king, God’s adopted son according to old traditions of royal expectation (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7).
Did not the early communities hail him Messiah, Christ? The answer was yes, followed by hurried footwork which had to sidestep the kind of expectations which informed such concepts in those days, including Peter’s. Remember he is addressed as the devil is, here: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ (Mark 8:33). Misinterpreting Jesus’ claims would lead to his bloody execution under the charge, ‘King of the Jews’. That could only be true ironically and yet profoundly so: here was a new model of messiahship, of power, of God.
These were important political and religious clarifications in a dangerous environment. They must have been the kind of options Jesus also faced as he contemplated his ministry. They become dangerous mostly in a different sense for us, although we should not forget those societies where being Christian makes one a target for the accusation of armed intent and ruthless suppression. The western dangers lurk in the lure of popular religion which lives (including: is funded!) from the sensational, derailing the vision of the change that really matters, and promises wealth of feeling and funding.
The story is bigger than ‘what happened’. It is a theological story about him, about them and about us. It is larger than life. It invites us to address spiritual options to engagement in God’s hope for the world: why we go to the wilderness and why we don’t stay there.
Epistle: Lent 1: 17 February Romans 10:8b-13