The First Sunday in Lent (Year C)
10 March 2019
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This is the First Sunday in Lent and have for our gospel, therefore, the story of Jesus’ temptation, which appears in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. Being Year C in our lectionary, we hear today the version from Luke, which differs from Mark and Matthew in having a broader perspective, a more worldly one that situates us firmly within the political world of the Roman Empire. But before I get ahead of myself, we should remember that we have been reading Luke out of order, as happens with our thematic lectionary, of which I am, in fact, a big fan. It is important, however, to situate ourselves within our textual context if we are to get the most out of our lessons.
Immediately preceding this episode, was Jesus’ baptism, at which, “a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.’” In that moment, Jesus’ relationship to God was publically announced. Jesus is God’s child, not simply in the sense that we are all children of God, but God’s own special son. He is flesh of God’s flesh (some ancient textual variants, in fact, add “today I have begotten thee”) and this sonship conferred special favour, favour that would have been recognisable as a kind of pleasure that brings with it suffering before vindication. Jesus is God’s son and we can expect that he will publically demonstrate that kinship in ways recognisable to Luke’s readers, consistent with our understanding of the God of Israel.
Luke continues his narrative and tells us that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he had been baptised] and we led by the Spirit [perhaps in that same form of the Dove that descended on his at his baptism] for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil.” We have already, a few weeks ago had a look at the next episode, where Jesus begins his public ministry in the synagogue at his home town of Nazareth. There he announced the substance of his work, naming that which God seeks to achieve through Jesus in the world: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
This is the sweep of events in which we are caught up. Jesus is baptised and revealed to be God’s special child. Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, affirms his sonship, withstanding everything the devil has to offer him. Jesus then begins his formal, public ministry and proclaims that God’s priorities are different from those of the world of Empire, focussing on justice for everyone, especially those on the margins of society. This temptation, episode is crucial for understanding the nature of Jesus’s ministry and the significance of the redemptive work he will accomplish ultimately in his passion, death, and resurrection.
Unlike in Mark’s account, Jesus is not driven into the wilderness. There is no rush, no pressure, so cataclysmic sweep forcing Jesus’ period of separation from society. It is a deliberate move, one however in which Jesus is left vulnerable for lack of nourishment.1 This is when the devil sweeps in and says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” The tempter, praying on Jesus’ hunger asks him to exercise his power and conjure food. Jesus refuses and “answered him, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”’” Jesus will not prove his identity as God’s son and perform magic tricks to satisfy his physical needs.
The devil then takes a different tack and “took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.’” In our English version of both Matthew and Luke Jesus is shown “kingdoms of the world,” although each has a very different understanding of what that means. For Matthew, it is the cosmos (4:8, kosmon), while Luke’s Jesus is shown the oikoumene, the whole known world, which to his readers would mean only one thing: the Roman Empire.
Where Matthew’s perspective is out of time, apolitical, in Luke’s story is clear that Jesus is being offered rule over a share of an earthly kingdom, a vast network of political and economic human power over which the devil has real authority. And while the event is framed as a special vision seen in a “moment of time,” the kingdom of the devil, is nonetheless established in the real world as a rival to that of God, with different priorities, different aims.2 Jesus makes it clear with what kingdom he stands: “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” Jesus will not betray his Father and align himself with the powers that stand in opposition to God, in opposition to justice and love.
As a last ditch effort therefore, the devil took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Again we see Luke’s more worldly perspective in naming Jerusalem, when Matthew only calls it the “holy city.” Here Jesus’ temptation has real world consequences and Jesus knows what is at stake. Jesus does not have to prove his relationship to God through a trick and responded: “It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”
We see that each of the temptations is ultimately about “seizure of palpable power:” changing “the elements of creation,” controlling people, forcing “God’s protection.” This would suggest to Luke’s readers “the threefold categories of vice: love of pleasure, love of possessions, love of glory. And Jesus’ refusal of these lures would identify him as a righteous person, a sage truly capable of teaching virtue.”3 In each episode, as a modern commentator has pointed out, Jesus is challenged to demonstrate the force of “divine dynamis (or power), associated with the ‘sons of gods” in the Hellenistic world, and to mimic the power of God.”4
Jesus is neither a Greco-Roman deity nor an eastern one. He is the Son of the God of Israel, identified as such at his baptism and marked for trials. He is waging a war against the powers of the world that stand in opposition to the work of God, as specifically identified to Luke’s readers as the vast and seemingly indomitable force of the Roman Empire, pressing on people at all times and in all places. Jesus will not bow down to the devil and worship him in a counterfeit of obeisance to a worldly leader, but stands firm as God’s true son, as an example to each and every one of us.
This is how we get to Jesus in the temple at Nazareth preaching “good news to the poor.” This is the context in which we must hear that directive to “proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” announcing the advent of the Kingdom of God, that radical recasting of the priorities of the world. The Kingdom of God will overturn the priorities of empire and bring justice. The Kingdom of God will provide healing and restitution. Literally and figuratively we will see with new eyes, hear with new ears. It is a shift away from centring the experience of rich and powerful men, like those known to Luke’s first- and second-century readers as clearly as they are known to us in our country in this moment. At its core is good news for the poor, and not just the economically impoverished, but for all those who have been marginalised, left behind.5
Jesus’ encounter with the devil shows us that he faced the temptations of Empire and power as we do and shows himself to be the loyal child of God. We are called to imitate Christ, which isn’t always an easy thing. Perhaps our lesson from Deuteronomy shows us what this might look like in real life. In Moses’ self-identification of Israel as children of the wandering Aramaian, we find instructions for how we are to present ourselves to God, how we are to live. We affirm who we are in relation to God, that we are a part of the great movement of salvation history; that we have suffered and cried out to God for help, who heard our cries and delivered us. We then make an offering, a sacrifice—not a costly giving up, but a joyful presentation of that which is important to us, of our lives and of our service—and worship and rejoice. This we can do and in doing so share with Jesus in his victory over the tempter.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Gregory of Nyssa, 9 March 2019
2Johnson 1991, 74.
3Johnson 1991, 76.
4Johnson 1991, 74.
5Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), 79.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Lenten Feria, 5 April 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume