Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent (10 March 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 (Luke 4:1-13 – NRSV).
The Holy Spirit is central to Luke’s Gospel: John the Baptist is to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15); the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary and as a result she will give birth to the Messiah (1:35); Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when Mary visits her (1:41); John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and speaks his prophecy (1:67); the Holy Spirit is said to “rest” on Simeon when he receives Joseph and Mary at the presentation of their son in the temple (2:25-27); John the Baptist declares the one is coming who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (3:16); the “Holy spirit descended upon” Jesus at his baptism (3:22). In our Gospel text today, we hear Luke say: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness”.
The Holy Spirit is the expression of God at work. All God’s chosen instruments are “filled with the Holy Spirit”. For further references to Luke using this same expression of God’s prophets being filled with the Holy Spirit, see also Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24; 13:9. Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Anointed One – Messiah. He is filled with – empowered by – this same Spirit and will accomplish the work intended by God by that “power from on high”.
The one new and very significant factor in today’s text is the introduction of the “devil”. It is made clear that evil has no power over God. God’s work will be carried through by Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus’ victory over the evil one here in the place of death – the wilderness – intimates the final victory to be wrought by Jesus on the cross.
Luke’s Gospel ends with Jesus affirmation of the disciples: “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:49).
The real drama and the insidiousness of the temptations is that Jesus is urged to use that “power from on high”, to call on the Holy Spirit, to do the work, not of God, but of evil. This epitomizes what is at stake in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The devil will therefore re-appear in the passion narrative – see 22:3, 31.
led by the Spirit in the wilderness: This has definite echoes of the Exodus Event. The people are led into the wilderness where the Covenant is forged. For example: “And your eyes saw what I did to Egypt; and you lived in the wilderness a long time” (Joshua 24:7); “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness” (Amos 2:10). “I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness” (Ezekiel 20:10).
The wilderness is the place of dying. It is a “howling waste” (Cf Deuteronomy 32:10.), a land of “trouble and anguish” (Cf Isaiah 30:6; also Deuteronomy 1:19), of “deep darkness .... that none passes through, where no man dwells” (Jeremiah 2:6), a place of “fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground” (Deuteronomy 8:15), where caravans perish as they turn aside from their course (Cf Job 6:8). The wilderness – or desert – is not the place where one would go on a whim. This is uncharted wasteland. The traveler needs to be guided by someone who has the map. The wilderness is a profound metaphor for the human condition, the state of being in which we dwell. Luke is implying that a New Covenant is to be forged in the wilderness of Calvary.
the devil: Luke – like Matthew (see 4:5) – uses the word diabolos. Elsewhere Luke uses the word satanas (see 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3 & 31; Acts 5:3; 26:18) – the word used by Mark in his brief account of the temptations (see 1:13) – and beelzeboul (see 11:15, 18 & 19). The Gospels are shining a light on something we all know, that there are forces at play in our world that are counter to the good and the true: “This chief opponent is viewed by Luke as the suzerain of a counter-kingdom within which the daimonia (demons) and pneumata akatharta (unclean spirits) are his minions (see esp. 11:14–20)” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 73).
There is no basis in Luke – or the other Christian Scriptures – to think of the evil forces at play either as some kind of “god” or some kind of human-like figure. Though clearly this has been a temptation throughout Christian history that some have been unable to resist – including Michelangelo! We are in a something of a dilemma intellectually however because, whilst we can see the effects of evil concretely, we cannot see the sources of evil so concretely. The sources – or forces – are intangible and therefore beyond our ability to adequately describe. This presents us with another temptation, to conclude that there is no such thing as evil. That is a temptation that some of our contemporaries have been unable to resist.
Every time we pray the Our Father, we end with a cry: “Deliver us from evil!” In the celebration of Mass, this cry is then repeated immediately by the celebrant: “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil ....” The assembly responds with the acclamation: “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever!” Then, we pray together three times: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world ....” During this threefold prayer, the celebrant breaks the bread – reminder of the Lord’s Body broken on the Cross of Life, the victory over all evil. On the one hand, we are recognizing the forces of evil and our vulnerability to those forces, on the other hand, we are recognizing the victory of God in Jesus who is the Christ.
Today’s Gospel – Luke 4:1-13 – tells of Jesus’ confrontation with the forces of evil. We can become a little blaze about this narrative, calling it “the temptations in the desert” and forgetting that it is an encounter with forces that have the capacity to destroy our lives. There is no need to go into an abstract, philosophical debate about the nature of evil, or about whether evil is really a factor in the equations of life. It is blatantly obvious that there are forces at work in the world that can tear us asunder, erode civility, undo the life of the individual and/or the group. Jesus’ struggle in the desert is our struggle everyday – the struggle to be one with Jesus in his choice of the truth over the lie and one with him in his choice of communion over division.
The Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 for The New Yorker – see Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin, 1964. She, like many others, expected to see someone in the dock who more clearly embodied the evil he had helped to engineer in the so-called Final Solution. Instead, she saw an ordinary, not very talented, human being. In effect, the man next door. She thus coined the phrase, “the banality of evil”. This echoes an observation by Ernest Becker: “all through history it is the ‘normal, average men’ who, like locusts, have laid waste to the world in order to forget themselves” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1973, 187).
Arendt attempted to understand the evil masked by the ordinariness: “Evil defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil” (Hannah Arendt, op cit, xiv). That is also the particular danger of evil. Like a snake, it can easily slip through the cracks, getting under our guard. None of us is immune from evil. Our confidence therefore cannot be based in ourselves. Our confidence is in Jesus and his kingdom: “Your kingdom come!”