Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent (21 February 2021)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:12-15 – NRSV)
Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 – their versions of the temptations in the wilderness – are dependent on Mark 1:12-13.
One commentator gives us a general introduction to Mark and situates this Gospel passage for us: “The good news of Mark is a narrative proclamation of the Christ event. Like those who received Paul’s letters, Mark’s readers, living a generation after the death of Jesus, would have either undergone a significant adult conversion or would be possible converts to the Christian movement. They would have learned the lineaments of the life of Jesus that are reflected in early creedal statements such as 1 Cor 11:23–26 and 15:1–11, the kerygmatic sermons of Acts (which, though edited by Luke, contain early traditions; e.g., 2:32–36; 4:10–12; 5:30–32; 10:36–41), and hymnic fragments that may have been used in early Christian worship (e.g., Phil 2:6–11; Col 1:15–20; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 3:18–22). The function of Mark’s Gospel was not to prove that Jesus was the ‘Son of God’, nor was it simply to offer biographical information about Jesus. Rather, it was to engage the readers in the unfolding story of Jesus ‘from Nazareth of Galilee’ (1:9), so that they too might be caught up by his message (1:14–15) and be challenged to believe that neither demonic powers nor brutal rulers can ultimately triumph over Jesus or over them” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 66-67).
One commentator writes specifically of this text describing the temptations in the desert: “I have avoided the normal title for this section, ‘The Temptation of Jesus’, partly to signal the need to read Mk. 1:12–13 in its own distinctive form, rather than as a scaled-down version of the Q Temptation narrative, and partly because in any case temptation as such appears only in the brief participial phrase πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ Σατανᾶ, which is not the main focus of this intriguing little pericope. Historically speaking, of course, both Mk. 1:12–13 and the Q Temptation narrative must relate to the same experience, located immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before the beginning of his public ministry in Galilee. Both mention the directive role of the Spirit, the wilderness location, the forty-day period, and temptation by Satan. In Mark, however, there is no specification of the nature of the πειρασμός, no reference to the recently affirmed title ‘Son of God’, no dialogue between Jesus and the devil, no quotation of Scripture, and therefore no overt link with the desert experiences of Israel described in Dt. 6–8. But the Marcan account is distinctive not only for its brevity, but also for the fact that its mere 30 words contain elements absent from the Q tradition: the repeated mention of the ἔρημος*, the designation of the διάβολος** (Q) as Σατανᾶς** (though this name is used in Mt. 4:10), the clause καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων***, and the role of the angels (in Matthew but not in Luke)” (R T France, The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002, 83).
Special notes to the foregoing:
*ἔρημος = eremos – wilderness/desert.
**διάβολος = diabolos – used in the Q narrative but whom Mark calls Σατανᾶς – Satan.
***καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων = “and to be with the wild animals”
The reference to the “Q narrative” recognizes the commonly accepted theory that, Mark’s Gospel is a primary text, that Luke and Matthew share a source – “Q” – and both draw on Mark and each has his own source. The designation “Q” comes from the German word “Quelle” meaning “source”.
The Spirit: The Spirit that has accompanied the words at Jesus’ baptism – “You are my Son the Beloved, my favour rests on you” – is a most significant part of God’s unfolding action here. “The same Spirit that descended on Jesus at the baptism has an appointment for him in the wilderness. The language is forceful and unambiguous. The Spirit ‘drives’ Jesus or ‘thrusts him out’ (Gk. ekballein) to confront Satan. The imagery is reminiscent of the scapegoat loaded down with the sins of Israel and expelled into the wilderness (Lev 16:21). Like the wording of 1:9 above, the passive voice (‘being tempted by Satan’) again establishes Jesus as the undisputed subject. The Spirit that empowers the Son for ministry now tests him to determine whether he will use his divine Sonship for his own advantage or submit himself in obedience to God. The temptation of Jesus is not presented as an unfortunate circumstance or as a hardship resulting from a lapse or failure on Jesus’ part. What happens to Jesus in the wilderness is as divinely orchestrated as what happened to him at the Jordan. The baptism, as we noted, is something that God did to Jesus; the temptation, likewise, is its necessary corollary, lest Jesus be imagined a divine clone or automaton who had no choice or desire of his own. The temptation establishes the free, sovereign agency of Jesus, who, like all human agents, must choose to make God’s will his own. The significance of that choice can be realized only in the context of an alternative and opposite choice posed by God’s adversary. Hence Jesus must be ‘tempted by Satan’” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 39-40).
the wilderness: There is an unbroken line between creation as described in Genesis and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The time in “the wilderness” is a powerful reminder of this continuity: “The forty-day trial of God’s Son continues the baptismal theme of Jesus as Israel-reduced-to-one. Israel was in the wilderness forty years (Deut 8:2), Moses was on Mt. Sinai forty days and nights (Exod 34:28), and Elijah was led for forty days and nights to Mt. Horeb (1 Kgs 19:8). In each instance the wilderness was a proving ground, a test of faithfulness, and a promise of deliverance. The same contrasts are present in Jesus’ temptation, for in the wilderness Jesus is both tempted by Satan and attended by angels.” (J R Edwards, op cit, 40.)
satan: This is a Hebrew word meaning “adversary”.
he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him: “It has been widely accepted, following Clement of Alexandria and Origen (but contrary to Chrysostom), that Mark was written at Rome.” (Henry Wansbrough OSB, “St Mark”, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, General Editor Reginald C Fuller, London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1969, 746a.) If Mark was written in Rome for a Christian community there in the 60s, when Nero was persecuting the Christians by placing them in the Coliseum for wild beasts to kill them, the odd reference to “wild beasts” in the text might have some particular significance. One author offers an interesting theory: “I am inclined to see in the reference to the wild beasts a very specific point of contact with Mark’s Roman readers. Tacitus spoke of Nero’s savagery toward Christians in the sixties of the first century in these words: ‘they were covered with the hides of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs’ (Ann. 15.44). Given the ravaging of Christians by ferocious animals during Nero’s reign, it is not difficult to imagine Mark including the unusual phrase ‘with the wild beasts’ in order to remind his Roman readers that Christ, too, was thrown to wild beasts, and as the angels ministered to him, so, too, will they minister to Roman readers facing martyrdom. If this explanation is correct, then ‘with the wild beasts’ is an important piece of evidence for locating the provenance of Mark in Rome during the reign of Nero.
“Although God leads Jesus into the test in the wilderness—as he leads Mark’s Roman readers—God does not abandon either Jesus or them in it. The imperfect tense of the Greek verb for ‘attended’ indicates that the angels ministered to Jesus not at the end of the test (so Matt 4:11), but throughout the forty days. This unassuming conclusion to the temptation is an example of the understated drama that characterizes Mark’s Gospel. The way of the Son of God has the Father’s blessing, and even in his trials by the archenemy Jesus is sustained by the Father’s celestial attendants” (J R Edwards, op cit, 41-42).
Galilee: The region of Galilee has a special place in the Gospel of Mark. In Galilee, Jesus enjoys his greatest successes – see 1:28 and 3:7. After his death and resurrection, Jesus meets his disciples there – see 14:28 and 16:7 – and re-commissions them for ministry. By way of contrast, Jerusalem is a place of hostility and opposition.
arrested: The Greek word is paradothēnai from paradidōmi meaning “deliver”, “betray”, “hand over”. This is a special word for Mark. We find it in 9:31 and 10:33 where it is the “handing over” of the Son of Man. The word appears 8 times in chapters 14 and 15, the Passion narrative. It is also applied to the disciples of Jesus – see 13:9, 11 & 12.
the good news of God: Apart from 1 Pet 4:17, this expression is used only by Mark and Paul (see 1 Thess 2:2, 9; 3:2; Rom 1:1; 15:16; 2 Cor 11:7).
The time is fulfilled: The Greek word translated as “time” here is Kairos. There is no exact English equivalent. The word Kairos carries the connotation of “proper” or “opportune” time. It may also suggest crisis – as in 13:33 (“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come”)
The kingdom of God: The Greek basileia – here translated as “kingdom” – presents the translator with a challenge. One scholar writes: “Translation is a problem here, and not simply because of the androcentric overtones of ‘king’. The word ‘kingdom’ is static and evokes a place where a king (or queen) rules. Greek basileia is more active and dynamic, with the nuance of the ‘reigning’ of God as well as a setting for that reign. ‘Kingdom’ is maintained here principally because of its important theological history. Though 1:15 may not provide the exact words of Jesus (some of the vocabulary suggests a post-Easter perspective, and Jesus taught in Aramaic in any case), the proclamation of the kingdom of God is generally admitted to be the heart of Jesus’ preaching in both word and deed. While the actual phrase ‘kingdom of God’ is infrequent in the ot and early Jewish literature, the image of God as king is strong, both in the course of history (e.g., Exod 15:11–13, 18; Num 23:21–23; Pss 2; 72; 89; 110; 145:11–12 [royal psalms]; Psalms 95–100 [possible enthronement psalms]), and at the consummation of history when God’s definitive reign will be established (Mic 2:12–13; 4:5–7; Isa 44:1–8; Zech 9:9–11; Zeph 3:14–20; Dan 2:44; 7:11–14; Ass. Mos. 10:1–25; Pss. Sol. 17:23–35).” (Donahue, J. R., & Harrington, D. J., op cit, 71.)
repent: The Greek word is metanoeite – from the verb metanoeō. Again, translation is a challenge. Metanoeō literally means “change one’s mind”. It gets closer to the original meaning if we say “change one’s mind and heart”. Jesus is calling for radical, inner transformation.
The language used in today’s Gospel – Mark 1:12-15 – is particularly striking. Whereas Matthew and Luke say Jesus “was led by the Spirit” – see Matthew 4:1 and Luke 4:1 – Mark says Jesus was “driven by the Spirit”. The Greek verb used by both Matthew and Luke, is ago. This word implies a certain gentleness and expected cooperation. The Greek word used by Mark, on the other hand, is ekballein. The verb ballein means “throw”. The word ekballein thus implies a certain suddenness, even violence, and perhaps the expectation of resistance. Mark uses the same verb when he speaks of Jesus himself driving out the demons – see 1:34, 39; 3:15, 22, 23; 6:13; 7:26; 9:18, 28, 38. And when Jesus is about to raise the daughter of Jairus, he drives out the people who laugh at the expectation of a miracle – see 5:40. Similarly, “if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out” (9:47), and in the parable of the wicked husbandmen, “they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard” (12:8).
It seems unlikely that Mark would have used this language inadvertently. Let us therefore assume that Mark is trying to tell us something by the use of this hard language. It is not for me or anybody else to say “Why” Mark does this. Let Mark draw you into his description of an event that is actually beyond description. We must wait upon the text therefore. Ponder it. Sit with it. Chew it over. Let it gnaw at you. Read and re-read the phrases, listening with the ear of your heart. The point is not to find “the answer” – as if there was such. The point is to lay yourself open to an encounter with the Living God. The words of Mary at the Annunciation come to mind: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Words and ideas come to me as I ponder Mark’s description: Urgency, emergency, don’t waste time, focus, let go of what does not matter, work, the power and work of the Holy Spirit, God is in charge, I am not in charge, God’s intent, surrender, joy, vitality, excitement, trust, hope, victory …. What words and phrases come to your mind?
We are in the presence of someone who has experienced an event that has turned his world on its head – he has been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God! By any measure – if it is true what we say about the Incarnation – it should also turn my world on its head also.
Has the Christ Event been reduced to merely “doing the right thing”? Have we become so fascinated with the power of this world – and our competition for that power – that we have lost faith in the power of God? Do we believe in the need for grace and redemption? Is there no excitement, awe, wonder, freedom, vision, energy in our belief that the Holy Spirit has been let loose in the world?