Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent (14 February 2016)
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)
For similar accounts see Matthew 4:1–11 and Mark 1:12, 13. See also Hebrews 2:14-18 and 2:15. While John does not tell us of a specific testing in the wilderness, he does make references to it – see John 6:14–15; 7:1–9; 12:27–28.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit: Luke makes explicit mention of the Holy Spirit at least fifteen times in his Gospel. Most of them are in the first four chapters, as if he is setting the context for the whole story of Jesus. Perhaps the most significant of these reference comes in the conversation between the Angel Gabriel and Mary: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35).Other references include the following: the Angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah and promises that John the Baptist will be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15); Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41); when John the Baptist is born, Zechariah is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and sings his hymn of blessing (1:67); the “Holy Spirit rested upon” Simeon (2:25 + two other references there); John the Baptist tells the people that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16); when Jesus is baptized “the holy Spirit descends upon him” (3:22). Then we have our text today. Significantly, when Jesus returns from the “wilderness” where the Holy Spirit has led him, he does so with “power”: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee ...” (4:14). The Greek word used here is dynamis. It is used in association with the Holy Spirit in the Angel’s message to Mary – see above. It is also used in Jesus’ last instruction to the disciples: “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power (dynamis) from on high” (24:49). We get our word dynamite from the Greek word dynamis!
This episode of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness lends particular force to the episode that follows immediately afterwards. Jesus goes to Nazareth, enters the synagogue on the Sabbath and applies the words of Isaiah to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ....” And thus he proclaims his mission to set people free from all manner of evil – even when that evil is masquerading as religion. Oppression is oppression, no matter how we disguise it.
“The passage shows us Luke’s construal of the struggle between God and the powers of evil as one between two kingdoms. The devil has real ‘authority’ (exousia) over those he rules. And his shadow-kingdom parodies that of God, enabling him in his challenges to this Messiah to counterfeit the coinage of God’s realm, offering seductions all too real for a messianic ambition in that troubled place and time. The reader is to understand that by winning this most fundamental battle of the heart, the Messiah’s subsequent words and deeds are in effect a mopping-up operation, ‘If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God is upon you’ (Luke 11:20). The point of the encounter therefore is that Jesus is true minister of God’s kingdom, obedient to the one who commissioned him (Luke 10:16), so that in all he does ‘God is with him’ (Acts 10:38).” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 75-76.)
Two particular words in Luke’s text – “forty” and “wilderness” – evoke memories of the Exodus Event. In the Hebrew Scriptures, nothing is written before the Exodus Event, everything is written after it and in the light of it. In fact, the Exodus Event is a paradigm for our personal and communal lives. The Exodus Event also gives us a good window on the liturgical celebrations of Lent and Easter.
The word “Exodus” is the Latin form of the Greek term exodos, meaning an “exit” or a “going out”. The Exodus Event refers most obviously to God’s action in liberating the people from their slavery in Egypt. But there is much more to it than that. Their “going out” leads to a “going through” so that they might “enter in”. All three phases are integral to the liberation wrought by God.
Ezekiel reminds us: “I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness” (Ezekiel 20:10; also Joshua 24:7, Amos 2:10 and Jeremiah 2:2). But the wilderness is a “howling waste” (Deuteronomy 32:10.), a land of “trouble and anguish” (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 (Job 6:8.). The wilderness, in other words is a place of death. It seems very strange that the people are set free from Egypt only to be taken into a place of death. What is happening?
“The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2). We are getting to the very essence of the Exodus Event here. This place of death is in fact the place of a much deeper liberation. The way to the Promised Land – to the life we all long for – passes through the “wilderness”. That is an unavoidable fact of human existence. What is being dealt with in the place of death is not a political or social oppressor but an oppressor from within the people themselves – within all of us. The “grace” we find in the “wilderness” of our lives is life through death. In dying we live (see John 12:24).
In the Christian Scriptures, nothing is written before the New Exodus, everything is written after it and in the light of it. Jesus is the saving Presence of God that enables us to find life through death. Through Him, with Him and in Him, we live our lives – individually and communally – as an ongoing Exodus Event.