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Progressive Christianity Lent Course 2016 Alternative Insights into the Lent Gospel Readings


Lent 1 Luke 4:1-13

The Temptation of Jesus

1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 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. 3 The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4 Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”‘

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 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. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8 Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”‘

9 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, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”‘

12 Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”‘ 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Although the set Lectionary reading for today is in Luke, I begin with Mark’s earlier account of the Temptations. In 2 verses of Mark 1 we have the baptism of Jesus, and the next 2 verses say, “Straight away Yahweh God’s Spirit made Jesus go into the desert. He stayed there for 40 days while Satan tested him. Jesus was with wild animals, but angels took care of him”

Whereas the Gospel of Mark takes 4 verses covering the baptism and temptations of Jesus, by the time that the Gospel of Matthew comes along [80-85 CE], we have 5 verses on the Baptism and 11 verses concerning the Temptations. Clearly, as early Christian theology developed, the baptism of Jesus had become more important but the temptations immensely more important. This pattern developed further in Luke’s stories of Jesus that came shortly after Matthew’s Gospel. In Luke’s version we have 2 verses on the Baptism and 13 verses concerning the temptations. Although these Gospel accounts differ, especially in the changing emphases upon the relative importance of baptism and temptations, I have no doubt that around the time of his baptism Jesus did go into the wilderness to abstain from food and to pray.

However, I am convinced that Jesus did this before his baptism by John and not after as presented in the Gospel accounts. I say this because going into the wilderness was the normal requirement for a woman or man who was preparing for initiation into becoming a ‘nazir’- one set aside for the work of Yahweh God. To become a ‘nazir,’ the Jewish woman or man had to undergo a wilderness initiation rite that lasted for a minimum period of 30 days, during which time she or he would have to go without food and wine, not cut their hair nor touch a dead body.

After this, the one who was determined to become a nazir would have to be ritually cleansed in water – and, I am convinced, it was at that point that John baptised Jesus! After baptism the nazir then made offerings to Yahweh God. These Jewish offerings were very significant as we consider what traditional Christian teaching tells us about Jesus: a basket of unleavened bread; drink and grain offerings; a lamb as a burnt offering; a ewe as a sin offering; a ram as a peace offering.

Also, although the Gospels show that Jesus enjoyed a party and partook of wine, it was almost at the end of his life that he said that he would not drink wine again until he came into the Kingdom beyond death. As I think about that Last Supper with his friends, I wonder if he was returning to the sense of security of his Nazirite roots before the inevitability of his arrest, trial and execution?

Although there is no intention of Mark or Matthew or Luke to consider this as substitutionary atonement, that is Jesus dying in our place, the Gospel writers had Jesus offering himself as the Nazirite – metaphorically as the Lamb of Yahweh God, the ewe of the sin offering, the ram of the peace offering and the consecrated one, set apart for Yahweh God to use in a unique and special way. However, it is important for us to acknowledge that substitutionary atonement theology, so central to the beliefs of many Christians, was Anselm’s idea 1000 years after the Gospels were written!

When I take the bread and wine in Communion I remember Jesus as both the consecrated spiritual Nazir and Jesus the geographic Nazarene who lived and affirmed the fullness of humanity through which people then and now can experience Divinity.

Both Matthew and Luke knew the Hebrew Scriptures inside out. And the accounts of the wilderness experiences of Jesus specifically linked Jesus with the experiences of Moses and the Chosen People of Yahweh God as they wandered around in the desert for 40 years. Both Matthew and Luke searched back into their Hebrew Scriptures and found links with the Book of Deuteronomy chapters 6 to 8, from where they added the detailed story of 3 conversations with Satan. This is Midrash at work! Midrash is the rabbinic technique of taking stories from their ancient scriptures and reworking them into the Jesus story to help the listeners and readers understand Jesus within his Jewish tradition. Those who are my regular listeners and readers will know my emphasis upon Midrash!

Neither Matthew or Luke wrote accurate history in their additions to Mark’s simple 4 verse story of the baptism and temptations of Jesus. Here both Matthew and Luke were using rabbinic Midrash to re-tell the ancient stories of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy to help their communities of Jesus followers to understand the meaning of the way in which Jesus lived and died. Please note that Moses was in the wilderness for 40 years and Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days. The number 40 is of great symbolic importance in the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic scriptures: it took the Jewish people 40 years in the desert before they could understand the things that had taken place in Pharoah’s Egypt and in the Exodus story.

The number 40 is mentioned at least 146 times in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, often symbolizing a period of testing, trial or probation. Let us stay with Moses for a moment: according to the stories he lived forty years in Egypt and forty years in the desert before Yahweh God called him to lead his people out of Pharoah’s slavery. But there is more: on two separate occasions (Exodus 24:18, 34:1 – 28), Moses spent 40 days and nights upon Mount Sinai receiving the laws and commandments of Yahweh God. And it will be no surprise to read in the Book of Numbers 13:25, 14:34 that Moses sent out spies for forty days, investigating the land promised by Yahweh God to the Israelites as their perpetual inheritance.

And for how long did Jonah warn Nineveh that Yahweh God would destroy it owing to the sins of the people? 40 days! And how long did Ezekiel rest on his right side to symbolize the sins of Judah (Ezekiel 4:6)? You guessed it – 40 days!

And while spending time on Mt. Horeb, for how many days did Elijah go without food or water? Again, 40 days. And we know from our Gospel stories of the temptations of Jesus that he spent 40 days without food or water as he prepared for his ministry. And a final reference to 40 – in the Gospel stories Jesus continued to appear to his disciples for 40 days after his execution.

But there is more Midrash connection with food. The Deuteronomy stories include Yahweh God providing food [manna] in the wilderness, but even then for some of the people of Yahweh God, that was not sufficient. They had turned to idol worship and tested the very patience of Yahweh God. Matthew and Luke were comparing and contrasting the people of Yahweh God at the time of Moses and the hungry, persecuted people of Yahweh God within their 9th decade communities situated across the Roman Imperial Empire.

Just as Yahweh God had provided food, the manna in the wilderness for the Children of Israel, so now Yahweh God was providing the spiritual food of Jesus for the followers of Jesus. Matthew and Luke were saying that although Jesus was descended from those rebellious people who at the time of Moses had turned from Yahweh God and began to worship the Golden Calf, Jesus managed to resist the temptations.

Both Matthew and Luke were being pastorally supportive and encouraging of their own people saying, “Look at Moses and Joshua – both great leaders from our history but they failed from time to time in being faithful to Yahweh God. Now because Jesus did not give in to temptations he is greater than both Moses and Joshua. It is by following the life and example of Jesus that we also can be kept from failing Yahweh God.”

This is what was behind the three wilderness temptations of Jesus. First Satan came to the famished Jesus and said, “If you are the Son of Yahweh God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Looking back at the Exodus experiences of the Children of Israel, turning stones into bread was against the will of Yahweh God because the hungry people at the time of Moses had been provided with Yahweh God’s bread – manna – in the wilderness. Even so, some of the Children of Israel eventually rebelled against Yahweh God and the manna. Thus Matthew had Jesus respond in the words taken from Deuteronomy 8:3, “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

It is important to remember that this Deuteronomy passage was a message of hope and obligation originally written for the Jewish exiles captive in Babylon some 600 years before Jesus. And both Matthew and Luke now applied a similar message to their people: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh God.”

The second temptation of Jesus occurred when Satan is said to have taken him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the Jerusalem Temple. Here Satan quoted Psalm 91, “If you are the Son of Yahweh God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” And Jesus responded with, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your Yahweh God to the test.”‘

I am sure that this ‘test’ was a reference to Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not test the LORD your Yahweh God as you did at Massah.” And what had happened at Massah? The reference is found in Exodus 17, the place of rebellion where the Israelites quarrelled and tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” It was the place where the people despaired and rebelled against Yahweh God owing to their unbearable thirst and Moses is said to have taken a stick, hit a rock and streams of living water came forth.

And the final temptation in the wilderness was Satan taking Jesus to a very high mountain where he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And then Satan offered all of these to Jesus on condition that Jesus abandoned his worship of Yahweh God and bowed down and worshipped Satan.

Matthew and Luke had Jesus answer by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “Worship the Lord your Yahweh God, and serve only him.” This was Matthew and Luke reinforcing the ancient Jewish belief in One God, Yahweh, and only Yahweh was worthy of worship.

Here are both Matthew and Luke supporting and encouraging their Followers of the Way of Jesus within their respective communities to stay the course and not to be tempted to go off after other gods as their ancestors had done in the wilderness at the time of Moses and Joshua. Matthew and Luke were reassuring their communities, “Jesus did not give in to temptation, unlike our fore fathers, and therefore there is no need for you to give in either, even though life is difficult as we continue under both the Roman occupation and our new exile as we, the Jewish and Gentile Followers of the Way of Jesus, are expelled from our synagogues.”

By having Jesus free from sinning against Yahweh God’s Perfect Love and provision, Matthew and Luke show Jesus to be the unique and perfect lover of Yahweh God. They were saying, “Moses was great, but Jesus is greater. Follow Jesus because he is the one who has brought in the new humanity in which people can experience divinity.”

So there you have it. Did Jesus spend sacred preparation time in the wilderness? I am convinced that the answer is ‘yes’. But did Jesus have these discussions with Satan as recorded by Matthew and Luke? I doubt it partly because I do not personify evil into a character known as Satan or the Devil. Evil, as Jack Spong reminds us, is the result of us not, as yet, being fully human. We are all sacred works in progress, capable of extraordinary heights of love and sacrificial servant hood, as well as extraordinary depths of cruelty towards one another.

As I understand the wilderness story of the temptations of Jesus, Matthew and Luke were using Midrash to take the Sacred stories of the past and apply them to their Sacred present, to challenge, to support and to encourage the persecuted followers of Jesus.

And so finally, back to Lent this year. Have you decided to give up anything for Lent? If so, let it be more than a token. Let it be in recognition that Lent is a time of preparation as we move towards the events of that barbarous weekend in which Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Roman occupation force.

Lent is not about foregoing the odd chocolate bar or glass of wine. Lent is a deeply spiritual and Sacred time in which we recognise again that in Jesus we have a new Creation of Humanity of which the radical hallmark is Perfect, Sacrificial and Unconditional Compassionate Love for the Yahweh God who comes to us every day in those people round about us.

As we prepare for Easter, this Season of Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect again upon how we experience Yahweh God and how we live our lives of servant hood – not as doormats to be trampled under foot but as true servants of Yahweh God who proclaim by our lives that Jesus is our Way, our Truth and our Life.

Lent offers us the opportunity NOT to give up but to give more of ourselves in the service of others and in the causes of justice and peace. May this Season of Lent have real meaning for each one of us.

This study is adapted from the chapter ‘In the Beginning’ from my book Setting Jesus Free, published by O Books [2009]

Copyright ©: 2016, Rev John Churcher All rights reserved. New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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