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Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the gospel is on the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Mark refers to them very briefly, and uses two verses (vv. 12-13) to explain them. In front of these few lines some preachers are struggling to outline the homily. They then make use of the three temptations reported by Matthew and Luke. It is better to avoid resorting to this miserable expedient and limit oneself to the text of Mark, which is already quite rich.
We note: It is the Spirit who, after coming down on Jesus like a dove (Mk 1:10), leads him into the wilderness.
If “to tempt” is tantamount to “incite to evil,” the Spirit does not do that. In the Lord’s Prayer, in fact, we ask God “lead us not into temptation.” Yet, in the Bible, we read that God puts to the test people acceptable to him, not the wicked (Sir 2:5).
There are temptations that are not incitement to evil. These are the situations that the right person also has to face. These are the times when one is forced to make choices that are conducive occasions to make faith more solid and unwavering.
Those who want to grow, improve, purify, strengthen one’s commitment to God cannot be spared from these tests. Not even Jesus was spared and this brings him close to us, placing him on our side because he too “was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15).
Why does the evangelist place the trial of Jesus in the desert? What is this place?
There is no doubt that Jesus, like John the Baptist and many ascetics of his time, must have spent a period of his life in solitude, meditating and praying in some cave in the barren and desolate region that extends near the Dead Sea. So we ask: Did Mark want to restrict the time when Jesus was tempted, reducing it to the duration of this short experience?
It is not possible: this contradicts the statement quoted from the Letter to the Hebrews and renders Jesus a stranger, one who is exempted from our difficulties; one who enjoyed special privileges but was only grazed—or perhaps not—by anxieties and doubts that instead accompany us throughout life. This kind of Jesus would not interest us any longer.
The number forty clarifies, unequivocally, the intention of the evangelist. In the biblical symbolism it indicates a whole generation, with particular reference to the one who crossed the desert, tempted and died in the wilderness. The whole life of Jesus is thus depicted in these forty days in the wilderness. Throughout his life he has been subjected to the test. He entered into the desert immediately after receiving baptism from John. He started his exodus, waged war against satan, a tough fight that lasted until the moment in which, victorious, he came out of the desert, at the time of his death.
Who is Satan, this character that appears next to him?
The Hebrew word satan is not a personal name, but a common name. It indicates one who sets himself against, who places himself in front as an adversary and accuser. It was envisioned, at the time of Jesus, as an evil spirit, the enemy of the good of man, destroyer of God’s work. In our passage he is the personification of all the forces of evil against which Christ fought during the “forty days” of his short life on earth.
He presents himself again today, this antagonist of God and man, in the impulses of hatred, resentment, selfishness, greed to possess, the desire to dominate, the unruly passions that produce corruption and death. These are the Satan against which everyone, as Jesus did, is called to confront, not with practices of exorcism, but with the power of the Spirit who acts in the word of the gospel and the sacraments. It is through this inner struggle that we are offered the opportunity to mature and grow “thus we become the perfect Man, upon reachng maturity and sharing the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).
In his account, from the clear symbolic value, the evangelist introduces two other characters: the wild animals, and the angels—it should be kept in mind—they do not come into play to serve Jesus at the end of the forty days. They are by his side throughout his stay in the desert. Who do they represent?
Many believe that, speaking of wild animals becoming tame, Mark refers to the heavenly state, when Adam assigned animals their names and lived with them in perfect harmony (Gen 2:19-20). With the beginning of his public life, Jesus would begin to establish universal peace in the world and new relationships with nature and with animals.
More than the book of Genesis, I believe that the Evangelist is alluding to a memorable page in the book of Daniel (Dan 7) where the wild animals are the oppressors of the world powers: the bloody Babylonian empire is represented by the lion, that of the Medes by a bear, that of the Persian a leopard, the one of Alexander the Great and the Diadochi, his successors, a fourth beast, undefined but fearsome and terrible. Instead of serving the people and establishing peace and justice, these realms have oppressed the weak, tyrannizing and enslaving whole nations for centuries.
If this is, as I believe, the reference intended by Mark, then the wild animals Jesus confronted during his lifetime are the rulers of this world: the holders of power: political, economic and religious (the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, the high priests), spiritual leaders (scribes) who “made a show of long prayers,” but “devour the widows’ goods” (Mk 12:40); are those who preach God as an executioner and an enemy of sinners (the Pharisees).
Jesus has struggled to defend people, to rescue them from the clutches of institutions which, instead of serving, tyrannized them.
The evangelist wants to warn his disciples that they will have something to do with the same beasts: the economic powers that take advantage of and forced entire population to live in misery, foolish ideologies which induce them to make follies and crimes, fanaticism, religious fundamentalism and racism.
Even the angels, like the wild animals, are identified on the basis of biblical references. The term angel does not necessarily mean a spiritual being, as is generally imagined. It means every mediator of God’s salvation and is applied to anyone who becomes a tool in the hands of the Lord on behalf of humanity. Moses who led Israel in the wilderness is called “angel” (Ex 23:20,23), John the Baptist is presented by Mark as an “angel” (Mk 1:2). Angels of the Lord are those who cooperate with God’s plan, who are committed to taking forward the new world begun by Christ.
During his “during forty days” Jesus met wild animals, but also many angels on his way. Angels who took care of him were certainly his parents, women who assisted him during his public life, those who shared the values proposed by him and the choices he made, who stayed at his side—“served” him—collaborating in his work of salvation.
There are many, even today, angels who, in His providence, the Lord makes appear, especially in the darkest hours, beside each of his disciples.
One who can restore peace in the life of a couple, who comforts the downcast, who points out the ways of the Lord, who communicates joy and infuses hope is an angel. There is, however, even for the disciple, the danger of becoming, perhaps in good faith, a Satan, a wild animal. It happened to Peter when he abandoned following Christ, he wanted to precede the master to teach him the way (Mk 8:33). It can happen to us if, forgetful of the gospel principles, we adapt to the “magisterium” of this world that preaches violence, abuse, hedonism, refusal of sacrifice.
In the second part of the passage, Mark at first specifies the place where Jesus started his proclamation, Galilee. Then he offers a synthesis of his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; Repent and believe the gospel” (vv. 14-15).
The site chosen to inaugurate the mission has a theological meaning. Jesus did not stop in the desert where the Baptist did his work. He did not claim that the people looked for him. He let each one remain in his house and in his room. He himself moved to meet anyone who needed his understanding and his help.
He did not go directly to Jerusalem, the religious capital where the pure Jews lived, where the temple’s priests so impeccably perform their liturgies. He turned to the most despised region, the Galilee of the Gentiles. Along the banks of the lake he found fishermen mending their nets, near the customs in Capernaum he saw Levi, sitting at the tax office and called him. He entered the homes of tax collectors where sinners were waiting for him. He sat at table with them. He had a message of joy from the Lord for all the outcasts: the time of preparation has ended, the new era of history has started, the kingdom of God is near.
The kingdom of God. How many emotions this expression aroused in the Israelites! For the majority of the people it pointed to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the coming of the messiah to defeat and humiliate the pagan nations. For the Pharisees it was the time when everyone would observe faithfully the provisions of the law. There were the holders of political, religious and above all economic power; they did not want any new kingdom and preferred to perpetuate the existing one.
In announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God, Jesus has awakened in many ancient, dormant hopes; in others distrust, open hostility to those in power. He envisioned a radically new society, based on principles opposed to those which, until then, had characterized the relations between people. It is no longer domination, but service; not selfish hoarding of goods, the pursuit of self-interest and the race to the top, but the choice to share everything so that no one would be poor; not revenge and implacable justice of people, but forgiveness and unconditional love for the enemy.
Illusion of a dreamer? No, it is a concrete proposal, though apparently not viable, because it is contrary to our inclination who, by instinct, is taken to close in on our own advantage. “Believe in the Gospel”—Jesus recommended—trust the good news, welcome the proposal of God and the kingdom of heaven, that is “close at hand”. It will be yours and will become the most intimate part of your being. It’s not an unattainable utopia, it is possible, indeed, the new has already risen (2 Cor 5:17).
12At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert,13and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.
14 After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:15 “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
I have not checked the entire list, but I am sure this is the Sunday with the shortest Gospel in the whole Lectionary, just four verses. And although it is traditionally known as the “Sunday of Jesus’ Temptations,” the subject is dealt with in just two verses! There is a shocking difference between the way Matthew and Luke present this story when compared with Mark. Our text does not mention any of the elements the other evangelists consider essential: the substance of the temptations (obtaining personal advantage or profit by turning stones into bread; receiving admiration by recurring to God’s action to overcome showy, but unnecessary risks; and subjecting his condition as the Son of God to Satan’s power in order to possess riches and might). The text does not include any dialogue between Jesus and Satan, nor does it mention Jesus’ fasting or hunger. But, in spite of its simplicity, the tiny fragment contains a number of connotations a Jewish reader would easily understand. (Unfortunately, just like us, Christians from a Greek-Roman context must have felt a bit “at sea.”)
But there is more to this first Sunday of Lent than the text from Mark. Let us start with the first liturgical celebration. In the rite of the imposition of ashes, the minister repeats: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,” recalling the basic words pronounced by Jesus when he began his ministry proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom. The beginning of Lent is, in a sense, the anticipation of the entire ascent towards the paschal celebration in Jerusalem. And, of course, it recalls God’s invitation to imitate his fidelity. In spite of Israel’s failures and sins, God will never send the waters again “to become a flood and destroy all mortal beings” (Genesis 9:15). Water, on the contrary, will become, in baptism, the source of new life in Christ (1 Peter 3:21) and, together with the light, will be the core of the Paschal Vigil.
The two verses of Jesus’ temptations contain, as I said before, a great number of allusions that we should examine. Jesus does not go to the desert on his own initiative, but is driven, “forced” by the Spirit, and stays there for forty days, just as the Hebrews had been led by Yahweh through the desert, for forty years, before entering the Promised Land. Jesus’ temptations (as we saw, Mark does not mention any in particular) are not an enticement to make him trip and fall, but rather an “exercise” to put him to the test and “temper” him before facing the mission he has to fulfil, much like Abraham when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac (Hebrews 11:17), or Adam in the Garden of Eden (another contrasting allusion to Jesus’ desert). Together with this context, Mark also mentions wild beasts and angels, and that brings to our memory Psalm 91. In a long prayer of confidence in the Lord, the just are described as the ones who live under God’s protection. Although they may be surrounded by dangers of every kind (snares set by enemies, pestilence, an army of foes, asps, lions or dragons), there is nothing they must fear, for the faithfulness of the Lord is a protecting shield. Even the angels have been ordered to guard them wherever they goes, and support them with their hands. In fact, both Matthew and Luke quote this psalm in their parallel story, although the purpose and context are utterly different. After this, Mark will sum up Jesus’ mission and his basic message in two simple verses: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
In a sense, Mark’s terse, almost laconic description of the temptations can be extremely helpful. Strictly speaking, the elaborate content of the other Synoptic accounts were to be understood as temptations, not only of Jesus and his Messianic role, but also of the Church and her relationship to power and other worldly means. Mark, instead, leaves us before this time of conversion with “open questions” about ourselves and the realms and ways in which we should transform our lives to make them consistent with the Gospel. What are our real temptations; what can divert us from following Jesus? Very rarely will we admit that behind lust there is a desire of dominion; or that selfishness is in fact a sign of our fear of “losing ourselves;” or that envy may hide a lack of acceptance of our mediocrity. Only in a sincere and humble silence can we face our real failures and shortcomings, not in the routine of repeating the commandments. Accordingly, our conversion must take our deep reality as the starting point to find the way to return to the “ways of the Lord,” taking up our cross and following him.
Lent is a period of time for prayer and reflection. Let us take things with calm and patience. Just a couple of concrete prayers today. Let us pray for those who face serious decisions in their lives: that they may discard the options that contradict the Gospel or their personal commitment to Jesus, and may make the right choice. And let us pray for ourselves: that this time of Lent may make us aware of our real selves (with our limits, failures, assets and possibilities), and find the way to get rid of whatever hinders us from being faithful to the Gospel, that we may grow in love for Jesus and our brothers and sisters.
Fear is one of the factors that prevent us from putting into practice the demands Jesus poses when he invites us to follow him. Fear of change, of renouncement of our life-style, fear of losing ourselves and our comfortable, custom-made Christianity, of the risks of being witnesses to Jesus and his Gospel. Read again Psalm 91: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High…“and John’s chapter 16. Even if the path is hard, Jesus’ words reassure us: “Take courage. I have conquered the world.”
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain http://www.americanbible.org