Sunday, February 22, 2015 - Click here for the readings
What’s going on in today’s Gospel?
The Gospel of Mark, the first of the four to be written, is invariably economical with words. The Temptation in the Desert, as it is known, is recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke; “synoptic” meaning “seeing as one,” because these 3 provide largely the same overarching narrative of Jesus’ life). But, whereas Matthew and Luke provide the reader with an extensive dialogue between Jesus and the Satan (think of the Satan telling a hungry Jesus that he ought to use his power to turn stones into bread), Mark’s entire account is a mere two sentences. Thus, in no small part due to its brevity, today’s Gospel compels us to pay particular attention to each individual word.
In all three accounts, the Temptation is recorded as taking place in the deserted area, or the wilderness, following the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, but before the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. While the Synoptics often agree that an event has taken place, the respective authors frequently situate the particular timing of that event relative to an overarching narrative about Jesus’ ministry. The fact that all three concur as to the specific timing of this episode in Jesus’ life is of enormous importance. That the Temptation occurs just prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is part of what is going on in the story itself.
The next item worth noting is the fact that Jesus does not wander out into the wilderness of his own volition, but because the Spirit--that is, the Spirit of the LORD, or the Spirit of God--leads Jesus there. In fact, whereas Matthew and Luke claim that the Spirit “led” Jesus, Mark’s says that the Spirit “drove” Jesus. (Think of the difference between cattle being “led,” or, guided gently, into a pen, versus cattle being “driven,” which implies a level of chaos and perhaps even force. Could it be that the evangelist is implying that Jesus was not necessarily enthusiastic about being “driven” out into the desert?
Further, the fact that the location for this event is “the desert” for “forty days,” is an explicit invocation of a parallel with both the time the Jews were led by Moses into the desert, to wander for forty years, as well as when the prophet Elijah fasted for forty days in the desert before arriving at Mount Horeb. References to Moses and Elijah would have sent a clear message to Mark’s original audience--this Jesus is a prophet of the highest order, and he is being brought into a special place where the unique revelation of God might occur. Moreover, the number forty is significant throughout the Scriptures. God sent rain to flood the world, we are told, for “forty days and forty nights.” The Jews, as previously mentioned, wandered the desert for “forty years.” Forty did not necessarily mean the exact number forty, or four times ten. Rather, it was a symbol indicating the length of time it took for God to accomplish a purpose.
Did the Jews literally wander the desert for multiple decades? That seems highly unlikely. Instead, we are to understand that they wandered precisely as long as was necessary for God to teach them the lesson they needed to receive. Similarly, Jesus’ time in the desert can reasonably be described as, the length of time it took for God to do what God needed to do with Jesus. So why would God allow the Satan to tempt Jesus?
Why does God permit the Satan to tempt Jesus?
For the Jews of Jesus’ day, the term “Satan” had a very different meaning than our modern notion of “the devil.” The Satan was not the proper name of a personal being, but the title of a role. Specifically, a role belonging to one of the members of God’s Heavenly Court. Insofar as God was hailed as King of the Universe, it was understood that, like any earthly king, God would have attendants, servants, and individuals performing particular roles. The role of the Satan, which roughly translates as “the Prosecutor,” was to test the righteous.
Rather than viewing the Satan as an evil creature that sought to ruin souls, the Jews of Jesus’ day would have thought of the Satan more the way that we think of a Drill Sergeant. Think of videos you’ve seen of new Marine recruits, freshly arrived at Parris Island, preparing to start boot camp. Throughout this hellish experience, the recruits are pushed to their absolute physical and psychological limits. The role of the Drill Sergeant is to get up in their faces, screaming some pretty nasty and discouraging things. If we were an outsider looking in on this process, we would probably think, “How horrible! What an awful person! This sick individual clearly hates these recruits!”
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Drill Sergeant has been given a specific task--to put these young recruits through an unimaginably grueling several weeks, in order to prepare them for the actual horrors of combat. The Drill Sergeant knows that if he and his peers do not do their job properly, the recruits who are eventually sent out into the field could be unprepared for the even more unspeakable atrocities of war. We need not take such an extreme example. Think of a strength and conditioning coach tearing into athletes during the pre-season during a workout. Or an attending physician at the hospital grilling the young medical students about possible drug interactions during morning rounds. What each of these positions has in common is an understanding that, in order to prepare a person for the sports season, or a career as a doctor, or a role as a combat infantryman, the person has to be pushed. Tested.
So what does this have to do with us?
If the Spirit of God brought Jesus out in the desert, and the Satan was permitted to test Jesus, it was for a similar purpose. Jesus’ public ministry was a grueling ordeal. He was assailed relentlessly by Pharisees, Scribes, and religious leaders whose way of life he threatened. He was rejected by his own people, questioned as to his authority, and castigated for associating himself with sinners, tax collectors, and lepers. Undoubtedly, there must have been days he wanted to give up. Walk away from the arguments with scholars of the Law, and go back to making cabinets in Nazareth. Live a quiet life.
But instead, he knew he was called to see this mission through to its completion. And so just prior to the commencement of this mission, he was put through an incredibly tormenting ordeal, one might imagine so that he could, during those really rough days of his ministry, think to himself, “I’ve survived worse,” and draw strength from that. Think of the Marines who, having crawled through freezing cold mud and being forced to go for runs in the middle of the night, while hungry and sleep deprived, can feel confident out in the field that their training has prepared them to see the mission through. Or, again, the athlete who, while exhausted at half time of a game in the middle of a long season, can think back to the wind sprints and two-a-days of the offseason that have prepared them for this. Jesus went forty days without food, while being pushed to his limits. Surely he could survive a few nasty words from people upset that his disciples were picking grains on the Sabbath.
Perhaps it is the same with us. Perhaps God has put us through some particularly grueling or exhausting ordeal in our lives that, looking back, we see has made us stronger. Maybe we were bullied in elementary school. Maybe we survived an unusually bad breakup. Maybe a parents’ divorce, a loved one’s sickness, or a rejection from the college of our dreams, turns out to have been something that--although awful and seemingly unbearable to go through at the time--was something God allowed us to go through, in order to prepare us for something down the road.
When he was out in the desert, his body screaming with pain from starvation, his spirit trampled by loneliness and fear, Jesus must have had a tough time thinking about how he’d look back and see how it all fit into God’s plan. He probably just felt consumed by pain. Because that’s how it is, when we’re in the moment. It is hard to see beyond how awful we feel, and to think anything other than how badly we want it to be over. It is in those moments that we must pray that God sends angels to minister to us, as well. And pray to have the trust that God would not lead us out into this desert, just to punish us, but because it is part of some larger plan, the full breadth of which we cannot yet understand.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever felt as though you were going through a period of time when you were being tested by God? What was going on?
2. If you’ve been through an experience like that, how did you get through? Were there any “angels ministering” to you? People put in your life to help you get through that experience?
3. Have you ever watched someone else going through a period like this? If you were to see someone being tested in the future, how could you be one of the angels ministering?
4. Do you believe that God has a plan for your life, and that all these experiences are part of a larger design? If so, why? If not, why not?