by Jeremiah Bartram on 15/02/10 at 10:06 am
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; reading for February 21, the first Sunday of Lent.
The NRSV notes that the order of the temptations differs from Matthew’s account, but that the substance is the same. The NRSV also says that the mention of forty days recalls the forty years the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. (Mark says only that he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for forty days, without telling us what the temptations were; both Matthew and Mark contain a detail absent from Luke’s account: that angels came and ministered to him.)
Hardy notes slight differences in geographical reference between Luke’s account and those of Matthew and Mark: “First, Jesus ‘returned from the Jordan and was led….’ Did Luke think that the ‘wilderness was in a different part of the country? In fact, ‘wilderness began close to the Jordan valley, and Mark and Matthew correctly describe Jesus entering it straight after his baptism. Secondly, according to Matthew Jesus was taken ‘to a very high mountain’. In the wilderness of Judea there are many such mountains which command an immense view over the Jordan valley and would have offered an impression of ‘all the kingdoms of the world.’ But Luke prefers to think of an inner vision – ‘in an instant’.
Hugues Cousin (Les evangiles, texts et commentaries) shows how Jesus’ death on the cross underlies Luke’s account here, which names the devil as the active agent of the series of temptations, and which (unlike Matthew’s version) finishes with a dark reminder of what is to come: “he departed from him until an opportune time”, that is, the hour when the Son of God, in obedience to the Father, would allow himself to undergo the passion, which Luke presents as orchestrated by the devil. To quote Cousin (in my translation): “the devil has lost a battle, but not the war…. For Luke, the temptations are the first test of a fight of which the finale will play itself out on the cross – and through the pascal tomb!”
Cousin briefly summarizes the well-known traditional interpretations of the three temptations: bread refers to “seeking only material goods”; the summit of the Temple is “testing God in seeking impressive Messianic signs”; and the kingdoms of the world is “compromising with evil in order to establish his Messianic power.”
Gospel for gays
Always a master storyteller, Luke presents his account of Jesus’ forty day desert retreat in context. He has established the divine and human origin of Jesus; he has shown how Jesus’ identity was revealed to him and others through the baptism of John; and now he presents Jesus in solitude, in the desert, working out what, exactly, his mission is, and how to achieve it.
The three temptations are specific to Jesus as Messiah. They are all about power: the power of Jesus (“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”), the power (or more correctly, the apparent power) of the devil (“for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please”), and the power of God (“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”).
And in each case, Jesus triumphs by refusing to usurp the power that rightly belongs to God.
So they are quite specialized, as temptations go. For example, they do not include sexual temptation (so much a feature of later desert followers, like Antony). Neither do they include sins against relationships with other people.
But they do have a general application – to the church, and to each of us – in their assertion of the primacy of God, of the sanctity of God, of the will of God, of trust in God over the self-aggrandizement, the illusions, the grandiosity and the fears that serve as default settings for so much of our own behavior.
For me, that’s point number one in reflecting on this gospel text: learning to give primacy to God, learning to trust in the will of God, learning to listen to his voice.
As gay people, we inhabit a kind of spiritual wilderness, because the official guides – the church guides, I mean – have so completely failed us. Like Jesus in the desert, we’re on our own. And it’s not that easy to discern the quiet voice of God and distinguish it from the personal and cultural baggage that demands our obedience.
Which brings me to point number two, the simple and obvious point.
As a gay man, I need to spend time alone, in prayer. Everyone needs to spend time alone, in prayer: that’s a given. And the season of Lent encourages that, in imitation of this forty day fast undertaken by Jesus.
But I feel that the official condemnation of gay love by the church – a condemnation that is wrong, whatever its intentions – makes prayer even more critical for believing Catholics like me. I need to root my life in God through prayer; and I need to know by experience that I am rooted in God.
And then there’s community. Jesus was alone in the desert, when he faced his devil. We are not alone, because we have other gay brothers and sisters, and fellow travellers who unite with us, and him, in prayer.
Isolation is a curse; we need community to thrive. A lot of gay believers feel very alone, because the faith communities around them fail to acknowledge their distinctness, and accept their gifts as they are. They feel they have to pretend, or hide their real gay natures.
That’s why this site, and others like it, exist: to witness to the fact that we are not alone; that even if we are separate physically, we form a supportive community in prayer.