The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Lent 1 in Year C is Luke 4.1–13, Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. The 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested by Satan offers us the pattern for the Lenten period—though it is worth noting at the outset both that the figure 40 in Scripture is often taken as an approximate or symbolic number meaning ‘a significant period’ (the Exodus wanderings actually lasted 42 years) and that the 40 days of Lent don’t include the Sundays, which remain as feast days on which we are exempt from Lenten disciplines. So don’t forget where you stashed all that chocolate…!
(It is also worth noting the slightly odd way that the calendar use of Lent leading into Easter pushes the biblical narrative out of shape, since for Jesus the 40 days was a preparation for his ministry, with the events of Easter some way off, whereas for us the 40 days leads straight into the events of Holy Week and Easter itself. This might be an argument for reshaping the calendar, but I am not sure that is going to happen any time soon!)
Felix Just, on his Catholic Resources page, includes a helpful table of comparison of the three Synoptic accounts of the temptations:
|.||Mark 1:12-13||Matthew 4:1-11||Luke 4:1-13|
|12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts…||1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.||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.|
|x||3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.‘ ” (cf. Deut 8:3cd)||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.‘ “(cf. Deut 8:3c)|
|x||5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘ ” (cf. Deut 6:16)||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.‘” (cf. Deut 6:13)|
|x||8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.‘” (cf. Deut 6:13)||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.’ ” (cf. Ps 91:11-12) 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.‘ ” (cf. Deut 6:16)|
|13d – and the angels waited on him.||11 Then the devil left him,|
and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
|13 When the devil had finished every test,|
he departed from him until an opportune time.
This is helpful in both highlighting common themes drawn out by the three gospel writers, but also in highlighting different emphases.
A common theme is the tension between the apparent power of Satan, and the sovereignty of God in the whole event. Mark expresses this rather brutally—the Spirit ‘throws’ or ‘drives’ (ballo) Jesus into the desert—where Matthew and Luke are a little more measured. But all three are also clear that Jesus was not alone, contrary to some readings of this narrative, and also contrary to the rather miserable hymn I remember from school days, Lead us Heavenly Father, lead us, which included the lines:
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go
The temptations might not have been a bag of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’; in Mark he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and with the words of his Father’s blessing ringing in his ears. Luke also spells out the effect of this time of discipline; as I keep noticing in reading Luke, he is unashamed of the language of power, and having gone into the desert ‘full of the Spirit’ he returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14).
On the question of fasting, Mark doesn’t even mention it; Matthew highlights the forty ‘days and nights’ drawing his customary parallel with the experience of Moses (Ex 34.28); whilst Luke (perhaps writing for those less familiar with the biblical discipline of fasting?) emphasises the human reality that he ate nothing and so was famished.
This brings us to the question of the content and ordering of the three temptations. Some commentators question whether our account is of ‘real’ events, or whether (as depicted in some films) these things happened within Jesus’ mind—since, for example, there is no mountain high enough from which you can see ‘all the kingdoms of the world’. But we use the language of ‘seeing’ and ‘showing’ in all sorts of figurative ways, and there is nothing in the account to suggest that these were not real experiences, albeit with a supernatural dynamic to them. How did the gospel writers know about these (and other) events to which Jesus alone was witness? We have to conclude, with one Anglican wag, that ‘Jesus was in the unfortunate habit of regaling his disciples with accounts of his personal spiritual experiences’. (I cannot remember who said this, but the idea of such personal disclosure was clearly distasteful to him!)
It is commonly observed that the devil begins his attack on Jesus at the level of his identity and security: ‘If you are the son of God…’. It is equally commonly observed that Jesus responds each time by citing scripture, and consistently from Deut 6–8, passages that any observant Jew will have had to learn for Bar Mitzvah. It is rather striking that, in response to the devil’s question, Jesus does not cite in return the heavenly voice from his baptism.
We can also see the way that Jesus resistance to these temptations contrasts with the failure of God’s people in their desert wanderings. Where the people complained about lack of bread (Ex 16.3) and then about the lack of variety in the provision of manna (Num 11.6), Jesus is content with the call to desert discipline. Where the people succumbed to idolatry in making the golden calf (Ex 32), Jesus remains resolute in his focus on the worship of God alone. Where the people complained and tested God (Ex 17.2–3), Jesus resists the need to put God to the test; the word of experience and the word of Scripture are enough for him. In this regard, Jesus ‘recapitulates’ the story of God’s people, and will faithfully complete his ‘exodus’ (Luke 9.31).
But it is also clear that Luke has changed the order of the three temptations from Matthew. I think we can see that Luke acknowledges this, though the evidence is hidden in most English translations. Matthew uses the connections ‘then’ (tote) and ‘again’ (palin) in the second and third temptations, but Luke avoids these temporal succession markers, and simply says ‘and’ (kai) to link them. This reminds us that the gospel writers are not always offering us a chronological account of events, but are happy to organise their material in thematic and narrative ways that communicate something not just of the events of Jesus’ life, but of their significance.
Matthew’s order is the most natural, reaching a climax in relation to the nature of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing, reflecting the centrality of the ‘kingdom of God/the heavens’ within Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. Jesus’ response is also climactic, in that he is moving back through Deuteronomy in his citations, ever closer towards the central Jewish confession of the Shema (Deut 6.4): ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one/the only’. The rejection of idolatry, and the worship of God alone, is the central theological call of the Old Testament narrative. And this final conflict happens on a ‘high mountain’, just as Jesus begins his ministry on a mountain in the next chapter, and hands on his ministry to the disciples on a mountain in Matt 28.
For Luke, the central place of ministry and conflict in his narrative is the temple. The first revelation of the gospel happens to Zechariah in the temple; the final conflict for Jesus takes place in the temple precincts in Luke 19; and the life and ministry of the apostles continues after the resurrection in the temple (Luke 24.53), with the temple remaining the focus of the early community of Jesus’ followers in Acts 2.46.
But this reordering also opens up the temptations to be seen as undoing not only the failure of Israel, but the failure of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—who could not resist the allure of the delightful fruit to eat, who served the interests of the tempter, rather than remaining devoted to God, and who tested whether God’s word to them was true.
(There is a curious exploration of the existential nature of Jesus’ temptations on the Wikipedia discussion, though the content is unsourced:
Jesus was tempted three times. The temptations were hedonism (hunger / satisfaction), egoism (spectacular throw / might) and materialism (kingdoms / wealth). John the Evangelist in his epistle calls these temptations “in world” as “lust of eyes” (materialism), “lust of body” (hedonism) and “pride of life” (egoism). Temptations aim to mislead and pervert three main human characteristics; to think, wish and feel which are inside mind, soul and heart as Jesus alludes in Greatest Commandment. These are related with transcendentals or ultimate ideals in three areas of human interests; science (truth), arts (beauty) and religion (goodness). Christians are called to search for divine virtues; faith, hope and love that relate them directly to God who Himself is Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
fortitude (courage) when his life was in danger because he was very hungry after fasting for 40 days and rejected devil’s proposition to make “bread” (“hedonism”),
prudence (caution) when rejected proposition to make sign of conceit and might, a “spectacular throw” (“egoism”),
temperance (self-control) when rejected alluring offer to receive “kingdoms of world” (“materialism”).)
There are two important things to ponder when planning to preach on this passage. The first is how far to explore questions of the differences between the gospel accounts, and the place of the temptations in, for example, Luke’s narrative. There is a real danger that highlighting these things can turn a sermon, which seeks to speak God’s word to this congregation in this time and place through this passage, into a Bible study or a ‘merely’ academic exercise, offering the listeners interesting facts which might not evoke a response of faith. But in my experience it is important to ‘show one’s workings’ in an appropriate way, rather than pull a homiletic rabbit out of the hermeneutical hat, and somehow magically offering insight as a preacher which they as ‘ordinary’ readers could not have. In preaching, we are surely helping people to read the text of Scripture well, but also show them what good reading involves; we are wanting to help them to fish for themselves, and not simply offer them a couple of fish to eat for the coming week. Ordinary readers do find these observations interesting, and are motivated in their own reading and exploration—and it is no bad thing to treat congregations as involved and intelligent readers of Scripture themselves. These are the kinds of things to explore in helping people read the Bible well.
Secondly, the temptations of Jesus are often preached as though they were moral examples for us to follow: we should go into the desert; we should face our demons; we should quote from Scripture; and so on. But to preach in this way is in danger of missing the most important thing in preaching: not to put ourselves in the narrative as if we were the most important subject, but to note what God is doing and what God has done. The focus for all three gospels writers is that Jesus has undone the failures of both Israel and Adam; when we are incorporate into Jesus, we are incorporated into this victory, and we share in it by grace rather than by our own efforts. That does not mean, as we face temptations and challenges this Lent, we can avoid the challenge of discipline and effort. But we face these things knowing that Jesus conquered them, in the power of the Spirit, and that the same Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it is his presence that brings victory and enables us to be ‘more than conquerors’ (Rom 8.37; compare Rev 2.7 and parallels).
Here is our weekly video discussion of the issues between myself and James, in which we explore the questions here and the implications for our reading and preaching: