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1st Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2010
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
The Gospel reading, Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus, is a rich text that is classically suited for the beginning of Lent. As Luke T. Johnson comments, the three specific temptations Jesus faces have to do with “the seizure of palpable power” and “would suggest to the Hellenistic reader the threefold categories of vice: love of pleasure, love of possessions, love of glory.” (The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 3, p. 76). Jesus thus faces precisely the same kinds of temptations all human beings face, even though it is clear from the placing of the story at the beginning of his ministry that the scene is preparatory to his messianic tasks. He is led there by the Spirit, which means that although it is the devil who does the tempting, God has placed him in this position precisely as a test. The terms translated in the NRSV as “tempted” (peirazo) in v. 2 and “put…to the test”(ekpeirazo) in v. 12 are from the same root, and both can mean either “tempt” or “test.” A related noun, peirasmos, appears in v. 13 to describe the process the devil has put Jesus through. This repetition ties the pericope tightly together around the theme of test/temptation and underlines the character of the scene as a typical motif in heroic tales: the hero must undergo some sort of validating trial before embarking upon a mission. God does not tempt, but it is part of the duty the commander of a mission to test the combatants.
The one being tested, however, does not stand alone. This scene opens with the narrator’s notation that Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit,” and the following scene repeats the emphasis: “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee…” (1:14a) This reflects Luke’s distinctive emphasis upon the Holy Spirit as the driving force throughout the whole narrative of the gospel and Acts, but it also has the specific effect of linking Jesus’ deeds to the power of the Spirit. And this includes his inner, moral victory won in the temptation scene, his preaching of “good news to the poor” in his inaugural sermon (4:16-30), and the healings and other miracles he will perform as the story develops. Although Jesus is the hero of the narrative, then, readers should conclude that they, too—as potential recipients of the Spirit—have access to the same resources in their own tests and temptations.
The dialogue between Jesus is focused to some extent on the interpretation of scripture. Jesus quotes scripture in all his replies, but the devil does also in the final temptation. To some extent, then, the story is a study in alternative hermeneutics, illustrating that texts are not self-interpreting. The devil can make a credible case for his position in terms of the surface meaning of a given text, but Jesus—“full of the Holy Spirit”—can see through such distorted use of scripture. The broader, spiritual-theological framework that an interpreter brings to a text can make all the difference as to whether that text serves a destructive or a constructive function.
Jesus’ answer to the second temptation with Deuteronomy 6:13, an equivalent of the first commandment, provides a link to the readings from the Hebrew Bible and Romans. Deuteronomy 26, which commands the giving of the first-fruits to God, is an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and human dependence upon God’s goodness and mercy. Interestingly, this reading ends with a command to celebrate, which reinforces the point that God’s gifts are given for human welfare. Placing God first in one’s life is not a response to mere, raw power, but a grateful affirmation of the One who cares deeply for human beings. Psalm 91, similarly, is a paean of praise God as protector. And, finally, the reading from Romans is a promise of salvation for all who confess Jesus. It has an exclusivist aspect to it, but it signifies God’s inclusive love by stressing that there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. And it also dismantles the notion that salvation is a reward for credulity or theological correctness by stressing that confession with the mouth must flow from a belief that comes from the heart.
The temptation story is one of the points in the gospels where a note of contingency shines through what sometimes seems like a drama with a predetermined outcome. The reader is of course prepared by this time in the story to assume that Jesus will pass the tests. But the very fact of the tests—despite the supernatural setting—is a reminder that although in the gospels Jesus is clearly the Son of God he is also a human being, subject to the physical and even emotional limitations that belong to human existence. And it is precisely this point that makes this story particularly interesting from a process perspective. Jesus is clearly engaged in eschatological warfare in the gospels. The devil who confronts him in this story is the ruler of an alternative empire that opposes God’s Rule. Jesus, of course, is victorious over the devil but not by force of arms. In this scene, he wins a victory by resisting temptations regarding power, and in his prayer before his arrest (22:39-46) he resists the temptation to avoid the suffering that awaits him. Then, in the end, he dies as the nonviolent victim of the forces of violence. The temptation story is thus part of a larger pattern of God’s victory over evil through non-coercive means—the obedience of a fully human agent, subject to all the vulnerabilities of human existence.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).