First Sunday in Lent: An opportune time

Dr Clare Amos explores the particular insights into the temptation of Jesus that are offered by this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 4.1-13. She also wants to draw attention to a series of paintings on ‘the wilderness’ created by Revd Adam Boulter, chaplain in Poitou-Charentes – more details at the end of Clare’s reflection.

Jesus is tempted - Matthew 4:1-11

The picture comes from a set of paintings called ‘The life of Jesus Mafa’ which depicts episodes in the life of Christ from an African, Cameroonian, perspective. The very ordinariness of the tempter in this picture makes him particularly insidious – and powerful.

Once again (as with the Gospel for Transfiguration Sunday) it is the small differences between the gospel writers, that can help make the narrative so interesting – and so telling.

Of course in this case it is Matthew with which we need to compare Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus. Mark is quite different – and much shorter. But the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in Luke and Matthew are very similar – so what do the small differences tell us about the particular concerns of Luke?

It is of course symptomatic that Luke begins his account by reminding us that Jesus returned from his baptism and went out into the wilderness ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (4.1) As his inaugural speech at the synagogue in Nazareth will make clear, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (4.18), his ministry will be lived in the life of the Spirit from this moment, its very beginning, until his death in 23.46 when he commits his/the Spirit back to the Father.

It is also interesting to note that typically – and I must confess that I had not spotted this until writing these reflections – Luke’s words, ‘he ate nothing at all during those days’ (4.2) seem to be more emphatic than Matthew’s bare ‘he fasted’ (Matthew 4.2). Meals and food are very important in Luke: Robert Karris deliciously comments, ‘In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal or coming from a meal’. Though this may be a slight exaggeration it does express an intrinsic reality about the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps the most powerful biblical image for the Kingdom is that of a feast – so Jesus’ feasting with his disciples and others is intended as a visible sign of the Kingdom of God coming into reality. Somehow these days of fasting before feasting is an appropriate time and way of preparation.

Yet the most significant special feature of the temptation in this Gospel comes at its end, ‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time’ (4.13). For Luke, Jesus’ defeat of the devil’s wiles during these initial 40 days is not going to be the end of the time of trial. Jesus will be ‘tested’ again at several points later in the Gospel, up to and including Gethsemane. It is notable how Luke seems to emphasise – even more than the other evangelists – Jesus’ agony in the garden. One other, possibly linked, feature of Luke’s account of the temptation is the different order of the trials, when compared with Matthew. There may be several reasons for this, but one result of Luke’s ordering is that the word ‘test’ appears in the final temptation, immediately before being repeated in the brooding final remark that this time in the wilderness was not the testing’s end.

It is interesting to ‘translate’ the specific elements of Jesus’ temptations and ask what they might mean for us today. One of the best reflections on the temptations that I have ever heard was preached to a group of ordinands. The preacher suggested that in some ways Jesus’ temptations were those experienced most acutely by people in ministry: the temptation to believe that everything depends on us – that we should and can meet all the physical needs of everyone; the desire to be put up on an infallible pedestal by the Christian community; the irresponsible belief that God will protect us from our own risky behaviour. I can indeed see these as being real challenges for those who exercise ordained Anglican ministry, and indeed for others such as myself, who, though not ordained, have a public role in the life of the church.

But there is one other key point – that links to Luke’s stress on the ongoing nature of Jesus’ trials. Perhaps the most insidious temptation of all is to believe that temptation is a one off. Been there, done that! Once we have ‘sorted’ a particular issue or concern we won’t have anything similar to worry about in the future! Indeed I can see elements of this attitude in the current view in some British circles that the UK’s basic problems are linked to being in the EU, and that once the UK has left that body we will move seamlessly into a blissful future. The temptation that temptation and difficulties are temporary or finite is a challenge on both the macro-scale, and for individuals. Certainly we may hope to grow in wisdom and the spirit of Christ, but Luke reminds us to stay watchful; that the time of trial has not yet come to an end. Yet Luke also tells us of a resource we have been given in order to respond: for it is no accident that it is also Luke who emphasises how at key moments in his ministry Jesus spent so much time in prayer.

In 2015 Revd Adam Boulter created a series of paintings entitled ‘The Wilderness’ which depicts significant biblical stories (including the account of the temptation of Christ) which are set in the wilderness. The paintings accompany sonnets composed by the Anglican priest-poet Revd Malcolm Guite. The set can be viewed at https://www.cantab.net/users/adamboulter/adamboulter/15_02.html

 

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