This week’s lectionary blog reflects on the account of the temptations of Christ given in Luke 4.1-13. Below it also draws attention to some interesting examples of art which depict Jesus’ temptations. And finally it offers links to three articles which I can recommend as helpful in seeking to ‘explain’ some of the religious complexities of the current conflict in Ukraine.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship firstname.lastname@example.org
I have been proud to be part of the Diocese in Europe this last week when key people in the Diocese worked so quickly to pull together an online service initially on the first evening of the invasion of Ukraine (February 24) and then again on Tuesday 1 March. At both services we were privileged to listen to Christina, churchwarden in Kyiv, and Malcolm, chaplain in Moscow, speaking to us live in spite of the terrors that they had suddenly become caught up in. The services had a raw beauty and simplicity; they helped us confront the new horrors we are all facing, and I hope that they gave our fellow Anglicans in Ukraine and Russia a sense of how we cared for them.
There is, I suppose, an awful appropriateness that the current horrible events have been happening as both Western and Eastern Christians approach the beginning of Lent, that season when we reflect on Jesus’ own testing and call on him to be with us as we are tested too.
As is usual the Common Worship lectionary offers us as the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent one of the accounts of Jesus’ own temptations in the wilderness: this year from the Gospel of Luke, Luke 4.1-13. Luke’s account is very similar to that offered by Matthew (though both differ substantially from that of Mark). But it is interesting – and quite telling – to note the subtle differences between Luke and Matthew, which actually seem to make Luke’s account especially relevant during this our present ‘time of trial’. I want to explore two of these differences.
The first is the different order that Luke and Matthew place the temptations in. Both begin by placing first the devil’s encouragement to Jesus to make bread out of stones. But then the order changes: Matthew next tells of the moment when the devil takes Jesus to ‘the holy city’ (Matthew 4.5) and sets him on the pinnacle of the Temple, encouraging him to cast himself from its height to ‘test’ God’s protection of him, and then concludes with the journey to the ‘very high mountain’ (Matthew 4.8) from which the devil shows Jesus ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour’. Luke switches these latter two around, so that the pinnacle of the temple becomes the final temptation. Tellingly he names the place where this happens explicitly as ‘Jerusalem’, not simply as ‘the holy city’ (Luke 4.9). The role of Jerusalem within Jesus’ life, ministry and passion is a vital theme in Luke’s Gospel – which is probably why this is set as the final temptation, and also why ‘Jerusalem’ is clearly referred to. (Conversely in Matthew mountains are an important connecting thread that runs through his Gospel – so in his Gospel the mountain-top temptation becomes the finale.)
To grapple with the meaning and significance of these trials of Jesus we need to realise that they are different from – as well as with similarities to – the temptations that we ourselves may encounter. For they are intended to represent the temptations of Messiahship. What kind of Messiah would Jesus choose to be? The kind who would win over to his side the many hungry people of the New Testament world by offering them physical prosperity (‘bread and circuses’ as the Roman proverb put it)? The kind who would enforce a new order that enabled him to rule the world (from above) benignly – at least until having such absolute power had corrupted him absolutely? The kind whose spiritual vision was so focused on himself and what he loved that he expected God to alter the laws of nature to preserve him? Was Jesus’ Messiahship to be of this kind – or not?
We know the answer Jesus chose. However, inevitably I find myself drawing links with the current crisis. The picture above by the Roman Catholic artist Peter Koenig which depicts Jesus being tempted in the light of contemporary realities is so powerful in our current context that it is painful.
On the other hand Jesus, in overcoming these temptations, is not simply acting a model for us in resisting temptation but his victory actually helps to bring about our salvation. In the Litany we pray, ‘By your baptism, fasting and temptation, good Lord, deliver us.’ It is through his refusal to be trapped into evil which may pretend to be good that Jesus shows himself to be our ‘true Christ’.
In Luke’s Gospel the final temptation is linked to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a very dangerous place and Luke knows that only too well. Having myself lived in Jerusalem for five years, and loved it for many years since, I am only too aware of the spiritual danger it can present to us. I once described it in these terms, ‘Jerusalem is a sacrament of what it means to be human. By that I mean that Jerusalem shows up visibly and physically the best and the worst of the human condition. On the one hand, it is a visible symbol of our longing, our highest and best desires, our love of beauty and our desire to worship God. But it is also a reminder of how this best can go so tragically wrong – precisely because we find it so difficult to love without also seeking to possess. Jerusalem is the place where this conundrum is squeezed into a sort of prism, so that it can be viewed in sharp focus.’ (Peace-ing Together Jerusalem)
It is telling that in 2019 Kirill, the Patriarch of Moscow, spoke of the city of Kyiv in the following terms, ‘For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many’. That temptation of standing on the pinnacle of the Temple believing that one is invulnerable, fired up with the sort of ‘love’ for ‘Jerusalem’ which needs to possess, is not unconnected with the current conflict – and part of its tragedy.
And the other, the second difference that Luke offers us in his account of Jesus’ temptations, comes at the end of the story, ‘When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’ (Luke 4.13) The impression that we gain from Mark’s account, and perhaps Matthew’s as well, is that by refusing the temptations offered to him at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had defeated the devil (Satan) once and for all. Luke makes it very clear that this is not the case. Jesus would need to challenge the forces of evil again – and again. The devil would be looking for every opportunity to gain the upper hand. Luke’s description of Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane conveys powerfully the sense of struggle and anguish that Jesus experienced, that time when, for one last moment, he had the opportunity to choose other – and easier – paths, and refused to do so. The devil was finally defeated.
It is however significant that as well as telling us that the devil continued to stalk Jesus as potential prey, Luke is the Gospel which tells us the most about Jesus as a person of prayer. We explicitly learn that at key moments in his ministry Jesus prayed. Jesus’ prayer and his struggle and ultimate victory against Satan belong together. Prayer is this Messiah’s most important instrument.
One of the features of the Gospel of Luke that I find most powerful is the way that from chapter 11 onwards (which is the moment that Jesus teaches his disciples what we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, Luke 11.2-4) there seem to be echoes of this Prayer, both in the teaching of Jesus and in his own prayers. Such a link comes of course comes in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Gethsemane, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial’ (Luke 22.46) – the time of testing, or temptation. As we enter into Lent this year we do indeed seem to be in a time of trial. May we continue as a diocese, in our chaplaincies and as individuals, to draw upon this gift and resource of prayer which Jesus modelled for us.
The temptation of Christ in art
As those of you who read this blog regularly will know I am fascinated by art which can give us a new, and sometimes challenging perspective on biblical stories. The picture at the top of the blog by Peter Koenig, the original of which hangs St Edward’s Roman Catholic Church in Kettering, is a good example which can encourage us to look at Jesus’ temptations in a new light. So too is the picture of the ‘High Place at Petra’ by the priest-painter Adam Boulter (who has significant connections with our Diocese) which is set in the middle of the meditation above. I am also intrigued by the painting ‘The Choice’ by Lauren Wright Pittman which appears immediately above this note. In the current context it is interesting to note that the temptation of Christ is a theme that several significant Russian artists have explored: often conveying the sense that the temptations are linked as much to the internal pressures that Jesus experienced or to his ‘shadow’ as to any external ‘Satan’. See for example Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoĭ,, 1837-1887, below. One website that I often visit to discover examples of biblical art from different (non-European) contexts is Global Christian Worship (tumblr.com) which contains some intriguing portrayals of Jesus’ temptation (and currently features an exquisite ‘Prayer for Ukraine’ played by a cello consort).
The ‘religious’ element of the conflict in Ukraine.
One of the aspects of the current conflict in Ukraine that many of us find very difficult or perplexing is the ambiguous element religion and the Russian Orthodox Church seems to be playing. There is a close relationship between the current leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and certain forms of Russian nationalism. Linked to that there has been considerable hostility towards the recently established independent Ukrainian Orthodox Patriarchate. I have found the following sources helpful in giving an informed analysis/reflection on such aspects:
- Bishop Nick Baines of Leeds interviewed by the Religion Media Centre News Religion Media Centre –
- Revd Giles Fraser, ‘Putin’s spiritual destiny’ Putin’s spiritual destiny – UnHerd
- Peter Smith, Associated Press ‘How is Russia-Ukraine war linked to religion’ EXPLAINER: How is Russia-Ukraine war linked to religion? | Charlotte Observer