We know the episode of the temptations of Jesus onlyfrom the synoptic tradition (Mt 4,1-11; Mk 1,12-13; Lk 4,1-13) where it is reported immediately after the scene of the Lord’s baptism (Mt 3,13-17; Mk 1,9-11; Lk 3,21-22). Before beginning his public ministry, which will have the kingdom of God as its main theme (Mk 1,15; Mt 4,17), Jesus receives the Spirit of God and is proclaimed the beloved Son (Mk 1,11; Mt 3,17; Lk 3,22). In other words he is Son first of all, and then the evangelizer. In Mark the account of the temptations is brief, and so blunt as to seem hardly credible. Why should the Spirit lead Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan? Apart from its obvious moralizing intent, this presentation contains a detail which is historically likely and needs to be taken seriously. The trial that Jesus had to undergo concerned the understanding of his personal mission and, therefore, took place before he began his mission. If the evangelizer must feel first that he is the Son – a detail elaborated a bit more by Matthew – the Son must first be put to the test. Contrary to popular expectations, and perhaps contrary also to his own preference, Jesus has to make a personal option for God before fulfilling his mission, which is to proclaim the kingdom of God and call his listeners to conversion.
12The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness 13 and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. 14 After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. 15 “The time has comer”, he said, “and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”
- Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it.
Mark’s account is brief, almost telegraphic. Still, he relates two fundamental facts of the ministry of Jesus – his time in the desert and his concise proclamation of the good news.
After his baptism, as soon as Jesus has been proclaimed Son of God, he is led into the desert by the Spirit. God leads him – pushes him – to the place of trial, but without abandoning him. The Son of God must ‘repeat’ the experience of the people of God. The desert is part of the divine pedagogy. Being alone among the beasts means an absolute lack of communication, but not the absence of God, for his angels look after him. He will come out of the desert having rediscovered himself, faithful to his Father, and having found his personal mission, with God re-affirmed in his heart and the Kingdom of God proclaimed from his mouth. Mark says nothing of the motives behind the temptations, and concentrates simply on the fact. For forty days Jesus was at the mercy of Satan, alone in his presence and facing him on his own. The fact that he came out from there, preaching about God and his closeness to the world, is the best statement of his personal triumph over the Tempter.
As soon as he had passed the test, Jesus was ready to preach to the world. The arrest of John the Baptist convinced him that God’s coming was imminent – there was no time to be lost. God’s coming imposes the obligation of conversion on all who are waiting for him. Faith is not a matter of choice. Conversion and faith are imperative for those know that God is near.
Before beginning his work of evangelization Jesus must face temptation, on his own. Only in this way could he become an evangelizer who was able to demand conversion. Because he had known temptation, he had proved his fidelity to God. Because his fidelity had been demonstrated, he could proclaim the coming of God to his people. Anyone who knows that God is coming, cannot avoid conversion.
- Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Lent has already started. It is a time to reflect on our life of faith, to renew our hope and to find new reasons to love. From the earliest times, Christians have journeyed towards the Risen Jesus through this time dedicated to diligent prayer and good works. It is a time of sincere effort to become more aware of God’s closeness to us in our everyday lives. It is a time of fasting and abstinence to enable us to become more free of our own appetites, always insatiable and never satisfied, and to become more open to the needs of others. Above all, it is a time of listening to God to discover what it is he is asking of us and the love he still has for each one of us.
Could it be that we do not realize that God one day took an interest in us, formed an idea of how we should be, and that he has a plan for our lives that we can discover if we pay more attention to him? It is a plan that we could fulfil if we gave him time and if we had the will to do so. It would be worth our while thinking about this. It is one of the tasks before us during this season of Lent We are used to looking at things and judging people according to our own needs. Lent is a time for us to contemplate the world through the eyes of God. Seeing ourselves as God sees us could lead us to discover that the things we have received are more than the things we lack, and also that we are more loved than we realize, more loved than we deserve. This is what Jesus did for forty days in the solitude of the desert – he saw himself as God saw him, loved himself as God loved him, the beloved Son.
Today’s gospel helps us in our effort to be converted to the ideal that God has for us It presents Jesus being tempted in the desert and preaching the Kingdom along the roads of Galilee. If we contemplate this Jesus in our hearts, imagine his sentiments when he was alone in the desert, imitate his courage in meeting strangers to tell them that God was near, then we will feel close to Jesus and, like him, we will know that we are children of God. Our efforts to be converted and to make God the Lord of our lives may not make us better immediately, but should make us more conscious of what we already are – children of God, like Jesus.
Who can feel far away from a God who knew solitude, trial and temptation in the desert? How can we fail to rejoice that we have a God so close to us in our sufferings and our ills, in our fears and doubts? The gospel does not tell us the nature of the temptation suffered by Jesus. It gives only two details: it happened in the desert when he was alone, and it lasted forty days, a long time, long enough to test his fidelity to God. Are we surprised that it was the Spirit who led Jesus to his place of temptation? We should not be! Temptation is not a trap for the wicked, but a moment of opportunity. We should draw courage from seeing Jesus, the Son of God, facing temptation alone in the desert for forty days. How can we lose hope in such a God, who acknowledges as his Son a man who was tempted? Temptation is an opportunity to be acknowledged as children of God, members of his family. Why, then, should we fear the opportunities God offers us to be recognised as his children? The only temptation to be feared is one that has not yet been conquered, one that has not yet confirmed us as what we are, children beloved of the Father.
If we remain faithful, if, like Jesus, we do not cling to our own point of view, our own ways and our own self-determination, then we will emerge from the trial at peace with the wild beasts, looked after by God’s angels, and grateful to be children of God. Conquering temptation does not require anything extraordinary, but simply remaining faithful to God. If we are victorious then God will recognise us as his children. We almost risk losing the Father we have in God. We might even convince ourselves that we cannot resist any longer, that we have to give in. We need not be surprised if, after the temptation, we do not actually feel God’s love and we cannot recognise him as our Father. It is not for the son to decide that he is a son. It is the Father who decides. And God declares that he is Father of all those who triumph over temptation.
The trial can last a long time, longer than we would like, so long that it may seem unbearable. But it does not last forever! It did not last forever in the case of Jesus nor will it last forever in our case. Every trial will end and then we will find joy and peace. Those who are victorious know that God is near, and go out to meet others to proclaim their experience. Those who come back to God and are converted to Him, become his witnesses.
Anyone who has endured temptation and been converted must preach conversion to others. The Christian who comes back to God, does not do so in order to stay with him, even though that might be the safest thing to do. Rather, he goes out to the world, as Jesus did. Our witness is the proof of our conversion. Until we become disciples of Jesus, without any inferiority complex, proud of our God and feeling secure in our conversion and our inner peace, and until we are ready to proclaim it to the world, we have not yet overcome our temptation. We are still living in the desert, among the wild beasts.
Coming back to God means going out to the world with a new message. When we have regained God, we still have to regain the world. The children of God carry the good news of the Kingdom in their hearts and on their lips. This is what Jesus did and it is our responsibility to find a way to do the same today. Until we do so, we have not conquered the temptation, we are still in the desert, feeling alone among the beasts, with no angels to look after us. That could well be an image of our spiritual situation. Because we do not dare to preach to others what we know about God, and we do not have enough courage to present ourselves before others as God’s children, we continue to suffer alone, fearing for our fidelity. We do not dare to come out of the desert and break our silence, and so we continue to be tempted.
Lent, which we have just begun, is a new opportunity for us to come back to God our Father by imitating Jesus who was able to let go of everything, the people and programmes and projects that were dear to him. We will be victorious in temptation only if we prefer God above everything, even at the cost of losing ourselves. Our victory is acknowledged only when we overcome our unwillingness and embarrassment, and proclaim God as our Father. That is what a believer does when his faith has been tested and he becomes a grateful child of God. It is up to us to find our way through the trials of life to God and to the world of men, who are tempted today as never before. By proclaiming God, we call the world to conversion. This is the journey of the children of God. Is it not a good programme for this season of Lent? It certainly is, and it would make us children of God, like Jesus.
Juan José Bartolomé, sdb