The temptations in the wilderness are critical for understanding the mission of God as it is understood and interpreted by God’s Son. Too often in our readings and in the theologies that we base on these readings, we give insufficient weight to the decisions that Jesus is making in this account, because the style is so spare as to make the decisions seem facile or “canned.” In addition, we sometimes come to these texts with such a high Christology that we have trouble imagining that Jesus might have struggled as we do with questions and uncertainties. However, immediately following the baptism and the presentation of his lineage, Jesus confronts evil in a crucial and programmatic way. What he says and does here will determine much of the rest of his course. The decisions he makes here will follow him all the way to the cross and beyond.
Luke Timothy Johnson summarizes these temptations in a powerful and provocative note. He interprets the three temptations as temptations to exert power over nature, over other people, and over God. He writes that “Against the backdrop of first-century Palestinian political upheaval and popular messianic expectation . . . Jesus eschewed the option of a violent, military, zealot vision of God’s kingdom in Israel.”
The experience of the wilderness, and especially these three struggles at the end, sets up the parameters for the way Jesus uses his identity and his vocation to conduct God’s mission in the world. Along with the inaugural sermon in Nazareth, just following this passage, these struggles determine how he will pursue his ministry of healing and freedom for the oppressed. Perhaps we might see the temptations as Jesus’s coming to clarity about what he will not do, and his sermon as his coming to clarity about what he will do. Both are crucial for what lies ahead.
We pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”
We read that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness,
where he was tempted, struggled, and overcame.
In our own wildernesses, grant us also to trust the Spirit,
that we may be, like Jesus, so strengthened
to claim your kingdom as our vocation, our calling, our sure rest.
Deliver us from evil, O Lord; deliver us from evil.
In his name, Amen.