The Cosmic Cathedral

Understanding God in the Word and the World

Lent: Our Temptation in the Wilderness

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Jesus Temptation on the Mount by Satan Duccio di BuoninsegnaClick to view all "The Church Year" posts

Lend began this last week on Ash Wednesday. During Lent the Church remembers the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as we prepared ourselves for Easter. It is a time of penitence and somber repentance leading up to our remembrance of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. It is a time of stripping away the comforts of our lives so that we might become more aware of our own sin, our need for repentance, and the temptations into which we so readily fall.

The first Sunday of Lent commemorates the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. During Epiphany we looked at the way in which Jesus was manifest to the world as “God with Us.” We focused on his public ministry as an end of exile, the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of restoration and hope to Israel, and the day of YHWH’s favor. During Lent we look at the somber element of Jesus’ life. We see the struggle, temptations, and burden he bore as his life turned towards that final visit to Jerusalem and the cross. During Epiphany we celebrated Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended, the voice came from heaven, and Jesus was declared to be the Beloved son. During Lent we look then to the temptation in the wilderness that came after, when “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” [Luke 4:1-2].

Before Jesus’ ministry begins he is met with the challenge of isolation, temptation and fasting. His ministry will not be just glory to glory but will be one marked at its outset with trial and temptation. While the following clip may not provide the most accurate-to-the-text depiction of Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ provides an incredibly visceral portrayal of weight of anguish, pain, and temptation that must have faced Jesus as he fasted.

Yes, Scorsese’s adaptation takes many liberties yet there are significant overlaps to the familiar story, allowing us to see in a new light the dynamics of the temptation Jesus faced. The changing of the stones to bread is replaced with the cooing of a serpent enticing Jesus to a woman’s bed, tempting Jesus with the promise of a family, of being loved, dissuading him from his grand notions of believing he can or must save the world. The serpent says, “You are just like Adam,” and while the context here is the temptation of a woman, the turning of the stones to bread found in Luke:

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone'” [Luke 4.3-4]

calls us a reader back to the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with which Adam and Eve were tempted to,  and ultimately did, eat from.

The first temptation of Jesus, this second Adam, is to make for himself food, to eat where of that from which he should not eat, to take from that which he should not take. Where humanity — where we — had failed the temptation and taken what we want, thought only of ourselves, reached out and claimed as our own — be that the fruit of a forbidden tree or the comforts of a woman’s bed, of a family, of anything that we would elevate above our devotion to God — Jesus resisted, turning aside his own will to rather serve the will of his father.

The second temptation seen in Scorsese’s Last Temptation is much closer to the text found in Luke.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” [Luke 4:5-8]

The Lion, claiming to be Jesus’ heart, boasts of the power which Jesus dreams. He claims to expose the false humility of Jesus who says he is content with a ‘spiritual’ kingdom of Heaven but really longs for the might to overthrow Rome. Like many Jews of Jesus’ day, the temptation to dream of grand visions of victory over their foreign rulers was all too real. Rome had long trampled over them, robing Israel of its autonomy and manhandling their religion and  livelihood. The temptation was to daydream delusions of grandeur where Rome would be defeated, Israel would be restored to her former glory, and those who led the charge would be enshrined as heroes by the liberated peoples.

Jesus faced the temptation we all face, though not on such great a scale. Before him was the opportunity to seize the nations. They could be his as long as he was willing to sacrifice his devotion to God. We too face this temptation —  to take power without sacrifice, to betray devotion to God or  others in order to pull ahead, to get ‘what’s ours,” to make a name for ourselves. Jesus’ temptation was to go the way of ruling the nations without going the way of the cross. Our temptation is likewise, to go our own way to get what we dream of without picking up our cross to follow after Jesus.

In Scorsese’s final temptation a pillar of fire appears before Jesus, presenting before him the temptation to claim his divine identity for himself. The portrayal here deviates once more from what we see in Luke.

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” [Luke 4:9-12]

Yet Scorsese’s version still shows us in stark contrast this temptation presented before Jesus, to claim his rightful identity. Enough with the constraints of humanity, the voice from the fire invites him to take his seat in judgment, to take full advantage of his identify as God’s son and begin to rule, together with this voice from the flame, over all people. Both this temptation and that in Luke touch on the similar theme of Jesus claiming the privileges his divinity might afford him. Jesus is tempted to throw himself down from the top of  temple, proving to all that he indeed is God’s son, that he is to be listened to, praised, followed. The temptation is to claim the glory he is due, now and with great spectacle, that he might be worshiped and adorned, rather than going the way of the cross.

Perhaps we cannot relate to this final temptation, yet we can see in Jesus the weight that it carried for him. The temptation to make himself known in power rather than minister with his true identity masked. It is here in Scorsese’s film that Jesus finally names who it is that has come to him these three times, Satan. The voice behind the temptations has all been the same and as Jesus exposes his identity the flame disappears. Rather than revealing his identity to the masses Jesus unmasks the identity of his tempter and in that simple act puts him to flight.

Through Lent we find ourselves in our own wilderness being tempted. We may not always see the similarities between our temptations and those which Christ faced but we can know that he too has been tempted with us. It is in our temptation in the wilderness that we see most vividly his temptation. We are no longer left without a choice, doomed like Adam to take and eat of the fruit. Jesus has been tempted with us and so we, with him, can resist, can unmask, our tempter and see him disappear. During Lent we are invited to join Christ in the wilderness, to face our temptations with — not without — him, and to — no matter how many previous times we have faced defeat — find victory in our own testing in the desert.

Author: Kendall Beachey

A writer living in Midtown Kansas City. Connecting literature, film, television and pop culture. Welcome to the Kettle.

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