We begin our Lenten pilgrimage this year all-too conscious of the great suffering being inflicted on the Ukrainian people in an unprovoked and heartless war. It is their hour of testing, and ours, which makes today’s readings all the more pertinent. Why, we ask perennially, do the innocent have to suffer? It was the burning question that led to the gospel, the good news of salvation: why did Jesus himself have to suffer and die? Was there no other way to save the world?
The first reading places us at the beginning of the great pilgrimage of redemption, the Exodus of God’s people from Enslavement in Egypt, both the inauguration and prototype of salvation. Today as then, it involved suffering, and we like they are prone to flinch away – over and over. But today, scripture has us consider not the trials that met the Israelites on their long journey of redemption, or even the arrest, trial, suffering, and death of Jesus – culminating events that will illuminate the end of our quest. That lies ahead.
We are first directed to consider the goal of our journey: “you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” [Deut 26:11]. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul holds out the same promise: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” [Rom 10:8-9].
It is the gospel reading that bring these themes together in a surprising way. The account of the “temptation” of Jesus in the wilderness is found only in Matthew and Luke, but they are the evangelists who dug back into the early years of Jesus and provided us with all the reliable information we have about his conception, birth, infancy, and childhood. There is no reason to discount it, even though it is clearly a “worked” tradition, an encounter modeled on rabbinical debate, pitting scriptural verse against verse. And the devil knew his scripture.
The two accounts are the same, differing only in the order of the second and third “temptation.” Two early communities preserved these accounts, however they learned them, perhaps from Jesus himself, but Mark and John are silent. There is a likely reflection of the tradition in the Letter to the Hebrews, however, which dwells at some length on the “trials” to which the Redeemer was subject:
“…we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering… . For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” [Heb 2:9-10, 18].
The same word is used here for “temptation” that we find in Luke and Matthew – “peirazo.” The word means “trial,” — to “try,” “prove” or “test” something or someone. It does not mean the impulse to sin, like pilfering coins from the open change box in the hamburger stand or murdering our neighbor. Not surprisingly, it is the same term both Matthew and Luke use to end their versions of the Lord’s Prayer [Luke 11:4, Mat 6:13] – “do not put us to the test.” Small wonder that we begin our Lenten pilgrimage with a meditation on “temptation.”
Jesus had to work out the shape of his destiny, and this was the time of his testing. After his mysterious baptism at the Jordan, he ”retreats” into the wilderness to do just that. Avenues lay open to power, fame, wealth. Perhaps he already knew that the alternative was struggle, opposition, rejection, and eventually martyrdom. Armed with a deep understanding of scripture, he works out his “way” considering each of the more alluring ways ahead, dismissing them one by one.
For us, too, withdrawing to a point where we can begin to examine the way we have come and the possibilities still open to us is a necessary part of our spiritual journey. It is the reason for Lent, a period of clarification, correction, and resolve.
The tests posed to Jesus are pertinent to us today as they were in first century Judea. Social welfare programs often provide only for material needs, yet we must still feed the hungry just as Jesus fed the multitudes. The lure of wealth and power lies in the illusion that they are the only means by which we can put things right. Simplicity, poverty, and generosity are more powerful and more effective. Religious spectacle can be exhilarating, but easily lures us into mere admiration and complacency.
Ultimately, after all our considerations, we, like Jesus, must return to the waiting and turbulent world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We are called to go back into the marketplace, the streets, and our own homes as well as the political arena, strengthened against the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil to dull and deflect our spiritual sensibilities and will to action. We may even become the most blessed of warriors, “peacemakers.”