In the church’s calendar Lent is a period of preparation for the solemn celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection (the paschal mystery) at the end of Holy Week. On the First Sunday of Lent it is customary to read the account of the testing or temptation of Jesus. Since Jesus had been praying and fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, and since Lent lasts 40 days and involves prayer and fasting, it is appropriate to read about his prayer, fasting and resistance to temptation early in Lent and to try to imitate his good example.
Today’s Scripture readings remind us that our observance of Lent must be placed in the larger context of the grand narrative of our identity as God’s people and our salvation in Christ. One of Luke’s favorite themes is salvation history. He discerns three periods: the time of Israel (up to and including John the Baptist), the time of Jesus (the center or middle of time) and the time of the Holy Spirit and the church (from Pentecost on).
The Old Testament reading for today from Deuteronomy 26 is generally regarded as an early recital of God’s mighty acts on behalf of his people. This confession was clearly used in connection with the offering of sacrifices at harvest time. It traces the early history of Israel from the call of Abraham and tells how God made a small and insignificant people into a great nation and how that people went down to Egypt and was mistreated and oppressed by the Egyptians. Then it describes the Exodus—Israel’s rescue from slavery, suffering and misery—and recounts the people’s entrance into the promised land.
Notice that the God of Israel acts in and through the events of human history. This God is not far off or removed. Rather, this God guides and directs the fortunes of his people. The sacrifices that the ancient Israelites offered were their way of acknowledging the power and loving concern of God toward them. Their recital of God’s mighty acts reminded them of what God had done for their ancestors, and their sacrifices expressed their gratitude to God.
According to Luke, the time of Jesus was a special period in which all the energies of the Holy Spirit were concentrated in Jesus. We already know that Jesus is the Son of God from the infancy narrative, from the heavenly voice at his baptism (“You are my beloved Son”) and from the genealogy that traces Jesus’ ancestry back to “Adam, the son of God.” The question now is, What kind of Son of God is Jesus?
There are three tests. First Satan tempts Jesus to use his wonder-working powers to satisfy his own physical needs (“Command this stone to become bread”). Then he tempts Jesus to manifest his authority as the Messiah over all the world (“All this will be yours if you worship me”). Finally Satan tempts Jesus to make presumptuous demands on God in order to become famous (“Throw yourself down from here”). Jesus emerges from these texts as the obedient Son of God who worships and obeys God alone.
In the background is the testing of ancient Israel in the wilderness between the departure from Egypt and the entry into the promised land. Where the wilderness generation failed in its testing, Jesus succeeds in his. In responding to Satan Jesus quotes Scripture passages from Deuteronomy 6–8. His food is God’s word, not bread alone. He belongs to God’s kingdom, not to Satan’s. He refuses to test God by presuming upon a spectacular divine intervention. Defeated by Jesus, Satan the tester retires, only to emerge again at the beginning of Luke’s passion narrative (22:3).
It has been suggested that the three tests that Satan puts forward—physical comfort, political power and spectacular display—were three temptations that Jesus had to face and overcome all during his earthly ministry. Indeed they are the temptations that face most human beings in some form or other: pleasure, power and fame. Thus Jesus provides us who live in the time of the Holy Spirit and the church with a positive example of resistance to temptation and of victory over it. As the genuine Son of God, Jesus serves God alone and lives in harmony with and in obedience to his heavenly Father.
Today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans quotes Deut 30:14 (“The word is near you”), alludes to the early Christian recital of God’s mighty acts in God’s Son (“Jesus is Lord.... God raised him from the dead”) and proclaims faith in God’s Son as the means by which all peoples—Jews and Gentiles alike—may now participate in the history of our salvation. By reflecting on what kind of Son of God Jesus is, we also get a clear picture of what kind of persons we should strive to become.