The Temptation of Jesus and the Salvation of the World
First Sunday of Lent, Year B; Mark 1:9-15
Mark’s version of the temptation is short enough to fit in one verse. This brevity may have been enough reason for the lectionary-makers to flesh the story out with the similarly brief scenes before and after: the baptism of Jesus (again), and the commencement of Jesus’ preaching after the arrest of John. Yet the result helps us see Mark’s distinctive presentation of the temptation and its place in the Gospel.
The Gospel versions read in the other two years have the much more detailed temptation stories of Matthew and Luke (both with versions of the famous scriptural debate between the tempter and Jesus) standing alone. From Mark instead we have this pithy but unelaborated reference to a 40-day struggle between Jesus and the tempter framed by two other stories, with the result that this Gospel is a sort of introduction to the whole ministry of Jesus.
The familiarity of the longer versions may mislead us in more than one way when dealing with Mark’s economy of expression. Note for instance that Mark says nothing about Jesus fasting, and the story should not be read as though he does. Rather, the implication is that Jesus was sustained by angelic supporters during a forty-day struggle, not that the heavenly caterers came to him only when it was ended. As Adela Collins puts it, Mark’s account “pits Jesus, the Spirit of God, and the angels, on the one hand, against Satan, wild animals, and (it is implied) demons, on the other.”1 The forty days are not an impressive feat of asceticism, so much as a preliminary skirmish in the struggle for the salvation of the world.
While we do expect the Temptation story to be read on the First Sunday of Lent—a tradition that goes back to the medieval western Church, and was preserved in the older Books of Common Prayer (although only in Matthew’s longer version)—the other readings may be harder to fathom.
In Year A, the traditional Matthean Gospel reading is, unsurprisingly, matched with the story of the first man and woman in the garden (Gen 2), that other famous temptation narrative. In the other two years though, the lectionary has to look elsewhere, and chooses quite different foundational stories from the Hebrew Bible which, less directly resonant with the Temptation, have nevertheless contributed to the understanding of Lent and its character—and its length.
This year we read of Noah and the end of the flood story, specifically of God’s covenant with humankind and all living things (Gen 9:8-17). The first implicit link with the Noah story is that of time: the forty-day ordeal of Noah and his companions before deliverance may remind us of Jesus’ wilderness fast of the same length.2 The implication is that a trial may be necessary for the purposes of God to become clear, or to be made real.
Yet the reading itself does not depict the forty-day crisis, just the happy ending. The pronouncement of the covenant with Noah, rainbow and all, after the waters have subsided (and with no mention of the flood, in fact) is a story that resolves a crisis, rather than one introducing it, as the Year A story of the temptation in the garden does.
This does however resonate with the distinctive way the temptation story is presented in Mark, not as a discrete drama but as part of a new start for the world. We had already read 5 of the 7 verses of this Gospel, on the first and third Sundays after Epiphany, so it may seem too familiar to be at all dramatic. The connection between the three episodes is the key. I complained a little, when commenting on those earlier weeks, that the jump over the desert temptation underplayed the place of a cosmic struggle as the back-story to the whole of Mark’s Gospel. So now recapitulating the opening of Mark doesn’t just give us a fuller context for the temptation, it gives us a better sense of how Mark’s Gospel opens the whole ministry of Jesus and what it means for the world.
This baptism-temptation-preaching narrative also allows another connection to be made with the Noah story, namely that of baptism. From ancient times, Christians interpreted the ark not so much as a piece of ancient history (making, we may note in passing, the fundamentalist efforts to prove its historicity quite silly) but as a symbol of another form of salvation through water—baptism. This is already happening in the epistle today, which makes a nice job of tying the first reading and the Gospel together (another reason not to omit any readings!):
God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you (1 Pet 3:20-21).
The covenant narrative in Genesis has God promise never again to destroy the world, and offers the rainbow as the sign of that promise. The foundation of God’s relationship with the created order and humankind is of salvation, not destruction. Now, in the story of Jesus, another passing through water—Jesus’ baptism—is presented as a sign of God’s intention for salvation of the world.
Mark’s introduction however is not about baptism itself, but about the arrival of Jesus and the commencement of his struggle against the forces of evil—from the interpersonal and political to the spiritual. Baptized and named beloved by the Father, tested for combat in the forty days of struggle with demonic powers, Jesus now announces the good news of the new era: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
This reality of crisis and conflict also connects us with the dramatic story of Noah and the task of rebuilding a world devastated by evil and its consequences. Mark’s minimalist temptation story is, perhaps even more clearly than in the other Gospels, part of how the good news begins. Just as Noah and his companions were promised peace in a devastated world, the coming of Jesus in Mark is not merely a benign moment in a gradual dawning of human religious awareness, but a divine answer to a crisis. With the ordeal of God’s anointed complete, the work of salvation has begun, and the life of the world can begin again.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. Mark: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007, 153,
In Year C the Exodus experience, summed up in the ritual instructions for the offering of first-fruits in Deut 26) places on the table the forty-year experience of the Israelites which is more fully remembered at Easter itself.