The readings starting Lent always remind us that we take our 40 days from the time Jesus spent out in the desert, preparing to take up his public ministry – which will end as does our Lent, in the Passion and Resurrection.
Deuteronomy, which is Greek for ‘second law’, is a complex text ending the ‘Five Books of Moses’ (the ‘Pentateuch’). It takes the form of a long address of Moses, recalling the history of the Exodus and the giving of the Law, and urging the people to obey and observe. It was probably worked out in the period after the Exile when the rebuilding of the name and its worship structure was going on. It appears to be chosen for the liturgy today because it is the book Jesus quotes in the Gospel, though from a different section.
Robert Alter in his commentary suggests that what we hear today is an ancient liturgical formula that recalled a past time when life was threatened by famine and so each year God is thanked for the gift of of a good harvest. ‘Wandering’ is the traditional translation, but Alter suggests the idea is rather ‘perishing’. Aramean was an ancient designation which is indicative of the age of this formula. The ancestor could be either to Abraham, as the original ‘Patriarch’ or Jacob-Israel from whom the nation took its name and tribal structure. Both of them went down to Egypt for food in a time when they were starving.
With a sense of a shared ancestral life, the present generation are to use the plural ‘we’ in making their profession of faith.
We could see the reliance on God and turning to God in gratitude is an attitude that lies behind Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s attempts to lure him astray.
As the Hebrews took their identity from Israel, St Paul tells us we take ours from Christ’s redeeming. This section closes his efforts to draw both Jews and the converts from the Gentiles into a shared relationship. He has had to deal with the fact that so far most Jews had not accepted Christ, but are still to be saved by him. The opening sentence on the nearness of God’s word is a quotation from Deuteronomy 30:14; the second (‘no cause for shame’) is from Isaiah 28:16 meaning that those who trust in God will have his support, and will not be ‘shamed’ in front of their foes, by seeming to be deserted by God.
By the time of Jesus, 40 was already a symbolic time, and may have become more approximate rather than an actual measure, but the Church has counted out 40 days, excluding Sundays, to prepare for the Easter Triduum. At the start, we are given the example of Jesus who spent a time of prayer and fasting to prepare for his public ministry.
In the text of Luke, this follows shortly on the scene of baptism in which the words from heaven had identified Jesus as ‘my beloved son.’ This seems to be the source of the Devil’s words, ‘IF you are the son of God…’ The story of Jesus’ temptation or ‘testing’ is in the three first gospels. It is very short in Mark, but Matthew has much the same story as Luke’s, though with some variations and a different order of the temptations. All three indicate that it was the Spirit leading Jesus out into the desert, but Luke stresses this by repetition.
Bible scholars discuss how much of this account is historic, how much may be symbolic. There is no certain answer, but we can be clear about the basic meaning. The devil dares Jesus, as it were, to use his power for his own ends rather than as to carry out the Father’s will in establishing the Kingdom of God. Each time, Jesus answers with a quotation from Deuteronomy that puts God at the centre rather than anything that may seem as earthly benefits for himself. The first reply shows that although we have need of physical food, this is not enough and we need the spiritual food that comes from the word of God.
The second challenge is in words that suggest a visionary or interior experience rather than any mountain view of all the kingdoms of time, which the devil claims are his to give. He may be lying, but the temptation ignores that what Jesus is to announce as his message was the Kingdom of God and nothing the devil has to give.
Matthew puts the test of worshipping the devil last, which does seem a fitting progression. But ‘Jerusalem’ is so important in Luke that he may have chosen to put it as the climax. The height of the Temple was impressive, and for Jesus to make a display of miraculous power in being rescued when he fell, the devil suggests would ‘prove’ his special relationship. But to test God is not to trust God, and Jesus refuses.
Only Luke hints that while the devil did not succeed here, he will return again to test Jesus, perhaps meaning at the Cross when he will be challenged to save himself ‘if’ he is God’s chosen one.
Jesus’ knowledge and reliance on the scriptures offers a possible Lenten observance: take some text, perhaps from the Sunday readings, but anything you are drawn to, and sit with it quietly, ‘letting the text speak to you.’ Even 10 minutes a day can be fruitful, or a longer period once a week may suit some schedules better. It is also good to have in memory – as Jesus had – lines that will strengthen us in times of temptation or discouragement.