An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 4:1-13, February 17, 2013
IN CHRISTIAN TEACHING we become children of God through faith and baptism (John 1:12; 3:5). Because we are God’s children, we have to behave as such. In biblical studies, we call this indicative-imperative contrast. Thus, because Christians have been made holy, they must therefore act like holy people: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us purify ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and in the fear of God, strive to fulfill our consecration perfectly” (2 Cor 7:1).
But what should be the basic attitude of a Christian, how should he act, in a social context in which there is so much wealth, power, privileges and honor, and opportunity to abuse them? As God’s children, our guide is none other than Jesus himself. In the first chapters of his Gospel, Luke shows us that Jesus is God’s Son (Luke 1:35; 2:11). As such, he is the representative of all the sons/daughters or children of God—the people of God in the New Covenant. In today’s Gospel, Luke gives as a summary of his whole life. That life relives the life of the people of God in the Old Covenant.
In the Old Testament, Israel is called God’s son (Exod 4:22; Hosea 11:1). But to know the heart of the people of Israel, his first-born son, God tested them (Deut 8:2). So, they wandered in the desert for forty years, afflicting them with hunger (Deut 8:3). Despite the seeming failure of natural means, he showed his care for them because he loved them. “It was he who led them forth, all the while performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, in the Red Sea, and for forty years in the desert” (Acts 7:36). Despite his paternal care for them, however, the people became ungrateful. Instead of worshipping the true God, they even made for themselves a molten calf and offered sacrifices to it (Exod 32:1-9). They complained in the hearing of the Lord (Num 11:1-3); grumbling against Moses and Aaron, they wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt (Num 14:1-3). Some of them even staged a rebellion (Num 16). Because of their rebellion and disobedience, God did not allow them to enter into the Promised Land. Israel was a people of erring heart; they did not know the ways of God (Ps 95:10-11).
In today’s narrative on the testing of the Son of God, Luke presents Jesus—being God’s Son and representative of God’s renewed people—as reliving the life of Israel in the New Covenant. Just as the people of Israel, in their exodus from Egypt, sojourned in the desert for forty years and were tested (Deut 8:2), so Jesus, in the new exodus, was in the desert for forty days and underwent temptations (Luke 4:1-2). The order of the three temptations in Luke is different from that in Matthew. In Luke, the temptations conclude on the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus will ultimately face his destiny (Luke 13:33). Nonetheless, the content is the same: the temptation to turn the stones into loaves of bread (Luke 4:3), the temptation to worship Satan in exchange of domination over the kingdoms of the world (v 7), and the temptation to throw himself from the parapet of the temple (9).
In the first temptation, Satan wanted Jesus to use his powers for his own purposes, rather than fulfill his messianic role as planned by the Father. In the second, he attempted to persuaded Jesus to give him allegiance, rather than God. And in the third, he asked the Lord to test the word of the Father, rather than fulfill his mission on the basis of faith in that word. In all these, Satan tried to make Jesus, the Son of God, break his filial obedience to the Father. He even misused the Scriptures (v 6), but Jesus used the same Scriptures to show his fidelity (vv 4,7,10). Thus, unlike people of Israel of Old who manifested their disobedience, Jesus, far from succumbing to the three temptations, remained faithful to God (Deut 6:8) and emerged victorious over them. That way, he, the true Israel and the true Son of God, showed himself faithful to God the Father.
The temptation story, then, poses this question to us: have we been faithful to the vows we made at baptism, when through the faith of the Church, we become adopted sons of God? Of course, many of us are faithful sons for lack of opportunity to be otherwise. Some officials have been honest, because there had been no occasion to be corrupt, but when a chance is given, we find them doing what their predecessors have done. Would we be surprised if an oppositionist who used to denounce political dynasties winds up making his own, or if a politician who before the elections lambasted others for receiving the 10% SOP ends up asking contractors almost 40% of the budget for a project? They fight temptation by easily giving in to it.
Yet, even those who do not have the opportunity to be otherwise may forget their promises at baptism if only because being faithful does not offer much rewards in this life. That a teenager could auction her virginity in order to go to college says much of our values today. How many could resist the temptation to receive the filthy lucre in exchange for voting a candidate who by any standard does not even qualify for the position he is running for? Ultimately, of course, being faithful to sonship in God is a question of values, and commitment to them. For a person who regards God’s concerns as the ultimate values, and who is committed to them, temporary enjoyment and gratifications are not difficult to set aside. Despite poverty, suffering and deprivation, he remains faithful in the face of opportunities to privileges, power and wealth.