Year B: First Sunday of Lent
The Temptation of Jesus
Mark 1: 12-15
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
- In the desert, Jesus is tempted to turn away from his “beloved son identity”, by accepting the “false-life” symbolized in Satan’s empty promises. How do you identify and battle the “false life” (temptations) that most threaten your relationship with God?
- How might the temptations the human Jesus endured make him more relatable to you in your own faith journey?
- Repentance is an ongoing process not a one-time event. As you move into Lent, how will you go about recognizing and making lasting change in the attitudes and behaviors that block your relationship with God?
- What gets in the way of your believing in, and embracing the Good News?
- Are there spiritually grounded men in your life with whom you can discuss the various temptations and suffering you face in life? Do you turn to them? If not, how could you develop this?
Mark 1: 12-15
Margaret Nutting Ralph
Today’s Gospel reading begins with Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Unlike Matthew’s (Matt 4:1-11) or Luke’s (Luke 4:1-12) accounts, both of which detail the specific temptations that Jesus experienced, Mark tells us only that the “Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Many Christians find it hard to believe that Jesus ever experienced temptation because their concept of Jesus emphasizes his divinity so much that temptation for Jesus seems impossible. The Gospel that emphasizes Jesus’ divinity, John’s Gospel, has no account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. However, Mark emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, and he pictures Jesus overcoming temptation before he his public ministry.
The reason Mark emphasizes Jesus’ humanity is that his audience needs to see the human side of Jesus. Mark’s audience is suffering persecution. Those in his audience literally are having to choose between being unfaithful to their belief in Jesus Christ or being eaten by a lion in the Colosseum. They are asking, “Why should I die for my beliefs?” In answer to this question, Mark holds Jesus up as a model of a person who faced death rather than choose infidelity to his Father’s will. However, Jesus’ fidelity did not end in his death, but in his resurrection and eternal life. Mark is encouraging his audience to be faithful as Jesus was. Fidelity was not easy for Jesus. Like Mark’s audience, Jesus was truly tempted and Jesus truly suffered. Nevertheless, through his fidelity Jesus conquered death. Mark is encouraging his audience to do the same. is encouraging his audience to do the same.
Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted for forty, days. The number forty- forty days or forty years—is a symbolic number used to describe times of preparation. The Israelites wandered forty years in the desert before they entered the holy land. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain when he received the Ten Commandments (see Exod 34:28)- Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights before God’s presence at Mount Horeb (see 1 Kgs 19:8). Jesus overcomes his forty days of temptation and is ready to begin his public ministry.
The first words that Jesus speaks in Mark once his public ministry begins are: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” When Jesus says, “This is the time of fulfillment,” he is obviously referring to an expectation that was held by his fellow Jews. What was their expectation?
For many years the prophets had comforted the people by reminding them that “the day of the Lord” would come. The day of the Lord was the day when God would make his power felt and save God’s chosen people from those who were threatening or persecuting them. Isaiah tells the Israelites that the day of the Lord will come when their political enemies, the Babylonians, will be made powerless.
To hear that the day of the Lord would come when sinners would be punished was good news if you thought of your enemies as the sinners. However, the prophet Amos reminded the people that if they were sinners the day of the Lord would be the day when they, not their enemy, would be held accountable.
Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord!
What will this day of the Lord mean for you? Darkness and not light! (Amos 5:18)
When Jesus announces “the time of fulfillment,” he is telling the people that the expected day of God’s definitive intervention is at hand: the “kingdom of God is at hand.” However, like Amos, Jesus calls the people to repentance. In order for the coming of the kingdom to be good news (the word gospel means “good news”), the people must “repent and believe in the gospel.” Jesus’ public ministry is initiating God’s definitive action in human history. This is very good news for those who repent and live in right relationship with God and others.
Repenting and Believing in the Good News
Question: Why is it so difficult to repent and believe the Gospel, that we are loved by God, and are called to embody that love in the time and space of earthly life?
Answer: Because we harbor so many other beliefs that do not fit into this Good News.
Beatrice Bruteau names some of these beliefs: “Health and beauty, money and power are necessary for happiness.” “I am identified by my body, personality, and possessions.” “My welfare is more important than yours.” “No one willingly gives up power.” ‘The world is here for us to exploit.” “No one can be trusted.” “There have to be winners and losers.” “They hurt me, so I must get even.” “I can’t feel good about myself unless I’m better than somebody.” “Some people are supposed to dominate other people.” “If everyone were good, life would be boring. (“Following Jesus into Faith,” The Journal of Christian Healing 10 [Fall 1988] 24).
Of course, we are not always aware we hold these beliefs or other beliefs that block us from embracing the good news. We often discover our own beliefs by tracing our actions back to their source. We shrug at injustice because “some people ‘get the shaft’ and some don’t.” We read about a tragedy befalling someone, and we respond, “Thank God, it’s not me.” We cheat a customer because if we don’t have a certain amount of money, we won’t be happy. Our instinctive and repetitive responses reveal our hidden beliefs.
Repentance entails finding and letting go of beliefs that compete with or contradict the Good News. Two observations are helpful for this “letting go” to occur. First, notice where the competing or contracting beliefs come from. Some of them come from the mindless internalization of cultural assumptions. Others come because we have universalized one of our negative experiences. Instead of allowing it to be a partial and painful piece of life, we have made it into a norm that must be obeyed.
Second, realize that we are holding the belief. The belief has not been imposed on us. It may appear to be a universal truth that we must heed. But the real truth is that we are holding it, nurturing it, sustaining it in existence by our attention and obedience. We enshrine it by allowing it to dictate our moods, decisions, and actions. Deeply realizing the origins of competing beliefs and our role in their continued power allows us to open the grasping hands of our mind. Once we cease to hold onto these beliefs, they lose their power and eventually drop away.
In spiritual teaching, it is always appropriate to ask the question a second time:
Question: Why is it so difficult to repent and believe the Gospel—that we are loved by God, and are called to embody that love in the time and space of earthly life?
Answer: Because the Gospel is about spiritual reality and how we come to believe in spiritual reality is an involved, lifelong process.
The Good News /Gospel originates with Jesus. He is the one who is conscious of divine love and human solidarity. Although his ministry and mission entails passing on this consciousness to all who follow him, initially there is a need to have faith in Jesus without having his consciousness of divine love and pleasure. The Christian community and tradition initiates all its members into this faith and supports it with strong argumentation and multiple practices. But eventually this “faith seeks understanding,” as St. Anselm would say. It wants to move away from “complete” dependency on Jesus and become personally affirmed and deeply understood by each believer. This is a process of growing in faith, and gradually putting on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) so that our consciousness is more and more congruous with the consciousness of Christ.
There are many renditions of how this growth process takes place, but there is a passage from the Sermon on the Mount that is particularly practical: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). We can value ourselves in many ways, lay up treasure in many places. We can value our beauty, our brains, our achievements, our ability to make friends, our wit, our charms, or any number of attributes. All this may be the natural activity of our social natures, but it is treasure on earth. It is passing material, subject to the corrosions and thievery of time.
The text says we should “store up… treasures in Heaven, value ourselves in a way that time cannot destroy. This means identifying ourselves more and more as beloved sons and daughters of God sent into the world to bring love onto the earth. If we do this consistently, our sense of ourselves will change. Our faith in Jesus will gradually change to a faith with Jesus. We will see for ourselves what once we could only see by trusting in Jesus. According to the text, what we treasure and where our heart is will come together. Our sense of being loved by God will enter our heart, the center our being, the source of our thinking and acting. The Good News will be central to our identity, and we may be surprised to find our decisions and behaviors flow from this treasure in our hearts (see Matt 12:34). We are doing what Jesus proclaimed, believing in the Good News.
Repenting and believing in the good news is not a project for the beginning of Lent, or even a project for the whole of Lent. It is the adventure that permeates all of life. We never finish letting go of false and embodying the transcendent love at the center of our being.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.