Thought for the day
In Italian, Lent is quaresima or forty (days). In German, it is Fastenzeit or time for bodily restraint. Our English word comes from an older Anglo-Saxon word for spring—len(c)ten—whence our Lent. Italian tells us how long it will last (with its symbolic overtones). German tells us what to do in that time. But English tells us what is supposed to happen, that is, we are supposed to experience a springtime of faith, a time growth and new life.
God of new life, bless us on our pilgrim way towards the great feast of Easter. Help us to know our need of your presence, breath your Spirit into our reading of the Word, teach us to set aside whatever hinders our true discipleship so that we may come to life in abundance and know in our hearts the joy of the Gospel. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Mark 1:12 The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs.
Mark 1:14 Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. 15 He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Convert and believe the gospel!” (NET adjusted)
The accounts of the temptation of Jesus are found in the first three Gospels. The version in Mark is the shortest and both Matthew and Luke offer an expanded conversation in the form of a rabbinic debate based on texts from Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). The Letter to the Hebrews also preserves a memory of the testing of Jesus.
Kind of writing
This little passage is actually made up of two scenes. The first scene is part of what is found traditionally in stories of heroes: the testing of the hero before he begins his work (vv. 12-13).
The second scene is a kind of synthesis or very brief epitome, giving the readers the core of Jesus’ proclamation is as few words as possible.
Old Testament background
The forty years in the wilderness
The wilderness as the place of temptation echoes Israel’s wandering for forty years before entering the promised land.
Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing. (Deuteronomy 2:7)
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. (Deuteronomy 8:2)
Good news / gospel
The expression “good news” is a translation of euaggelion. This noun reflects a special use in the language of Second and Third Isaiah (40-55, 56-66) where it is always a verb.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ (Isaiah 52:7)
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)
The background is the return from the Babylonian Exile (587-539 bc). The “good news” then was God’s initiative in bringing about the return and restoration of Israel.
New Testament foreground
Proclaim is a technical term for effective proclamation. The early Christian word “kerygma” comes from it. It is frequent in the Gospels (9-14-9-0). As noun and verb, gospel occurs frequently (5-8-10-0). Kingdom of God is likewise frequent (5-14-32-2) as is kingdom of heaven (x 34 in Matthew only). The language of convert (better, as always, than “repent”) is found rarely enough in the Gospels (5-2-9-0), but is clearly central to Jesus’ preaching. Believe is increasingly important, with a very special frequency in the Fourth Gospel. (11-14-9-98). All of this shows just how much this text is an epitome of both Jesus’ preaching and the language of early Christianity.
Two texts from Hebrews are relevant.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:14-18)
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1Corinthians 10:13)
Verse 12 Although this is still within the first chapter of Mark, this is the third mention of the Spirit. The verb used is very strong: literally, the Spirit threw him out into the wilderness. The wilderness is the place of both test and encounter with God, in the biblical tradition.
Verse 13 The language here is metaphorical: forty = resumption of Israel’s time in the desert; Satan = encounter with evil; wild beasts = temptations; angels = God’s presence. This testing is a preparation for the ministry, which very explicitly in Mark takes on the forces of evil:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’ (Mark 3:22-30)
Verse 14 Because Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist, his ministry starts only when it is impossible for John himself to continue. Jesus’ own preaching resembles that of John in content and vocabulary. However, Jesus preaches God’s compassionate love in contrast to judgement and condemnation.
Verse 15 Time = the kairos (not chronos) the time of special intervention from God. The coming near of the kingdom will be realised in Jesus’ healing and table-fellowship. Eventually, it became clear that the kingdom would come not only through the ministry but also through the person of Jesus.
The sequence here is important: gift (the kingdom) and response (conversion). God already accepts us before we convert, as St Paul notes in Romans “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Repent, literally metanoeite, means to take on a new way of looking at things, change in world view. Convert is always a better translation.
Pointers for prayer
1. We are at a major turning point in the life of Jesus when he is about to start his public ministry. Mark tells us this was preceded by a deep inner struggle when his resolve to take on his God-given mission was tested. Recall important decisions in your own life. Were they accompanied by struggle and doubt? Who were the angels who supported you at that time? Give thanks for them.
2. Such periods of anxiety may seem like wilderness experiences at the time with nothing positive about them. Later, with hindsight, we may see it as a necessary testing that was for our good. Perhaps, like Jesus, you recall a time when the Spirit of God led you into the wilderness to be tested and after the experience you had a clearer sense of your own identity or your purpose in life?
3. The arrest of John the Baptist was the occasion of the start of the public ministry of Jesus. When has some event outside of your control unexpectedly led you into some new and fruitful activity?
4. Convert and believe the good news was the heart of the message of Jesus. It was not a call to penance but to a change of heart, a change of attitude, leading to a change in behaviour. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of right relationships: with God, with one another, with creation, with ourselves. It is a change that leads to a fuller life. When have you found that a change in your attitude towards God, others, yourself, or the world around you, has led you to a more fulfilled or more fruitful life?
5. There is immediacy about the call of Jesus: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near”. Recall when you had a realisation that now was the moment of opportunity – for a change in your life, for a spiritual renewal, or a time to give a wholehearted yes to life. At this moment to what do you believe you are invited to say yes?
God of the covenant, O God of mystery, as the forty days of deluge swept away the world’s corruption and watered new beginnings of righteousness and life, so in the saving flood of baptism your people are washed clean and born again.
Throughout these forty days, we beg you, unseal for us the wellspring of your grace, cleanse our hearts of all that is not holy, and cause your gift of new life to flourish once again.
Grant this through your Son, Jesus Christ, our liberator from sin, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.