Lent 1

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15.

There are three stories in this section, each of which is more familiar to me in the expanded versions provided in the other synoptic Gospels. (Compare the baptism in Matthew 3:13-17, the temptation at the beginning of Luke 4, and the beginning of the ministry in Matthew 4:12-17, for example.)

In this very plain telling, the temptation narrative takes on a kind of minimalist clarity. It is the Spirit who sends Jesus out into the wilderness, and it is the angels who wait on him – it seems to me from these signs that the experience of being tempted is sanctioned by God. In some way, it must be, if not good, then part of the larger plan. It’s tempting (did you see what I did there?) to read it as a test, a kind of exam which Jesus has to pass before he’s allowed to begin his ministry. I feel like there’s something off about that reading, though; setting tests in relationships isn’t actually very helpful (‘I’ll only stay friends with X if they turn up on time/buy me a birthday present/stop telling that joke’), and God has clearly already established the relationship with Jesus – in only the last paragraph, we heard God say to him, ‘You are my Son’. So instead, perhaps it’s more like a teaching, an experience which Jesus needs to go through in order to begin his ministry. This seems plausible; people who have suffered or been tempted themselves are often more compassionate towards others undergoing the same struggle.

In this telling, the wilderness sounds like a mythical place, populated by Satan and wild beasts and angels. Presumably it was the real desert, but I think we can equally well presume that it needn’t have been, that Satan and angels can find one anywhere. Wild beasts have a good go at getting everywhere although of course some species do better than others. (I suspect that the wild beasts we picture when we read this story are a bit more dramatic than, say, magpies and squirrels, although I have no idea how historically accurate my imaginings are.) The key feature of the wilderness from an emotional point of view seems to be that one is without human company. Neither wild beasts nor angels seem likely to replace a chat with a friend!

That said, there is clearly much to be learnt from all of them. Perhaps this is my Druid background coming through, or those early lessons about birdwatching, but I find a lot to learn from the wild beasts – even the magpies and wagtails and squirrels and suchlike that can be spotted in the city – and I can even point to places in the gospels where Jesus draws those kinds of lessons (Luke 12:24, for example). Similarly, the conduct of the angels must have something to teach, and from Satan – if you know what you are watching – presumably you can learn how not to do it.

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