Wild Beasts: SALT’S Lectionary Commentary for Lent 1
1) As Lent begins, we return to Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, including God’s declaration that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved” - the same message we heard last week in Mark’s story of the Transfiguration. The baptism is followed by Jesus’ 40 days of being tested in the wilderness; and finally by the sermon with which he begins his public ministry, a clear call for “repentance” - that is, for a “change of mind” or “change of heart” - because “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).
2) The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word for “lengthen,” and refers to the gradually lengthening days of late winter and early spring. Over the centuries, Lent evolved into a 40-day period of reflection, repentance, and preparing not only for Holy Week but also for the subsequent 50-day celebration of Eastertide. In the ancient scriptural imagination, “40” was both a stylized way of saying, “for a long time,” and a way of resonating with other key “40’s” in Israel’s sacred memory: the flood’s 40 days and nights of rain (Genesis 7:12), Moses’ 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering (Deuteronomy 8:2), and not least, Jesus’ 40 days of wilderness temptation. The underlying idea here is that God, like a master poet or choreographer or composer, works through signature forms in time and space - and in the Season of Lent, we’re invited to participate in one of those forms by stepping into our own 40-day pilgrimage of reflection, repentance, prayer, and preparation.
3) If Mark’s reference to “40 days” echoes the story of Noah’s ark, so does the intriguing comment that in the wilderness Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Throughout his Gospel, Mark portrays Jesus as regularly retreating to the wilderness for prayer and restoration, and this passage suggests that the solace Jesus finds in the wild has something to do with spending time among a wide array of God’s living creatures. From this angle, it’s no wonder Mark ends his Gospel with Jesus instructing his disciples to declare the good news not merely to “all people” but rather to “the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
4) Many ancient cultures have “great flood” stories in their narrative treasuries, and a high percentage of those stories (a) explain the flood as the result of divine activity, and (b) feature a favored human family who helps preserve animals from the deluge. What’s distinctive about Genesis 6 - 9, then, isn’t the story’s basics but rather its details, tone, and overall upshot. For the authors of Genesis, the flood happens in the first place because God is outraged by the heart-breaking, ubiquitous violence on earth (Genesis 6:11), and the flood ends with God’s covenantal promise - to humanity and also to “every living creature” - to disavow such violence once and for all. Thus the story’s authors take a common ancient genre (the “great flood” story) and turn it into both a testament to God’s nonviolent heart and a reminder of humanity’s role as protector, steward, and caretaker of all God’s creatures, great and small.
1) Particularly in the Lenten season of repentance, as we encounter again the story of Jesus’ baptism, it’s striking that Jesus is baptized at all. Mark explicitly frames the rite as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) - and yet Jesus, the very one with whom God is “well pleased,” gets in line with the rest of us. It’s an expression of the mind-bending humility and solidarity of the Incarnation; God stands in line with sinners. And at the same time, it’s an example of how “repentance” can be communal, not just personal. That is, while it’s right and good to repent of our individual failings, it’s also fitting to take responsibility for those things our community has done or left undone that need changing. After all, in the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us,” not merely “forgive me.”
2) The Spirit seems to appear on the baptismal scene as a gentle, loving dove - but quickly becomes what ancient Celtic Christians dubbed a "wild goose," driving Jesus out into the wilderness, hissing and nipping at his heels. Why? Being tested in the wilderness is a common motif in Hebrew scripture; take the Israelites’ 40 years of wilderness wandering after the exodus, for example, a period the author of Deuteronomy frames as a time of testing, humbling, and strengthening. It’s as if Mark is saying: Just as ancient Israel was tested and strengthened in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the promised land, so too Jesus was tested and strengthened in the wilderness for 40 days. In this way, we can recognize him as a new personification of Israel, a new shepherd for God’s people, a new Moses ushering former captives into a new freedom, and ultimately into a new promised land of redemption. Likewise, in Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus stands up to the devil’s temptations by directly citing Deuteronomy’s account of Israel’s wilderness wandering, making these rich thematic connections even more explicit (Matthew 4:1-11).
3) In storytelling, “firsts” always matter, and Mark’s account of Jesus’ first sermon is no exception. The sermon - blessed in its brevity! - comes in four parts: (a) “The time is fulfilled”: a reference to the dawn of a new era, evoking God’s Jubilee, the promised new day of which the prophets speak; (b) “the kingdom of God has come near”: despite appearances, God’s active reign of love, justice, and peace is breaking into the world here and now; it’s so near you can see it and smell it and reach out and touch it! (c) “repent”: because of this nearness, Jesus calls us to repentance; the underlying Greek term here is metanoia (meta, “change” + noia, “mind”); today we might say “change your heart” or “change your life”; and finally, (d) “believe in the good news”: trust that all of this is true, and rejoice! Because if we aren’t dancing with genuine joy - we didn’t hear the news!
4) What should we make of the idea that Jesus is “with the wild beasts”? Should we attach this phrase to the words that precede it (“tempted by Satan”) or to the words that follow it (“and the angels waited on him”)? In other words, are the beasts adversaries or advocates, sparring partners or comforters? This week’s passage from Genesis provides some clues. Here is the first divine covenant in the Bible, and it’s described as both “everlasting” and ecologically universal in scope: God’s promise never again to destroy the earth is made to all of humanity, yes, but also to all living creatures, and even to the earth itself (Genesis 9:13). God puts down the divine bow - an archer’s bow! - in the clouds, an amazing, technicolored icon of nonviolence. Humanity is given a second chance to live up to our original vocation as those who “till and keep” creation and all of its creatures. And so in Mark, when the Spirit drives the Son of Humanity into the wilderness, the deep poetry of Genesis suggests that Jesus is together “with the wild beasts” not as foes but as friends. Here at the genesis of his ministry, we get a beautiful glimpse of that peaceable kingdom to come.
1) As Lent begins, this is the perfect week to reflect on the season and what it means in Christian life: an invitation to a 40-day journey of reflection, repentance, and preparation for the great mystery of the empty tomb. Now is the time to change our lives, to embark upon a kind of soulful spring cleaning. What in our personal and communal lives needs repentance or renewal? How do we need to be both humbled and strengthened? How can we better prepare for that radiant season of Easter? Might a sojourn in the wilderness “with the wild beasts” be just what we need?
2) Jesus’ first sermon can be a template for preaching, for a season, or for a lifetime. Each of its parts is essential: a new day is dawning; it’s near enough to touch; so, change your life; and rejoice! And what’s more, the relationships between these parts are equally important. If the sermon’s core is, Because God’s wonderful new world is dawning, repent!, its mistaken opposite is, Because you have repented, God’s new world is dawning! That is, the basis of Christian life is not our repentance, not our good works; rather, the basis of Christian life is what God has done and is doing, and our good works flow from the joyous, thankful recognition of that graceful liberation. True repentance - changing our lives and hearts for the better - flows from God’s activity in the world, not the other way around. In this way, Jesus' sermon is a call not into anxious exertion, but rather into gratitude and joy!
3) One “change of life” these two passages point toward involves our care for God’s creation, and in particular our role as guardians of the earth’s biodiversity in the midst of the ongoing catastrophe some have called "the sixth extinction." One might reflect this week on the ways in which creation care is at the center of Christian faith. Originally created to “till and keep” the garden, and then given a second chance to reclaim that birthright through the new creation in the story of the ark full of “wild beasts,” we are clearly, continually called to care for the whole buzzing, blooming menagerie. God’s great covenant isn’t just with us - it’s with “all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:17). And God’s subversive redemption is ultimately for the sake of a world without violence: like swords turned into ploughshares, God remakes the archer’s bow into a rainbow, and an ancient story of deluge into a stirring, challenging testament to God’s peaceable kingdom. When Jesus walks 40 days in the wilderness, then, not only the angels but also “the wild beasts” are at his side. And accordingly, on the other side of Good Friday's cross, Jesus will say to those who follow him: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).