The Hidden Fountain: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 1
Lent 1 (Year C): Luke 4:1-13 and Deuteronomy 8:2-3,12-16
1) As the 40-day Season of Lent begins, we turn to Luke’s account of Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness just prior to the launch of his public ministry.
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 (in the northern hemisphere, that is!). Over the centuries, Lent evolved into a 40-day period of preparing for Holy Week and the subsequent 50-day celebration of Eastertide.
3) In the ancient scriptural imagination, “40” was both a shorthand 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 of rain (Genesis 7:12), Moses’ 40 days without food on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), Elijah’s 40 days without food as he journeyed to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), 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, choreographer, or composer, works through signature forms in time and space - and in the Season of Lent, we’re invited to step into our own 40-day pilgrimage of preparation.
4) One common way of interpreting Jesus’ temptation is to cast him as a kind of hero, stoically resisting lures to comfort (You’re hungry - so go ahead, eat!), glory (All this can be yours!), and security (Prove you’re God’s beloved - let God rescue you!). By resisting such things, Jesus supposedly demonstrates his fortitude. But as we’ll see, Luke’s story actually points in a quite different direction: not toward close-fisted fortitude, but rather toward open-handed, open-hearted humility.
1) The key to understanding Luke’s story is to focus on Jesus’ three responses, each of which is a quotation from Deuteronomy’s account of Moses presenting the divine law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. In a speech that begins with the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:1), Moses explains that the divine law, far from a dour list of Do’s and Don’ts, is a gift meant to help order and sustain human life, “so that you may live and increase” (Deut 8:1). What’s more, Moses continues, the Israelites’ 40 years of manna in the wilderness was designed to prepare them to receive the law, by humbling them and highlighting God’s ordering, sustaining presence in their lives (Deut 8:2-3).
2) In other words, living on manna was a course of preparation for living in the Promised Land. How so? If the Israelites had immediately entered that land of “milk and honey,” they would have misinterpreted the abundance as a result of their own efforts, rather than a graceful gift of God. They would have said to themselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this” (Deut 8:17). But the truth, Moses insists, is that God is the true source of every good gift, from milk and honey to a simple loaf of bread. It’s because of God’s loving, covenantal promises that these good things come (Deut 8:18). Put another way, it’s because of God’s graceful decrees that these good things come - not our own decrees or schemes or good works. We live by the grace of God, the decrees of God, the life-giving ways of God. Living for 40 years on daily provisions of manna in the desert (each day a new portion - no hoarding allowed!) was an experiential curriculum for learning just that.
3) And in this overall context, Moses delivers the iconic line: God fed you daily with manna “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” - or, in an equally legitimate translation, “by anything that the LORD decrees” (Deut 8:3). God’s grace, not our own efforts, is the hidden fountain in the midst of our lives, the font of every blessing we encounter, bar none. Affluence - “eating your fill,” “fine houses,” and so on (Deut 8:12-16) - can camouflage the fountain, Moses warns, and so the manna protocol was meant to help the Israelites keep their actual situation in mind.
4) With all this in view, we can see what Jesus is up to in Luke’s story. Newly baptized, Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit,” the same Spirit who leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Thus Luke casts the devil as a kind of sparring partner, and the Spirit leads Jesus directly into the ring. Just as the Israelites were “humbled” (Deut 8:3), strengthened, and instructed by 40 years in the wilderness, so too will Jesus be humbled, strengthened, and instructed by 40 days there. The Spirit will dwell in him; the devil will oppose him. After a good while, Jesus is famished - and the devil senses an opportunity.
5) On the surface, the first temptation seems to be about comfort, as if the devil purrs, You have great power - and look, you’re dreadfully hungry. Why not make some bread, and take, and eat? But on a deeper level, the temptation boils down to this: Why not sustain yourself? You have the power on your own; you don’t need God to sustain you… By quoting Deuteronomy 8 in response, Jesus signals that he understands the stakes, as if to say: Just as my ancestors were led through the desert for 40 years, the Spirit has led me here to spar with you for 40 days - and far be it from me to end this training session prematurely. I’ve learned the ancient lesson of the manna: God is the true source of my sustenance, physical and otherwise. Bread certainly has its place, but every good thing - including bread! - comes from God’s graceful decrees. Put simply, bread is a gift from God. Shall I then cut short the Spirit’s training by making and taking bread for myself? No. God is the fountain at the center of my life. With an open, humble spirit, I trust in God’s graceful care for me, not in “my power and the might of my own hand” (Deut 8:17).
6) Likewise, the second temptation seems to be about glory (Worship me, and all this can be yours!), and the third about security (Prove that you’re God’s beloved!) - but again, Jesus exposes the true stakes by quoting from Moses’ presentation of the law. If living on manna in the wilderness was meant to cultivate a stance of symbiotic reliance on God, the divine law itself has a similar purpose. It’s meant to form us toward worshiping and “serving” God, not an idol, and loving and trusting God as a child would a caring parent, not “putting God to the test,” like a child throwing himself into traffic to see if his parent truly loves him (Deut 6:13 and Luke 4:8; Deut 6:16 and Luke 4:12). God is the graceful fountain not only of nourishment, but also of guidance and loving-kindness.
1) For Luke, Jesus is the Son of God, but also the Son of Humanity, the Human One. What emerges from this story, then, is a picture of the human being not as an independent actor over-against God, but rather as a humble creature made for symbiotic reliance on God. Relying on God for what? For sustenance, for guidance, and for loving-kindness. Not heroic “self-reliance,” then, but rather humble communion with God, is this story’s central theme. Indeed, the devil tempts Jesus toward “fortitude” and “self-sufficiency,” at least as the world often defines them (sustain yourself, rule the world, test God!). Jesus declines to pursue this path, testifying instead to his own “insufficiency” apart from God, the fountain of blessings at the center of his life.
2) These three great questions - wonderful questions for Lent! - animate and govern our lives: Whom do you trust for your nourishment? Whom do you trust with your service? And whom do you trust to love and care for you? As Luke tells it, on each of these three fronts, the devil tries to insinuate a wedge between Jesus and the One who, at his baptism, has just declared him to be “my Child, the Beloved” (Luke 3:22). In effect, the devil whispers: For nourishment, don’t trust God - trust yourself! With your service, don’t trust God - trust me! And for loving care - well, really, who can you trust? God? If you believe that, why don’t you jump from this tower - and then we’ll see how many angels come to your rescue!
3) In short, the devil’s temptations are an attack on Jesus’ baptism, on the very idea that Jesus is God’s beloved child, made for a life of humble, open-handed reliance on God. Indeed, Moses’ reference to “testing” God is itself an allusion to the incident at Massah (literally, “Test”), in which the Israelites in the wilderness, parched with thirst, cry out, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7). This, perhaps, is the most fundamental temptation of them all: Is God with us? Is God’s grace really the hidden fountain in our lives? Does God love us - does God love me - or not?
4) Accordingly, Jesus’ three responses don’t just debunk the devil’s temptations; they implicitly declare the good news of the Gospel: Yes - God loves you, and loves us all! God is the One we are made to trust - with humility and grace - for nourishment, guidance, and love. Even as we, too, travel through the wilderness, every good gift in our lives is manna from heaven, our “daily bread” for which we can and should give thanks - and for which we can and should pray afresh each day, presuming nothing, with empty hands and humble hearts. For the God of grace is among us - and God’s own child, Emmanuel, “God with us,” walks at our side. In seasons of scarcity and plenty alike, God is the font of every blessing!
5) Finally, Deuteronomy 8 can be misconstrued as an endorsement of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” as if material wealth is simply a sign of divine favor. But while we may indeed thank God for blessings, our thanksgiving itself should call our attention to the fact that such blessings are not “ours” to hoard, but rather God’s to give and “ours” to share with others - including the blessing of building a society structured so that all may share such good gifts. Indeed, since we are made in the image of a graceful, generous God, we embody that image more gracefully the more generously we treat our neighbors, and the more creatively we construct a world in which not just bread but also every form of “milk and honey” is enjoyed as widely and equitably as possible (see Acts 4:32-35).