More Than Bread

Luke 4:1-13 | First Sunday in Lent

Forty days. Forty years. We encounter that measure of time over and over. Moses on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights, the flood rains falling for forty days and nights, the Hebrew people dwelling in the desert for forty years—it is a recurring element.

In the story of the temptation of Christ, he is in the wilderness for forty days, fasting, withdrawn from the world. We don’t know why he went. He was led there by the Spirit, says Luke. Mark writes that the Holy Spirit literally threw him into the wilderness—there’s a thought. I wonder whether Jesus had any idea why he was there.

Now we enter the forty days of Lent, give or take Sundays, that lead to Easter. I wonder whether we have any idea why we are here, whether we noticed.

Forty years. Forty days. It is a perfect time, a complete unit, a generation. We are better off not thinking in literal terms—so many days or weeks or hours—that much is a given. We cannot always measure the things that matter, nor should we try.

Instead of wondering how Jesus managed a forty day fast and a forty day temptation, we might recast the story: after enough time, or just at the right time, in the fullness of time, Jesus encountered his demons.

If we are going to practice non-literal thinking, we might also reimagine the part of the devil. Perhaps the devil is only what we think it is when we are children—an antagonist, a boogeyman, something outside ourselves, hiding in the shadows. In this story, the devil is something different than a boogeyman. It represents the ways our own hearts and minds betray us. After all, Jesus later teaches that we can only be made unclean by what comes from our own hearts, or so Matthew and Mark tell us, though Luke does not.

We are betrayed by the evil that we nurture, the evil we create for ourselves, no outside influence required.

We listen to the story of the temptation as though it can only be understood one way. Take time, for instance, and the role of timing in the telling. There are the forty days of fasting, after which Jesus was hungry. While we understand that the temptation to turn rocks into bread, which in all honesty sounds like an excellent notion, comes at the end of this period of fasting, it is not so clear that the temptation only began after the forty days were up. The text literally says that Jesus was in the desert for forty days being tempted. That is to say, the whole time.

Luke writes in detail about temptations of sustenance and of power and of safety, but nothing tells us that these three were the whole shebang. Just as it is with the person we see in the street or on the next pew, we don’t know everything that happened to Jesus when he was out there in the wilderness. What else may have danced at the edge of his mind in those days like a snake crawling on the sand?

If it were a modern tale, or a movie, we would know that we heard part, saw part, were given illustrative images from the greater whole. Gospels, like movies, can only be so long before the audience turns away.

The Torment of Saint Anthony
The Torment of Saint Anthony, Michelangelo (after an engraving by Martin Schongauer)

At the end, we read that the devil withdrew until a more favorable time—and there is that concept of perfect times again, something whole, complete, symbolic. Not that our demons ever go away. We bring them with us when we are led—thrown—into our wilderness, our deserts. Saint Anthony, one of the first of the desert fathers, is said to have walked everywhere with demons clutching at his feet.

Time. Wilderness. Temptation. These are the themes, the images, the symbols of the story. These are also the themes and symbols of our own Lenten journeys, no matter when we find ourselves alone in our own deserts, hungering for something that is more filling than bread, more lasting than fame and power, more valuable than safety.

Abraham Maslow proposed that we have a Hierarchy of Needs. Based on his concept, humans first need food and shelter, and only then can we turn to pursue the higher things—love, self-esteem, self-transcendence. Jesus, never having read psychology, seems to have begun at the apex. Transcendence. Of all the things we might choose to bring with us on our trek into the wilderness—tents, food, all manner of survival gear–none of it was important to Jesus.

He didn’t go into the wilderness just to survive. He walked into the desert to be alive.

Forty days of Lent. Forty hours of work. Forty seconds to breathe and to sip some coffee. All of these are perfect times, and we are tempted to distraction, tempted by distraction. Our purpose is not just to survive the time that we have. Our purpose is to live it.

Temptation of Christ, engraving
Temptation of Christ, engraving