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In the story of the temptation of Christ, he is in the wilderness for forty days, fasting, withdrawn from the world.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

The Gospel of Doing

Third Sunday of Advent  |  Luke 3:7-18

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

The Gospel of Doing

John the Baptist was the sort of man who would get extra attention at airport security. Wild, bearded, long haired, wearing odd clothes — he showed every sign of being outside mainstream society.

Of course, he was outside the mainstream. While Jesus would later walk the streets of the cities and sit to teach in the synagogues, even venture into the Temple itself, John left the company of society. He went out into the wilderness to the edge of his civilization. John believed, hoped, that someone else was coming, someone who would come from a world away, and maybe out there, away from the cities and the lights, it might be easier to keep watch on the horizon.

In the wild places near the murmur of the river, John began to catch the attention of anyone who passed, and he began to preach. It may have been what he said, or maybe how he said it, or maybe simply the appearance of this man who happened (that is the word the gospel accounts use — John ‘happened’ — a way of describing the acts of a prophet) somehow drew people to him. They left their towns and villages, left their familiar paths and streets, and they made their way into the wild places to see this wild man.


”What shall we do?” That was the question the crowds put to him when they found him.

His answers were remarkably simple. Share your food with the hungry. Share your clothes with the poor. Do not take what is not yours. John taught a practical theology.

Only his last answer was abstract. Be content, he told them, an injunction not so simple as the others. How should one be content? He didn’t give out instructions.

Perhaps we are content when we choose to be.

That is the implication behind John’s mandate. It is only reasonable to tell us to be content if it is possible for us to comply. We must be able to choose it.

Contentment, then, is not a feeling to be desired—that is a result, not a cause. Contentment must have more to do with how we see the world, what we choose to do in the world or apart from it.

John the Baptist never told anyone to believe certain tenets. The closest thing to dogma he taught was the need to change. The people who came already knowing how to pass a theology exam, those people he called snakes and vipers. It was not an endorsement of mainstream religion.

He didn’t preach what people should believe. He preached what they should do. Rather than admonishing people to be right, he urged them to do right. Perhaps he was confident that faith would follow action, or perhaps he saw no difference between the two.

John preached a gospel of expectation — God is coming into the world, always, perpetually. He preached a gospel of doing — feeding, clothing, sharing — and oddly enough, according to John, these are the things that make smooth the paths on which we might see God approaching. He told people to give. He told them to share. He didn’t tell them to love one another: he told them to act as though they did. He told them to live like Jesus was going to live.

He’s coming, John told them. Make a way.


In Those Days

First Sunday in Lent  |  Mark 1:9-15

Lectionary Project

This entry is part of a ongoing three year project, a series of reflections written to match the Gospel readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, the Christian world recognizes the season of Lent, a walk lasting forty days and six Sundays and ending at Easter. It is a season of remembrance and of reflection.

When Mark says that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, he is really saying that the Spirit “threw” Jesus into the wilderness, just like we throw a ball. That is the actual word he uses.

Threw. Tossed. Punted. Drop kicked.Eggs Wide

It has happened to all of us. (If it hasn’t happened to you, just wait for it. It won’t be long now.) We think we are minding our own business, doing pretty ok, and something drop kicks us into nowhere.

Welcome to the wilderness experience. This one is not about campfires and marshmallows. This one is about being alone in the dark, sand in all the cracks, wondering what is making that sound in the distance and whether it knows we are here—yet.

Maybe Jesus went off into the wilderness for a personal retreat before engaging in public teaching. Everyone starting a daunting task needs some preparation time. Anyone heading out on a journey that leads to rejection and crucifixion, well, all the more so. One can imagine Jesus being driven by the Spirit, his own Spirit, the deep quiet voice within him, out to a place where he could be alone.

That’s the trouble, though. We’re never alone. Jesus wasn’t, not in Mark’s account. Out there, in nowhere, were the beasts, the Satan, and the angels, to say nothing of whatever interior dialogue Jesus carried with him.

The wilderness experience is a metaphor, of course, just like the transfiguration on the mountaintop. In this case we can more easily imagine a real journey, but we get more out of the metaphor.

As I said, we all end up in the wilderness sometime. I don’t mean a spiritual retreat in some remote place. I mean that there are times when we are thrown into a hard place by forces we did not anticipate and that we cannot control. There we are, like Jesus, all alone, and like Jesus never alone. There are always the accusing voices, the wild things that run through our minds, things that will not quite be controlled. And thankfully, there are angels, even if we have to find them inside ourselves, among the voices in our heads.

We get thrown into the desert that we carry within us.

FlowersInRocksThat is the whole point of a spiritual journey. There are places within us that are not planted, where nothing much is growing. Barren places. Untouched. All of this prayer, reflection, looking for God out there, within ourselves, in the eyes of strangers, all of it is about nurturing that inward plot of land. Making our wilderness into a garden.

There are times when we find ourselves in the desert. In those days, we needn’t look for the way out. We are oddly where we should be. Once we tend to the the place where we find ourselves, the wilderness is gone. All that is left is us, and the Spirit who threw us where we would never have gone on our own.

The kingdom of heaven is within us, Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel. If heaven is within us, we might take it that hell is also within us. Which one we experience on our inward journey depends on our us.

On Canoe Pointing