DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


A Fitting Finish
Luke 4.1�13

The story of Jesus� temptations is treated by each evangelist in a significantly different way. John omits it altogether; Mark disposes of it in a single verse, telling us simply that, "He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."

No mention of fasting here. On the contrary, the ministry of the angels is there to remind us of Elijah in the Old Testament, who journeyed for forty days and nights was sustained by food supplied by an angel. The wild beasts, mentioned only by Mark, could be a sign of the wildness and danger of the place. But more likely - taken together with the presence of the angels - they are a sign that Jesus has defeated Satan and inaugurated a return to the paradisal state where God and man, beasts and angels, live in harmony together.

So from where did we get the familiar narrative we have just heard?

Most likely it was composed by Matthew, who saw in Mark�s brief account a lost opportunity to spell out for his readers the significance of Jesus. Matthew goes out of his way to pattern the life of Jesus on that of Moses. As a newborn baby, Moses had to be saved from a royal edict to kill all infant boys, and Matthew alone tells us that Jesus� life was similarly threatened.

Moses spent his early years in Egypt, and Matthew alone tells us that Jesus did likewise. Moses led the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea and spent forty years in the wilderness, and Paul refers to this as their "baptism". Matthew develops this idea. He takes Mark�s account of Jesus� being baptized and then spending forty days in the wilderness, and describes in detail three temptations that recall the temptations of Israel in their forty-year wandering. He even has Jesus make direct quotations from the Old Testament story.

My concern here is not with Matthew but with Luke, whose account is our focus. Luke took the story over from Matthew with very little changed. But the changes he does make are instructive. They help to underline certain themes that run through his work, themes we do well to be aware of.

I intend here to look at just two changes made by Luke, one in the order of the three temptations, and one in the absence of the ministering angels from his account.

To take the second point first: we are so familiar with the story that we probably don't even notice the angels at the end are missing. But they are, and it is no accident. Matthew closes the story by saying, "Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him."

The implication is that the devil has been sent packing for good, and that the angels come in order to congratulate Jesus and celebrate his victory with him. It is a positive and happy ending to the story.

Here, by contrast, is the ominous ending in Luke: "When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time."

In Matthew it was game, set and match to Jesus. In Luke there is still a long way to go before the final conquest. To his understanding, the whole of Jesus� ministry is one continuous struggle with temptation and evil. We see this at the last supper, where Luke alone records that Jesus tells the apostles, "You are those who have stood by me in my trials".

This cannot refer to the forty days� temptations, because they occurred when Jesus was alone and before he even called his disciples. Nor can it refer to Jesus� trials before Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate, because they had not happened yet. Jesus� words about "my trials" must be intended to embrace the whole of the time spent together his disciples.

Meanwhile, what of the angels?

It is a habit of Luke, when he is repeating a story more or less unaltered from Mark or Matthew, to hold back some detail or other and then introduce it later in his gospel or even in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.

That is what he has done here. Having omitted any angelic ministration from the temptations at the beginning of Jesus� ministry, he brings it in right at the end - where no other Gospel mentions it - as Jesus wrestles with his destiny on the Mount of Olives the night before his death. No celebration party this. The "angel of the agony" as he is sometimes called earns his keep, strengthening Jesus as he sweats blood in his hour of greatest need. This is a much less jolly, but ultimately a more comforting, picture of angelic support than that given us by Matthew.

Briefly, now, the other change I mentioned. Luke reverses the order of the second and third temptations. Matthew had put last the mountain-top vision, where Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, if only he will turn away from the worship of the true God. It is the ultimate test, the greatest temptation, and Matthew is right to put it as the dramatic climax. It also makes a neat parallel to the final scene of Matthew�s Gospel, where the risen Jesus meets his followers on the mountain top and tells them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."

It is Matthew�s way of saying that by refusing to take earthly power by the wrong means, Jesus has ended up with earthly and heavenly authority by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father.

But Luke is not so bothered with mountains. He is much more focused on Jerusalem. His gospel opens there, in the temple, with the annunciation to the priest Zechariah of the birth of John the Baptist. It also closes at Jerusalem, with the disciples "continually in the temple blessing God".

Luke alone tells us of Jesus� being taken to the temple as a baby to be purified with his mother, and again as a boy of twelve years old, when he astounded the teachers with his understanding and rebuked his parents for not knowing "that I must be in my Father�s house". He alone reports Jesus� saying: "It is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem."

So it is entirely fitting that for Luke the temptations also should find their climax, not on the mountain, but at the temple in Jerusalem.

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