When Christ was in the WildernessFebruary 13th, 2013 by Constantine Kulakov
As early as Genesis, we read of Isaac, in the land of Beer Lahai Roi (by the wilderness of Paran), entering the field to meditate in the silent darkness of the evening (Genesis 24:63). We read how the Psalmist David announces the power of bodily pause, of complete silence in the midst of clashing swords: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). When we approach the birth of Christ, we read of John the Baptist, strengthening his spirit through discipline in the steep desert terraces and blunt escarpments of the Judean desert (Luke 1:80). And ultimately, we read of Jesus, after his baptism in the Jordan River, compelled by the Holy Spirit to fast and be tested in that same strenuous terrain (Matthew 4:1).
In the wilderness, alone, and faint without food, Jesus is confronted with three temptations. The first temptation was to turn the stones into bread. The second temptation was to free himself from the temple’s tower and to be caught by angels. And the third, to be granted power over all the kingdoms of the world. Scholar and theologian Ulrich Duchrow comments that the first temptation was an economic temptation in that Christ’s response is rooted in the Deuteronomy account of the manna given as sustenance: “humans do not live by bread alone, but by all that come out of the mouth of Adonay” (Matthew 4:4). More broadly, the Deuteronomy quotation concerns the Israelite’s moderation and generosity in gathering mana: “everyone took home just as much as each person needed” (Exodus 16). For Duchrow, because Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 in response to the second temptation, the second temptation concerns abuse of religious power in the name of oppression. Lastly, in referring to ruling over all kingdoms, Duchrow interprets the third temptation as the temptation to posses political power over the oppressed as opposed to humility and spiritual liberation.
Christ returned from the wilderness to minister in Galilee, rooted not in the power of ego or material object, but in the reality of Adonai, His Father in Heaven. He was not deluded by the abstract idolatry of his greatness; he saw reality clearly with eyes as fresh as a child’s. This Biblical demand for seclusion with nature was not intended to preserve Jesus’s “purity” from the “impurity” of women, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and pagan Samaritans. It was exactly the opposite. It was to allow Jesus to, point blank, confront all of his own temptations. By trusting in His Father, he would not fight them in tension, but accept their presence without acting on them. Now that Christ annihilated any abstract conception of self, he was prepared to offer something more than his ego: through Himself, he could offer the living reality of our Sustainer. He would offer this reality not because the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and pagan Samaritans were lesser, or impure, but because they were thrown out, broken and had the potential to be made whole.
Often this story may be interpreted as a fearful account of distant, supernatural events, but since this is a timeless revelation from God, it stands as a call that speaks to us today. Scholar Duchrow reveals how, today, we too, may be deluded by the idolatry of excessive material wealth, pride of our religion, and lastly, political control over others. Unlike Christ, we often only offer our egos, supported like puppets by our cars, our job titles, and popularity. And when the predominant culture nurtures this ultimately self-defeating reality, it appears difficult, often impossible, to do something transformative.
Still, scripture instructs us that we must be like Christ. In the 21st century, this may not require pilgrimages to deserts without food, but it does require considerable time away from things and people. It does require seclusion, silence, and stillness. That way, even in the private rooms of our own homes or backyard gardens, we may confront all our pains, fears and temptations clearly. By trusting in our Father, we may not fight them in tension, but peacefully accept their noise without acting on them. We may focus on the breath God breathed into us. As poet Franz Wright wrote, “before the mirror of eternity,” these fixations are useless distractions. After confronting the chaos of our thoughts and feelings, we may begin to open to the fuller reality of God’s healing Transcendence. Then we will not need words, we will “be still and know that He is God” (Psalm 46:10).