The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, always the first Sunday of Lent, is an unnervingly muted event in Mark. Unlike Matthew and Luke, where we hear the details of the devil’s temptations and Jesus’ responses, Mark’s testing in the desert is a quiet affair. About the only thing to be heard is maybe the growling of the wild beasts or perhaps the rustling of the angels’ wings as they serve God’s son.
The sparseness of Mark’s account is disconcerting for me. I would be much more comfortable with knowing the specifics of Jesus’ temptations — assuming that then I might anticipate them to be my own some day. Furthermore, I really want to know Jesus’ answers. I need all the help I can get when it comes to battles with the devil.
Granted, Matthew and Luke’s narrations of Jesus’ desert testing likely do not help me that much more. We are talking about Jesus after all, and whether or not I can match Jesus’ fortitude is not likely a bet placed in my favor. At the same time, I appreciate the particulars. The fine points help me to imagine what I can expect when Satan shows up at my door. They assure me that with all of the necessary information, I just might be victorious over those enticements that pull me away from my identity as God’s child and my call to proclaim that the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near.
Mark’s reserve about this matter leaves a lot to the imagination. We are tempted to import Matthew and Luke into Mark, filling in Mark’s gaps. But if we transfer Matthew’s version too hurriedly or Luke’s account too hastily, I fear that we might be trying to ease our discomfort with Mark’s silence. Because in the silence, the devil is sure to have greater influence, greater pull, greater power.
Left to my own devices, I imagine much to which the devil might tempt me. And it’s not fun. It’s overwhelming enough to think about what I would do with the particularities of the tests in Matthew and Luke. Letting my mind go, allowing my thoughts to run free, which is what Mark’s account does to me, I find myself preoccupied with my temptations rather than focusing on the fact that Jesus overcame his.
Moreover, at the same time, I know where this can go. That Jesus’ managed to thwart the devil becomes a litmus test for his sinlessness and divinity — and there is no way we can meet or match either. And yet, somewhere deep inside the recesses of our internal struggles, deep inside our internal conflicts that vie for command over us, we actually think that we can exert our individual and autonomous power over evil. That Jesus achieved victory over Satan most certainly secures our own triumph over evil — as if we can muster up enough belief to believe that.
Mark’s narration of Jesus’ temptation, if we allow it, is a slippery slope into overachievance and a false sense of confidence when it comes to our power to fend off the forces of evil. Because, honestly, once you start thinking you can predict the power of God’s cosmic adversary, a most certain result is to be overcome by it.
We miscalculate evil all of the time. From our personal missteps — “truly, it cannot be that bad” — to our communal, national, and global oversights that lull us into thinking our resistance, our response does not make a difference.
And so, Mark’s Gospel, especially this year, tells us our truth. We’d like to fill in the gaps of Mark’s account with our successes and abilities and confidences so as to withstand the tests of our time and those testing times in our lives. And likely, we will — with great sureness, even if we have to feign assurance and self-reliance.
But at some point, suggests Mark, you cannot pretend anymore that your own will to win over evil will somehow translate to that expected result. I am not sure what to do with this truth, to be honest. I want to wrestle it to the ground, show it who’s in control. I want to win. I think I should be able to secure a victory with two-thousand years of Christian knowledge and scholarship under my belt.
And so, I find myself left with the silence. The sparseness. The scarceness. Left in my own desert, my own wilderness. But maybe, that is where I should be, lest I rely on Jesus to save me from my own humanity or think that Jesus is my ticket to escape. That’s not Jesus’ job. That’s not what Jesus came to do.
And if we need any proof against that, that Jesus came to suggest ways to wiggle out of incarnation? Well, here is Lent. Here is Lent.