Today we hear the account from Luke of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness for forty days. Wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. It also connected then, as it does now, to very basic spirituality: a place to grapple with God, a place to learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, of wild beasts and desert.
Displaced peasants fled into the wilderness from the imperial Roman system that stole their lands for larger plantations. The wilderness was a place of safety as well as to carry out raids against the system. Many had to become bandits to rob from the rich to share what they secured for those impoverished by the system.
Jewish religious revolutionaries sought out the wilderness as a staging platform to fight against the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities. The hopes for liberation lived from the stories of liberation, especially the story of Moses who fled into the wilderness, called by God to return to Egypt to liberate his people.
Pious groups, like the Essenes, created the Qumran community, a priestly and pure settlement in the wilderness, waiting for the messianic drama and climax. Individual religious figures like John the Baptist made the wilderness their starting point where his baptismal ministry would be forged.
Jesus went to the wilderness. He has had a profound experience and revelation of God’s beloved child during his baptism. I suspected that he needed time to process the meaning of the event. In the wilderness, today’s gospel focuses on the temptations that Jesus faced for his future mission. I will talk about those later, but I want to speak on what we usually don’t’ focus: the wilderness.
A number of authors suggest that Jesus learned and accepted his messianic ministry in the wilderness; some of have suggested that he learned his lifestyle there. My observation is that the wilderness presented him with opportunities to learn about the “wild grace” of God, his dependence upon God, and perhaps an itinerant, carefree lifestyle. In a wild habitat, the Spirit is everywhere, and one needs to pay close attention so not to miss the Spirit.
Passionist priest and earth theologian (geologian) Thomas Berry recognizes at the heart of nature there is “a wild component, a creative spontaneity that is in its deepest reality, its most profound mystery.” He comments on the wilderness:
Wilderness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneities of any being. It is that wellspring of creativity whence comes the instinctive activities that enable all living beings to obtain their food, to find shelter, to bring forth their young: to sing and dance and fly through the air and swim through the depths of the sea. This is the same inner tendency that evokes the insight of the poet, the skill of the artist and the power of the shaman. (Berry)
The wild, especially in the wilderness, presents a sense of sacredness. If the natural world reflects the image of God, then the wilderness reflects a wildness of God that we witness in the action of the Holy Spirit as coloring outside boundaries and human categories. Nature is wild, and the Holy Spirit, and we come from the wild—original life from the surging oceans, then our hominid ancestors from the savannahs of Africa. Wilderness is a type of out of bounds or wild gardening by God, and we discover in the wilderness the wildness of God in the uncultivated and disordered wilderness. I believe that Jesus discovered this insight about the wildness of God/
Wendell Berry, American novelist and ecological activist, understands “wilderness as a place” where we must go to be reborn—to receive the awareness, at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we part of creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us.
Wendell Berry writes of the three principles of the “kin-dom of God.” I will suggest that Jesus learned these three principles of the kin-dom of God:
The first principle of the Kingdom of God us that it includes everything in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it whether we know it or not and whether we wish to be or not. Another principle, both ecological and traditional, is that everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it, that is to say, the Kingdom is orderly. A third principle is that humans do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them.
Wendell Berry described the kin-dom of God as, the Great Economy or what Jesus includes in his notion of the companionship of empowerment, for Jesus expressed the economy that God designed in creation. It is a considerate economy found in nature, and all human economies need to fit harmoniously with that companionship ship economy. It is an extension of the Great Economy of companionship of empowerment into the natural world. Berry perceives an ecological and economic sustainability within the words of Jesus. He sees an inclusivity of human and nonhuman animals and nature as part of this kin-dom.
The image of wilderness most characterizes our relationship with the Spirit. Jesus discovered he wildness of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness across the Jordan. And in in the wilderness, he discovered how God sees life so differently from human beings.
The wilderness experience revealed how God colors outside human categories and religious boundaries, for God’s grace is wild, untamed, and disruptive of human exclusions. God’s grace and love were wildly inclusive, beyond human imagination. God’s inclusivity was incarnated in his own flesh and blood, and he sensed that in his intimate moments with God in the wilderness. He intuited a sense of God’s inclusive love for all humans and for all other life. God’s providential care was expressed in God’s love for the lilies of the field, and God’s sustaining the life of the birds of the air and for animals in the wilderness.
For Jesus, God’s empowered companionship denotes community, mutuality, co-creating together through the mobilization of diverse gifts. It includes the virtues of forgiveness, unconditional love, non-violence, compassion, sharing goods, and care for the vulnerable. God’s inclusive love was extended to humanity and nonhuman animals.
The wilderness retreat helped Jesus to distance the option of empire and power games of domination and conquest that he witnessed with Herod Antipas, the co-opted Temple rulers, and the Romans . He affirmed the counter-option of the companionship of empowerment. Let me read quotations of authors that capture what Jesus learned in the wilderness:
There are no more outsiders! Everyone is in—irrespective of their religious state or condition. Radical inclusiveness is a core value in the new companionship. And then comes the bombshell, the queerest twist; the final act of inclusiveness is done by one regarded as a radical outsider, and a hated one. (a Samaritan who shows compassion for Jewish man beaten and left for the dead on the road to Jericho). Diarmuid O’Murchu
Here is the radical act of inclusion envisioned in his retreat in the wilderness. This would significantly impact the style and flavor of his ministry.
The three temptations in Luke’s Gospel are temptations to a style of messiah, exemplified by the rulers of the Temple and the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors were proclaimed as gods and saviors in conquering the world through the force of the Roman legions.
The first test is the temptation for food: He rejects the temptation for his own self-interest and comfort. He will not have a regular place to lay his head to sleep. He will be itinerant and dependent upon Abba God. Jesus will be hungry and dependent upon the gracious gifts of others to receive shared gifts. This temptation is based on false notions of scarcity, for it points to the abundance of shared goods by disciples of the companionship of empowerment. Empire takes food, and its logic is one of scarcity, abundance for the elite and taking away of what is necessary for life of the poor and the peasant. God’s logic is shared abundance for all is celebrated in the new meals, not of scarcity of food or grace but an extravagant abundance of both. Scarcity is the logic of the ruling classes, the 1%. for Jesus, God’s table had to always be open to everyone. Scarcity, privilege, and exclusion were not God’s ways, but abundance, inclusiveness, and compassionate care.
The second temptation is the possession of power and domination: It is the logic of empire, mainly the Roman Empire.
To resist empire—as-such we must know what we are up against. It is something inherent in civilization itself. Non-imperial civilization is something yet to be seen upon earth. John Dominic Crossan
The logic of God’s kin-dom is not imperial domination and ruling, but service of the greatest as the least and the least the greatest. Those who wish to be disciples must choose the lowest position at table, that of a slave, in serving the rest. The first will be last, and the last first. He would tell his disciples, some of them with their notions of power share similarly those notions with the Romans: You are to take the role of the lowest, a slave in service to all. This is the counter-vision that Jesus learned of the upside-down kin-dom in the wilderness. It is humble service over dominating power and coercion of Empire.
The third temptation is to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. It is a temptation to test God. God does not need to be tested but trusted. It is not wonders and miracles that will generate faith, but the great miracle of all, changed lives—the transformation of people, who have become more compassionate, and who are reaching out to outsiders as brothers and sisters in love and care. It is God’s grace that is effective in people’s lives:
The logic of domination, violence, reward, and punishment that prevails in the everyday world is challenged and replaced by a new logic, the logic of grace, compassion, and freedom. Peter Hodgson
Grace is ordinary and unseen, but more effective than the powerful signs.
All three temptations have bearing in shaping Jesus’ ministry of God’s empowered companionship when he returns to society. They were rejected as style of ministry. It chose not the privileged position of religious leaders then and now in many churches. Remember the priest who walked by the man beaten and left for dead on the road of Jericho. Just imagine a high priest, or now a bishop, elder, or moderator who refuse to take up Jesus’ model of humble service, willing to wash the feet of his disciples or serve at table. These temptations were countered by a new vision of service and inclusiveness with forgiveness and compassion.
Jesus would begin his ministry by preaching the good news of the forgiveness of sins without requiring any penance, he would invite the pure and impure to sit at table to eat at God’s table, he would heal on the Sabbath because compassion was greater than the law.
So in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus recites from the scroll of Isaiah:
To preach good news to the poor.
To proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Jesus preached a new vision of God’s compassion for those who are not included in the vision: God care for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, and those enslaved through indebtedness. Jesus proclaimed a new freedom of God’s Spirit for a new era. It was the freedom that the Holy Spirit, who is God’s wildness,” and whose wildness was passed into the message, ministry, and person of Jesus.