I find it fascinating the way in which the Gospel of Mark tells about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. In only two verses, Mark raises challenging theological questions by what the narrative does say as well as through what it does not say about Jesus’ temptation.
One interesting feature is that Mark’s account is much shorter than either Matthew’s or Luke’s, both of whom include details that are absent from Mark. I don’t have the space to rehearse all the explanations scholars propose as to why details are missing from Mark, but I can offer my own interpretation that gets at the heart of Mark’s theology.
In my view, the reason Mark’s temptation story is shorter than Matthew’s or Luke’s is not because Mark was less concerned for details. The purpose is to imply to the hearers of the story that Jesus faced temptations and trials throughout his life, and not just in a one-time encounter with Satan in the wilderness. Moreover, the shortness of Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation also indicates to the readers that Satan was not the primary tempter of Jesus.
The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was not a single event which he overcame and that was it. No, Mark shows us through the remainder of the narrative that Jesus faced trials and temptations throughout his life, and most of these did not come from Satan, but from Jesus’ closest followers, and even Jesus’ own inner struggle.
Another interesting, but I think more theologically awkward trait peculiar to Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation is the way Jesus is placed in the wilderness. The opening chapter of Mark reaches a crescendo at the baptism of Jesus, when we hear the voice from heaven express God’s pleasure with Jesus, calling him the Beloved Son, and when the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus. Yet, immediately, to use one of Mark’s favorite words, the same Spirit that came lovingly onto the Beloved Son, casts Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted.
Baptism and Temptation of Christ- Paolo Veronese (1580-82)
While both Matthew and Luke soften Mark’s rawness by saying that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, Mark is clear to say that the Spirit of God threw Jesus into the wilderness for the explicit purpose of facing temptation. In other words, though he is proclaimed by God to be the Beloved Son, Jesus would not be protected from the vulnerability of being human, and God plays a direct role in Jesus’ experience of human vulnerability.
Whilst the traditional interpretation that Jesus had to face temptation to be the pure sacrifice for human sin might have some truth to it, and thus God allowed him to be tempted, I think the more theologically rich interpretation is that God was intentionally putting God’s future purpose at risk.
By deliberately casting Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, God was placing God’s purposes in the hands of the human Jesus, taking the risky chance that Jesus might fail. And yes, it was entirely possible that Jesus could have failed, and we must admit that there is a measure of scandal to God’s providence in relation to the life of Jesus.
Yet, there is one other important piece of theology I have learned from the years I have spent with Mark. While the Gospel was written to tell the story of Jesus, it was not written to tell this story primarily for historical reasons. Mark’s story is not primarily a historical writing; it is firstly a theological narrative that was written to tell the story of Jesus as a paradigm for what it means to be a disciple. It is not a story distant from its audience. It is a narrative that forces its reader to be involved.
If we pay close attention to the plot of the narrative, we find that Jesus begins his life, if you will, at the point of baptism. From that point he travels the treacherous road of human existence, facing trials and temptations all along the way, until finally he meets a tragic end at his death on the cross. Mark’s story line functions as a guidebook for discipleship, and Jesus’ story of vulnerability is also our story of vulnerability.
Jesus’ temptations and trials, and the struggles he faced all along the journey, all serve to remind us that our lives are indeed uncertain and vulnerable. If Jesus’ story is our story, then following him means that we choose to walk the treacherous road of life, facing the struggles and the trials and temptations that are a part of human existence. Whereas we can see the future hope of resurrection, as Jesus did, and the same Spirit that came upon Jesus also gives us strength, this does not ease the struggles and sufferings we face on the road that always leads to Jerusalem, the place of suffering and death.
Jesus’ story of vulnerability is also our story of vulnerability