Jesus is about thirty years old in the Gospel scene of today’s Mass. He’s just come from what we traditionally call his hidden life, the thirty years spent at Nazareth, growing up subject to Mary and Joseph, growing in wisdom and understanding before God and man. We know that already at twelve years of age he knew he had to be about his Father’s business: he was aware that he was on a mission. He was aware of his own divinity in a human way and grew into his humanity as the years passed. Nazareth was a very small village, but it was only 3 or 4 miles from a city called Sepphoris, visible from the ridges of Nazareth itself. It was a centre for culture and art as well as being a political and banking centre. It probably provided Joseph and Jesus with masonry and carpentry work. Nazareth was also not far from what was called the Way of the Sea, a silk and incense trade route linking South Eastern Europe and North Africa to Iran and China. Jesus would have met and heard foreigners and languages and possibly even spoke a few of them.
So, the hidden life of Jesus did not mean that he was not a man of the world. He probably travelled to some extent, and certainly encountered other cultures. He was also savvy in the business practices of the time and would have known very well the reality of the world in its lights and shades.
So, when he leaves home, he is not naïve in the ways of the world, their attractions and their temptations. Some say that Jesus left Nazareth not long after the death of Joseph. Whatever the immediate reason, it is clear that he did so to begin his mission. So, as today’s Gospel begins, we know that he has just been to the river Jordan and was baptised by John. God the Father gave Jesus a very special experience on that occasion, one that was witnessed at least by John. The Father says, “This is my Son the Beloved, listen to him” and the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove.
Following on immediately from the baptism of Jesus, today’s Gospel in some ways shocks us. You would have expected that the Holy Spirit would have inspired Jesus immediately to start preaching or healing or casting out evil spirits. But no; instead it says, “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he was tempted by Satan.” The parallel text in St. Matthew’s Gospel says that the Spirit “led him into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” What is not being said is that the Spirit tempted Jesus. What is being said is that the Spirit led or drove Jesus to meet Satan who tempted him.
We can only wonder what Jesus himself thought when he felt driven by the Holy Spirit to encounter the evil spirit. Perhaps in his humanity Jesus would have been reluctant, but we know that still he obeyed the strong prompting of the Spirit. Saint Mark does not go into the temptations Jesus was subjected to, as the other synoptic Gospels do, but that can actually help us somewhat. The reason is that our attention is not drawn to the details of the temptations but to the fundamental truth that good exists in the world (the Holy Spirit), that evil exists in the world (Satan) and that the battleground between them is the human being (Jesus). Given that this scene takes place just after Jesus is formally commissioned in public by the Father to speak in his name (“This is my Son, listen to him.”), it makes it very clear that the mission of Jesus is to vanquish evil and evil’s historic strategy to destroy the human person. And Jesus will have seen during his hidden years, through his work and travels, the forms and effects of evil on his fellow human beings. He will have studied its modus operandi, especially its cleverness and subtlety in deceiving people by appearances. Most probably, Jesus was himself tempted in his humanity during the hidden life, but after his baptism Satan would be aware that the stakes were higher: the “game” was now on for real. He knew Jesus was coming for him and so he ratchets up the attack.
There are three things we know about the temptations of Jesus. Firstly, he did not enter into discussion with them. He did not, like Eve, consider the Devil’s insinuations worthy of conversation. Her mistake was to think she could hold her own and outwit the Evil One. The result? The collapse of the plan of creation and the birth of death. She let the Devil sow seeds of doubt and illusions of grandeur, when all she really got out of it, and all the Devil really wanted, was her humiliating defeat in suffering and death. But Jesus easily outwitted the voice of evil by giving voice to the Word of God in response. You don’t defeat temptation by negotiation or with a chat, but by seeking refuge in the Word of God, calling it to mind, drawing strength from it, ignoring the temptation and defusing it.
The second thing we know is that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are but did not sin. The 40 days in the wilderness was not the only period of his temptation. As I said earlier, he was probably tempted from the age of reason on. We know he was tempted at other times during his public life (Peter, the Pharisees, his family) and especially during his passion and crucifixion. His temptations would have been aimed at all the dimensions of his humanity, from his flesh and sexuality, to his intellect, to his heart and soul and mind and conscience. The greatest temptation will have been, however, to abandon his mission to deliver us from evil. In the same way, the greatest temptation of any human being is to reject God. That is why no matter what our temptations are, he has compassion for us and can help us because he won through in his humanity over all temptations.
The third thing is that doing battle with evil in his humanity was necessary. Jesus means, “God saves” and what does he save from if not from sin and its spawn, death? The Spirit drove Jesus to face evil, not just in the desert but on the Cross where he overcame the last temptation to come down from the Cross by breathing out his last. The Holy Spirit would not let Jesus ignore or avoid evil, nor whitewash it or explain it away. For the Holy Spirit wanted the Evil Spirit expelled from every human being and from creation itself and this was only possible through the direct, uncompromising, unflinching obedience of Jesus to the Father. No wonder the Scriptures call him a Mighty Hero and a Valiant Warrior!
And we, too, must be driven by the Spirit to face down evil in our own lives. That can’t be done if we deny its existence. No matter what we hear in our society today, and even among some in the Church, there is objective good and there is objective evil, and each of us in our discipleship of Jesus must overcome the evil with the good. Obedience to God is the death of temptation and evil. Obedience is a struggle, but it is a good struggle, it is the struggle of divine love, it is the struggle to discover the authentic self, it is the struggle to conquer death with life. Obedience brings inner freedom, whilst doing any old thing you like will, under the appearances of freedom, actually enslave you.
It may seem too negative to talk about evil. But that’s like saying it’s negative to talk to the doctor about your pain. Pain can never be whitewashed. You can’t talk it away or fake that it’s pleasurable. Not unless you want to die. We need to identify in and around us what is evil and call it by its name, not to hurt or crush or discourage or demean anyone, but in order to get busy in love and compassion, in discipline and obedience and in fidelity and integrity so as to overcome it with good. To do this is to be driven by the Spirit like Jesus and it is to bring the joy and hope of freedom from sin and death to ourselves and our world.