The wilderness of Jesus’ temptations represents a new Eden

Father John A. Kiley

Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all locate Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness immediately after his baptism at the Jordan by the Baptist. Some Biblical commentators see a constant Scriptural theme in this juxtaposition: commitment is always followed by testing. The Jordan baptism signaled Jesus’ commitment to public life. He would no longer be the reclusive carpenter at home in Nazareth with his widowed mother.

Now, Jesus would dedicate himself to a life of preaching, guiding, healing and forgiving, initiating the Kingdom of God here on earth. The powers of evil were clearly not going to allow the renewal of the reign of God here on earth to go unchallenged. Time and again Jesus would be tested to abandon the commitment he made on the banks of the Jordan. The thankless task of preaching the Gospel to a sometimes dull, sometimes defiant audience must have often seemed not worth the effort. Street corner arguments with the Scribes and Pharisees, misinterpretations by his own disciples, antagonisms from civil authorities, and the agony of the Cross meant a lifetime of testing for Jesus.

St. Mark’s account of the temptations of Jesus is quite brief, especially when compared to the more familiar and more detailed accounts of Saints Matthew and Luke. St. Mark writes, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Noah and his family had famously endured forty days of storm-tossed apprehension aboard the unwieldy ark. Jonah had been given forty days to convert the licentious Ninevites. Elijah had spent forty days in the wilderness sorting things out with God in the midst of trying times fighting Queen Jezebel. But the temptation narratives of Saints Matthew and Luke both favor a comparison of Jesus’ forty days with Moses’ forty day encounter with God atop Mt. Sinai or -- better still – with the forty years of Jewish migration in the Arabian Peninsula. The three Biblical quotations cited by Jesus to counteract the tricks of the devil are each taken from the Book of Deuteronomy – the Pentateuch’s detailed account of the Jewish transition from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel. Jesus is both the new Moses and the new Israel, leading the new people of God from slavery to sin to freedom as redeemed sons and daughters.

However, just possibly St. Mark today does not envision Jesus as the new Moses, but rather, Jesus as the new Adam. Like Adam, Jesus may be depicted not so much in the desert as in the wilderness. Most English translations of St. Mark use wilderness. So Jesus could have found himself in a new Garden of Eden, rich with vegetation and surrounded, as St. Mark also notes, with “wild beasts,” the same free roaming animals that Adam had encountered and named. While in the wilderness, the new Eden, Jesus’ needs are administered by “angels.” The Divine supervision that provided for Adam and Eve in Eden is now offered to Jesus Christ. And to complete this portrayal of a new Garden of Eden, St. Mark must have his serpent and so he tersely notes that Jesus, like Adam, was “tempted by Satan.”

So the picture is complete: the lush shrubbery and plants, the roving herds and wildlife, ample daily provisions and Satan’s crafty devices. Will the new Adam follow the mistaken lead of the old Adam and yield to the enticements of the devil or will the new Adam leave his metaphorical Eden strengthened by this time of testing, fortified to preach the Gospel and establish the Kingdom? Unlike Saints Matthew and Luke who portray Christ as victorious over the devil, St. Mark does not record any consequences from Jesus’ time of wilderness testing. St. Mark prefers to let history speak for itself.

“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” the old needlework emblems lamented. Adam’s yield to Satan has resulted in millennia of sin, evil, wickedness and depravity. In the new Adam, Jesus Christ, mankind can take hope. Jesus’ later public life is a history of resistance to Satan. He stood up to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He repelled the threats of the Romans. He embraced the clueless crowds and endured his witless disciples. He embraced the Cross and was obedient even to death. The wilderness of Jesus’ temptations truly was a new Eden, a new beginning, a new start toward a life of fidelity for Jesus and toward lives of faith, obedience and fulfillment for all who would heed and follow Christ’s new Gospel.