First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent Year B (18 February 2018)

Gen. 9:8-15; Ps. 24:4-9; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15.

Theme: The Spirit drives Jesus into the Wilderness





That the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness [Mark 1:12] connects his stay there with the story of his baptism that has immediately preceded it. This connection is vital to understanding Jesus. The baptism story emphasizes his special father-son relationship with God while the wilderness story emphasizes his real humanity, his identification with us.


Nearly all English versions use the past tense ‘drove’, but the Greek word ekballei is present tense, so ‘drives’ is closer to the original. Perhaps Mark is saying that being in the wilderness is a permanent condition, both for Jesus and for us. It certainly must have seemed so to his first audience, persecuted and oppressed as they were by the power of imperial Rome.


The extent to which the wilderness impressed itself on the Jewish religious imagination is illustrated by the fact that words like ‘wilderness’ and ‘desert’ appear more than 300 times in the Hebrew Bible and about 450 times in the Talmud [e.g. Mas. Sanh. 99a (11) “just as they were afflicted forty years in the wilderness, so shall they rejoice forty years under the kingship of the Messiah”]. Primarily the wilderness is a place of testing, as in the Exodus story, “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you…testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” [Deut 8:2], but it is also the privileged place of meeting with God, e.g. Moses on Mt Sinai [Ex 19:20-24], also Elijah [1Kg 19:9-14]; it is the place where God will speak to the heart of his beloved Israel [Ho 2:14]. For Jesus, too, it was a place both of testing and of reassurance.


The number ‘forty’, whether days or years, is also a symbolic term. It represents a lifetime, and was possibly the average life expectancy in biblical times. Even today in poorer countries in Africa it is only in the 50’s. Which raises the question as to how long Jesus was tempted – tempted to use possessions, wield status and exercise power in ways that were not in accordance with his Father’s will [see Mt 4:1-10]. The answer has to be for his whole lifetime! This is the position taken by the Letter to the Hebrews, “we have one (Jesus) who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”. The Vatican II document The Church in the Modern World says likewise when it says of Jesus that he was “like to us in all things, except sin” [#22].


Jesus was not alone in the wilderness. He was “with the wild beasts” and “the angels waited on him”. Mary Healy suggests that the presence of the wild beasts that do no harm evokes Isaiah’s picture of harmony in creation at the coming of the Messiah [Is 11:1-9], though Robert Stein disagrees, seeing the wild beasts as part of an evil environment. The angels ministered to Jesus just as they had done to Israel during the exodus [Ex 14:19], and to Elijah before his forty-day journey to meet YHWH at Horeb [1 Kg 19:5-7]. In the Elijah story ‘angel’ and ‘the angel of the Lord’ are used interchangeably, and in the annunciation to Gideon in Judges 6:22-23 ‘the angel of the Lord’ is synonymous with ‘the Lord’. So the God of Jesus is with him through all the trials of his life, ministering to him and caring for him.


For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What do you find (a) challenging, and (b) reassuring, about this passage from Mark? 2. How do you respond to Mark’s picture of Jesus being tempted all through his life? 3. In what ways might this story of Jesus in the wilderness shape your approach to Lent this year?


Bibliography: Healy, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids MI, 2008); Robinson, Change of Mind and Heart (Revesby NSW, 1994); Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids MI, 2008).


This week’s Sunday Gospel Commentary was prepared by

Br Kevin McDonnell cfc, PhD., Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus, 2003, 2004, 2005.

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[Copyright © 2018]



PLEASE NOTE: The weekly Gospel commentaries represent the research and creative thought of their authors, and are meant to stimulate deeper thinking about the meaning of the Sunday Scriptures. While they draw upon the study methods and sources employed by the Bat Kol Institute, the views and conclusions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of their authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Bat Kol. Questions, comments and feedback are always welcome.



Bat Kol Institute for Jewish Studies, Jerusalem


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