After hearing the story of Jesus spending 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, one might be tempted to think of this experience – this period of quarantine – as an isolated but inevitable incident.[1] After all, he was led there by the Spirit – so this must be a journey and a time with a purpose. We call this story “The Temptation in the Wilderness.” Yet it is so much more. I would like to suggest – perhaps somewhat radically --that a more accurate title would be “The Turning Point.” In fact, I propose that Lent is less about temptations than it is about turning points.

In separating this story from the rest of what we know of Jesus’s life, we lose much of its meaning and most of its impact. Even so, we must acknowledge the historical brevity of what we know of the life of Jesus. In fact, what we do know of his life. Consider: only two of the Gospels tell us anything about his birth and its circumstances.[2] Then, after a gap of twelve or so years, Luke records a story about Jesus and his parents visiting the Temple in Jerusalem.[3]

Next comes a long silence of 18 years, after which Jesus reappears, this time to be baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin John.[4] From this point on, there is a wealth of material, all crammed into the two years of ministry that preceded his death by execution. In other words, virtually everything we know about the life of Jesus is contained in the brief span of his last two years.

What happened? What was the turning point that was so significant that it altered the rest of his life? What was the event of such major proportions that it was to cost him his life? With these questions in mind, let’s examine the story.

Right after his baptism, Jesus leaves his family, his work – whatever it might have been – and his friends. He withdraws from all this and retreats to a desert area outside of town.

Matthew does not record where exactly Jesus went, or even if he was alone for those 40 days. (If he was alone, isn’t it curious, or perhaps miraculous, that Matthew was able to record the dialogue with the Devil verbatim?) We know from the Dead Sea scrolls that Jewish monastic communities of the time welcomed people who wanted to get away for a while and think things through, either alone or under the guidance of a spiritual teacher.[5] Did Jesus spend time at such a retreat center?

What did Jesus work through in this time of separation and isolation? Matthew tells us of three of his options. That these options were viable is confirmed by the strengths and abilities Jesus would exercise over the next two years.

This is an important part of any search for identity: We try to determine what talents and skills we possess and then we decide how best to use them. In their proper employment, we find our true identity.

Jesus possessed great gifts so the task was all the more difficult for him – and important.

First, he was a great leader. Men and women dropped whatever they were doing and followed him. He had the ability to gather enormous crowds around him wherever he went. This gift, which made the Roman Army of Occupation very uneasy, could enable him to be a political leader who could negotiate on behalf of his people with the Romans. He could improve the tax situation. He could put bread – not stones -- on every table.

But there were other ways his exceptional charism might have been used. Why restrict it to his own people, for example? Surely his gifts would be even more appreciated in the great bureaucracies of the time -- Rome, Greece, Egypt, or Syria. To do to be immeasurably more effective he only would have to alter his Jewish identity into what might be called a less idealistic, more realistic perspective. Wasn’t the religion of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Moses and the prophets an impediment? Didn’t it limit him in the free exercise of his abilities? Any kingdom in the world could be within his reach – if only…. Then he would be in a perfect position to help his beleaguered fellow Jews.

If Jesus was in fact the Son of God – as had been revealed at his baptism – weren’t these gifts and abilities given to him for a good reason? Further, if he was the Son of God, how could he go wrong? Whatever he chose to do, God wasn’t going to desert him. God wouldn’t let anything happen to him – Jesus should even be able to jump off a tall building and not get hurt. Why? Because God had too large a stake in him.

During these forty days, Jesus worked it through and made his choice. After considering all the options – all the temptations if you will -- Jesus chose to serve, to serve his people.[6] He realized that they needed something greater than bread. He concluded that it would be better to lose his life than to lose his soul. He saw that there were greater laws operating in the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms than raw, naked power alone. He observed that ultimately the worth of the individual was greater than the domination of the world. The fall of a sparrow,[7] or a tear,[8] did not go unnoticed. He concluded that true greatness lay in serving, rather than being served.[9]

The temptation of Jesus was that he would use his great gifts unworthily. Our temptation is identical. May this Lent be a time when whatever gifts and talents we possess are redirected to God’s purpose, through service to others. The promise of such a turning point is and always has been a resurrection to newness of life.


[1] The word quarantine comes from the Italian (seventeenth century Venetian) quarantena, meaning forty-day period.

[2] Mt 1:18-25; Lk 2:1-7

[3] Lk 2:41ff

[4] Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:31-34)

[5] Originally known as The Manual of Discipline, the Community Rule contains a set of regulations ordering the life of the members of the “yahad,” the group within the Judean Desert sect who chose to live communally and whose members accepted strict rules of conduct. This fragment cites the admonitions and punishments to be imposed on violators of the rules, the method of joining the group, the relations between the members, their way of life, and their beliefs. The sect divided humanity between the righteous and the wicked and asserted that human nature and everything that happens in the world are irrevocably predestined. The scroll ends with songs of praise to God.

[6] Mt 4:10; see Deut 6:13, 10:12; 1 Sam 7:3b

[7] Mt 10:29; Lk 12:6; see also Ps 84:3

[8] Isa 25:8, Rev 7:17, 21:4

[9] Mt 20:28