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Leadership is proven by Survival

President Clinton's recent publicity demonstrates the significance of temptations in the life of a leader. The case of the White House intern has placed two related questions in relief: Did our leader behave improperly in time of temptation? Will he survive the test produced by the media? Both questions--one pertaining to the past, the other to the present--imply that leadership is proven by survival.

No leader ever survived as well as Jesus. Next Sunday's gospel (Luke 4:1-13) shows him undergoing "temptations"--actually, "tests" is a better word. The devil is not trying so much to make him sin, as to break his leadership. Jesus overcomes beyond all imagining. He wriggles away from this episode with scripture citations. However, his victory will be even more complete. Luke tells us Satan awaited another opportunity to return. When he does so (cf. Luke 22:3, 31, 53), death, his most powerful weapon, fails. Jesus' survival in next Sunday's gospel foreshadows the ultimate survival of resurrection.

* * *

This story appears in three gospels. Mark simply says Jesus was tempted for forty days (1:13). Matthew and Luke add the three temptations; they probably took these from another source which has never been found, the presumed "Q" document of sayings of Jesus. Their versions are quite similar, except in two places: In the second temptation Luke adds a phrase in which Satan boasts that he owns the kingdoms of the world. Luke, who frequently champions the cause of the poor, shows that Satan has a foothold on the secular world.

The other difference between Matthew and Luke is the order of the second and third temptations. It may be that Luke switched them in order to conclude the episode at Jerusalem, where the whole story will end with the passion of Jesus. Or it may be that he faithfully copied Q, to show that the greatest temptation was the test of God.

If you're interested in seeing how Luke stitched together the passage from Mark and the one from Q, take a look at 4:2. There he borrows directly from Mark (the devil tempted Jesus for forty days); but in the following verses he draws from Q (the devil gave Jesus three temptations). The two sections don't quite match: The story from Q seems to take place on a single occasion; Mark reports a different kind of temptation over a longer period. Luke simply cut and pasted the two sources without trying to reconcile them.

* * *

The background to the temptations is Israel's sojourn in the desert, a critical detail for interpreting the meaning of this passage for us on the first Sunday of lent. You remember the story. God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and the people spent forty years in the desert migrating toward the promised land. It was not a completely peaceful journey. Quite literally, all hell broke loose.

Israel faced three temptations and failed them all. They received manna from heaven to show they should depend on God (Deuteronomy 8:3), but they rebelled (Dt 9:7-9). They were told to worship God alone (Dt 6:13), but they turned to false idols (Judges 3:5-7). They were asked not to tempt God (Dt 6:16), but they forced Moses to have God provide water from the Rock (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13; Psalm 95:8-11), a request which they later believed cost Moses his entry to the promised land (Dt 32:48-52).

Jesus, spending forty days in the desert, faced the same three temptations: reliance on food (turning a stone into bread), idolatry (worshiping Satan), the testing of God (summoning angels to cushion an acrobatic fall). In response, Jesus quoted to Satan the very passages meant to help Israel through their temptations. The difference, of course, is that where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.

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With this reminder, we begin our lent. What happened to Israel happened to Jesus. What happened to Jesus is happening to us. As a community, we are facing the three trials which will prove our leadership. What really sustains us: food or prayer? Where do we orient our lives: toward the market or toward God? How do we face our religion: with defiance or with wonder?

Welcome to the desert.

[Published in the Catholic Key on 2/22/98 for the 1st Sunday of Lent]