Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- St Luke, as we have previously seen, was writing his gospel and Acts for his patron aristocrat Theophilus and attempting to present the faith in a manner sympathetic to pagan converts. Here, in our gospel (4:1-13), we meet him doing precisely this. During the first century AD increasing numbers of pagans were attracted to Judaism because of its high moral tone; but because of its need for circumcision and strict separatism they could only become ‘god-fearers’, sympathisers. The advent of Christianity, which dispensed with circumcision and many of the food and other laws, meant that some pagans were attracted to the faith, as well as others who adopted the cults of Isis or Mithras with their strong moral codes.
In our gospel passage in which we so often focus on the Temptations and Jesus’ resistance to them, we also see how Jesus focuses on the heart of the Judaic law and its relationship between God and his people. Each of the three temptations is here rebutted by a quote from Deuteronomy. At the first temptation Jesus quotes from 8:3 “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. He is indicating his solidarity with Judaism and its faithful followers and moreover his total commitment to His Father. The Son, who is God’s word, truly speaks of faithfulness to all that God has spoken to Israel. In rebuttal of the second temptation he quotes from Deuteronomy 6:13, rejecting the worship of other gods and the requirement for the believers service to him alone, and in the final temptation, using Deut 6:16, Jesus rejects the lying empty promise of Satan of angelic protection, by his affirmation “You must not put the Lord God to the test. This of course prefigures the Passion, in which the truly human Jesus will undergo terrible torture and death as an acceptance of his complete unity in the flesh with the rest of humanity. If the Incarnation is to be real he has to go on this terrible journey, and as God he must also face the emptiness of the withdrawal of the heavenly protection he enjoys as God the Son for our salvation. The quote reflects then on the great shift in Jesus’ understanding in the God-man relationship as he takes Judaism out beyond its previous self understanding.
These quotes from the Old Testament then demonstrated to early converts that the Christian faith was deeply rooted in a respected and admired Judaism, a monotheism they were reaching out to but could not grasp in its current form, but could of course as Jesus reinterpreted and lived it. The three messages are equally relevant to us today who continually chase after other gods of sex or consumerism, bodily beauty and so on, but the real import of them lies in our absolute commitment to the One True God.
Our reading from Deuteronomy (26:4-10), is The Shema, the brief recording of the very ancient foundations of Israel and its deep reliance on God. They were commanded to recite it on waking and on going to sleep, and at their deaths, and they remembered it throughout their lives. It was what Israel discovered about its identity in its earliest journeyings and what would have impressed Theophilus and his convert friends. For Rome, Judaism was always respected simply because of its ancient origins, and given special privileges of grants of oil and grain. Converts therefore wanted a faith system they could trust, and the development of Christianity from within Judaism would have given it a kudos which they found acceptable, indeed compelling. This was no cult of the gods based in mythologies from the distant past, but firmly rooted in a real living people and its relationship with the divine, a divinity Christians uniquely realised had finally entered into human life in the person of Jesus who lived and died and rose from the dead in vindication of all he was and did.
St Paul, (Romans 10:8-13) explores this at length. In Romans 8, his great tour de force, we see how he realises that his only hope of salvation lies in Jesus Christ. Here in 10, he is insistent that that great vision of God is not confined to Jews alone, but has gone out to pagans too. Significantly, he uses the term ‘word’ for what is proclaimed. Jesus is God’s Word, the articulation of the divine, now made visible to us, accessible and no longer remote. What St John describes as “What we have touched!” Here we see that the ancient faith of Israel, then confined to words on scrolls, written down and deeply revered, has taken off and become open and accessible to all who wish to hear it, no longer the prerogative of Hebrew readers, but infinitely accessible, God’s gift of himself to his creation, His Christ Jesus, whose outreach knows no boundaries, whose words embrace all peoples to draw us to the Father. Paul’s mission to the pagan world set in motion a trajectory for God that would embrace his Jewish origins, but take its finally fulfilled promises far beyond their imagining.