Jesus on a Wilderness Vision Quest

JesusTemptationBy Ched Myers, 1st Sunday in Lent (Luke 4:1-13)

Note: This is part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016. For a longer version of this reflection and a close look at each of the temptations, see

The church traditionally inaugurates Lent by reflecting on the “wilderness temptations” of Jesus. In preparation for his mission, Jesus follows a mysterious yet compelling calling to radical wilderness solitude. He fasts. He lives in the wild. He wrestles with spirits. (Above: Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness,” 1873.)

Jesus’ desert retreat seems strange to our modern ears, and consequently has been ignored or relentlessly spiritualized or psychologized in churchly interpretation. It bespeaks, however, of an ancient practice that is quite intelligible to indigenous peoples the world over. Largely lost to contemporary urban cultures, this tradition survives still among most land-based tribal peoples. Among Aboriginal people it is what elder Guboo Ted Thomas describes as the “renewal of the Dreaming.” For the California Yuki it is dancing and the sweat lodge. The Pueblo people of New Mexico follow the ancient traditions of the kiva. And the Sioux name it hanblechia—the vision quest.

The vision quest is a ritual passage into selfhood, somewhere between what Joseph Campbell calls the “initiation ceremony” and the “hero-journey.” Shamans, writes Christopher Vecsey, “with the help of guardian spirits travel to the land of the dead in order to restore the lost or stolen or diseased souls…out of love for their community.” The classic literary account of a Lakota shaman, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, opens:

I sat there in the vision pit…all by myself, left on the hill top for four days and nights without food or water… If Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, would give me the vision and the power, I would become a medicine man and perform many ceremonies.

This is both a very real exterior adventure beyond the margins of society and an interior passage of cleansing. Yet the journey to/in the “spirit world” is also a sojourn through mythic time, in order to encounter the story and destiny of one’s self and one’s people.

That this sojourn lasted “forty days” (Lk 4:2) is clearly intended to invoke Israel’s forty year wanderings in the wilderness after Egypt. But what exactly is the connection? Jesus is somehow interiorizing the experience of his people, but not in the sense that modern religious existentialists understand it. I would suggest instead that he is mystically re-tracing the footsteps of Israel in order to discover where the journey of his nation went wrong.

Jesus believes that his people have lost their bearings, and that course-correction can only come through a kind of “re-visioning” of the fateful choices that led liberated Israel back into captivity. This vision quest is, in other words, seeking a radical diagnosis that moves beyond symptoms to the root-causes of the historical crisis of his people.

To begin this formidable task Jesus must return to beginnings, confronting his people’s “myth of origins.” For Israel, this was the Exodus wilderness, so it is there that Jesus must journey “in the spirit.” (It is no accident that the temptation narrative follows hard on the heels of a traditional ancestral genealogy in Luke; see 3:23-38). Israel’s distinctive identity commenced when they were sprung by Yahweh from Pharaoh’s imperial straight jacket:

“I will bring My people out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10).

Similarly, in the gospel story Jesus’ distinctive identity has just been confirmed at his wilderness baptism by John:

“You are My child, the Beloved” (Lk 3:22).

Now Jesus, like his ancestors, must struggle in the wilderness to discover afresh what this vocation means.

The temptations here, as in the Old Story, represent a fundamental test of this primal identity. “If you are the child of God…” taunts the Devil in refrain (Lk 4:3,9). This is the question Jesus—and the Church that is invited to follow in his footsteps in Lent—must answer: Are we as a people still defined by the Exodus journey, or have we abandoned it? Hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible the community is exhorted to remember this liberation from slavery; indeed, the God of Israel is known not so much as Creator as the One “who brought you up out of Egypt” (some 25 times in Deuteronomy alone). This memory is meant to function as a warning to the people not to practice the former lifeways of imperial captivity (Lev 18:2-3), or what Walter Wink calls the “Domination System.” Israel must “never return that way again” (Dt 17:16).

Indigenous people understand far better than we that the wilderness is precisely the place to examine the way we have internalized the pathologies of empire. The wild spaces of nature represent a mirror to us to see how domesticated under “civilization” we have become. In this wilderness mirror we can more clearly see how Satan has lured us into all the other narratives that constantly compete with the biblical one for our allegiance. And the myths of Pharaoh and Caesar and Bush, of the National Security Council and the television news, of Wall Street and Hollywood, are seductive indeed. They promise prosperity, power, and prestige — but deliver only captivity. Jesus knows he can resist these imperial delusions only by staying grounded in the old Story. Hence his counter-refrain: “It is written…” (Lk 4:4,8,12).

The gospels re-narrate the Exodus journey as the “Way” of discipleship (Mk 1:2-4)—and this Way begins with Jesus’ vision quest in the wilderness. The three temptations he faces there, in turn, name the archetypal characteristics of the Domination System: the economics of exploitation (Lk 4:3), the politics of empire (4:5f), and the symbolism of omnipotence (4:9-11). Interestingly, Luke’s ordering of these temptations corresponds, in reverse order, to the first three petitions of his version of the Lord’s Prayer:

May Your Name be hallowed;
May Your Kingdom come;
Give us each day enough bread (Lk 11:1-4).

Moreover, Jesus re-enacts these same three themes in the course of his ministry, offering them as object lessons to his disciples, as we shall see.

Jesus’ vision quest is, in other words, no minor skirmish in the desert. It articulates the central issues with which the people of God always struggle in their journey of faith and liberation—which is why they inaugurate our Lenten journey each year.

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