The Synoptic Gospels all include the wilderness temptation narrative.
Matthew and Luke go into great detail recounting the three different temptations of the devil.
Mark, on the other hand, simply puts it this way (after a relatively short account of Jesus’ baptism):
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (Mark 1:12-13).
All three accounts agree that Jesus, during those 40 days, was in a taxing situation. All agree that the devil was a tempter – the tax collector, as it were.
Matthew and Luke have Jesus completely alone with the devil over this period of nearly six weeks. Only Mark suggests the presence of others while in the wilderness.
There’s no surprise that the “wild beasts” are with Jesus – after all, it’s unlikely to be a wilderness if there aren’t some wild beasts.
But Mark makes a point of Jesus being “waited on,” assisted, ministered to by a band of angels. Matthew has an appearance of angels too, but only after the devil left Jesus; Luke is angel-less.
I acknowledge that it’s a bit of a stretch, at least of the traditional interpretations of the temptation of Jesus, but I don’t think it is beyond the pale to see, in Mark, the band of angels as the real tempters.
They aren’t tempters of the kind we find in Matthew and Luke. In those two Synoptic Gospels, the devil is tempting Jesus to act on his own behalf, for his own good, for his own self-interest.
In that sense, the devil isn’t a tax collector at all. He’s a tax reliever. He’s a tax cutter. He’s a tax eliminator.
When you come to think about it, this makes complete sense since the devil is inviting Jesus to confine the scope, the measurement, the dimensions of the kingdom, the realm, the community of God only to Jesus himself.
That’s tax relief. No great expenditure of funds, or energy, or self there!
It’s the angels in Mark who are the real tempters and tax collectors of Jesus in the wilderness during those 40 days.
The angels are the ones who are constantly reminding Jesus of his baptism, the point at which he accepted the call of God to be the chosen and beloved child who would be the bearer of the Good News – the Evangel – of God’s reign. The angels here are tempting Jesus to resist self-interest.
The angels are the ones who are constantly enticing Jesus toward the ministry that is before him – the ministry of proclaiming and demonstrating the reign of God, of describing and manifesting the new community of God, of teaching and rehearsing what it means to live into that new divine reality.
The angels here are tempting Jesus to resist reducing the kingdom of God just to himself.
The angels are the ones who are constantly beckoning Jesus toward the truth, which he will follow in word and deed: that it is in one’s giving that one receives. They are tempting Jesus to resist the all-too-typical condition of a fallen humanity to be, first and foremost, looking out for number one!
It is the band of angels in Mark’s Gospel who are the real tax collectors. They are the ones who are constantly putting Jesus in a taxing situation.
In Mark, then, Jesus resists the tax-reliever, the devil – a disciplined resistance he will maintain until the end of his earthly days.
In Mark, then, Jesus gives in to the tax collectors, the angels – a disciplined submission that will define his whole life and ministry.
That’s because, in giving of himself (read: paying his taxes), he will be advancing the greatest good of and for all.
In Lent we too are invited to place ourselves in a taxing situation – a life-long discipline of resistance to the tax relievers and a life-long submission to the tax collectors, for the sake of the community of love that Jesus proclaimed and lived and died for.
Here’s the question we might also ponder: Is this lesson from Lent applicable only to our life in the church and our charitable life, or does it also have application to our public and political lives – that is, to our taxing situation as citizens?
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.