There isn’t much to do in the desert for forty days

The title of this article is not intended to be completely flippant. I lived for more than a decade in Tucson, Arizona. It is in the Sonoran Desert and we have our share of dehydration and related problems. I collapsed with dehydration once myself, so I have a healthy respect for the survival tactics of desert life.

So when the New Testament speaks of Jesus spending more than a month alone in the desert, it is more of a symbolic statement than a literal one. Forty seems to be a significant number in Scripture–Moses and the Hebrew people were said to have wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the Jordan River. Because of this, many scholars believe that the mystical number of forty was intended to link Jesus to Moses in the evolving Jewish religion, which is still evolving although the Christians went their separate way early on.

So the question is more like this: what impelled Jesus into a retreat far from his friends and relatives, and what happened there? My belief is that he was driven to solitude by the death of his friend, cousin and mentor John the Baptist. He went into seclusion to grieve, to process the shocking event and to decide what his course would be.

John the Baptist was the last of the classic prophets. He saw it as his duty to confront the King of Israel over his sins and corruption. The result was that he was crushed. This is also in the tradition of prophets who are not received well, generally, by the high and mighty. So what was Jesus to do? Obviously he could have headed to his own confrontation with Herod, in the hope that Herod would repent.

But something happened on that lonely retreat. It seems that Jesus decided that the high and mighty had already had their share of preaching and exhortation. They had many chances to turn from their “sins,” as their contemporary prophets saw it, and they had refused. Herod and his court were fat and happy; no prophet in ragged robes was going to deter them from anything.

So be it. Jesus returned from his solitary retreat and took his ministry to the common people–something that was revolutionary at the time. We can’t say that he was totally successful, because the Gospel of Mark mentions that he was badly received in his home town. But undeterred, he went on to attract crowds of thousands, or so it says, who followed him on the roads from village to village.

Many people, even scholars, find it difficult to admit that the sayings that are attributed to Jesus, taken all together, are contradictory. From this we can conclude that Scripture was not always considered strictly unchangeable, as we think of it now. There is evidence that things were inserted into the Scriptures in places, even though we would not like to acknowledge this. The earliest existing copies of Scripture that we have come from no earlier than the late Second Century–plenty of time for “editorial corrections” and additions.

So I take the teachings of Jesus to be the things that are attributed to him, but only if they are consistent. And if you do that, you find that his most consistent teachings were to love God and love your neighbor. To that end he told the inspiring Parable of the Good Samaritan. His other best-known Parable of the Prodigal Son also hangs together with his basic teachings. So we can conclude reasonably that Jesus’ teaching was that we misunderstand and underestimate God’s love.

This is the point of view that animates what I write about liberal Christianity. I do not write as an evangelical who is terrorized by God. And it seems that Jesus arrived at a remarkable perspective on Judaism when he was out there alone. He came to believe that there is no death. From that realization it seems that he made whatever effort it took to show his followers that time and space are not the unalterable phenomena that we think they are. This week Christians will begin to observe that period in which it would seem that Jesus began the transformation that lifted him out of Late Antiquity and into a state of consciousness that confounds us even today.

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