Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all report the temptations of Christ by the devil in their Gospel accounts. St. John’ Gospel narrative favors an already triumphant Christ, master of every situation, with whom the devil would be wasting his time. St. Mark’s account is quite brief: “…he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Saints Matthew and Luke both report the triple temptations – stones into bread, rescue by angels, all the kingdoms of the world. But St. Luke makes an interesting and telling re-arrangement of the tempter’s offerings. St. Luke shifts the encounter on the Temple parapet in Jerusalem from second place to final place. “Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” The city of Jerusalem is crucially symbolic for St. Luke both in his Gospel account and in his later Acts of Apostles. Jerusalem is cited twenty-three times in this Gospel. His slight shift here underlines the Holy City’s vital role in St. Luke’s texts and in salvation history.
St. Luke’s Gospel outline begins unsurprisingly in Nazareth, a town of northern Israel, and, over the course of Jesus’ public life, the Master makes his way, inexorably, toward Jerusalem. According to St. Luke, Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” in chapter 9 and then regularly notes in chapters 13,17,18,and 19, Christi’s steady progress toward the Holy City. In fact, St. Luke takes liberty once again when he has Jesus ascend into heaven from Bethany, two miles outside the capital city. Saints Matthew and Mark record Christ’s Ascension as a Galilean event.
For St. Luke, Jerusalem indicated success, mission accomplished, fulfillment. Once Jesus suffered, died and rose from the tomb in Jerusalem, there was no going back. Salvation history had reached its climax. Now the Good News had only to be preached; there was no way it could be enhanced.
Jerusalem plays a reverse role in St. Luke’s Acts of Apostles. Now the Good News begins here in the famed upper room on Pentecost Sunday. Then the Gospel message is once again brought unfailingly through the labors of the apostles from the Holy City to the Eternal City. Nazareth to Jerusalem was a journey from the edge of Jewish society to the heart of Jewish society. Jerusalem to Rome was a passage from the edge of the Roman Empire to the heart of the Roman Empire. The universality of salvation was clearly on St. Luke’s mind. God’s gift of salvation was extended to whole Mediterranean world. St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans read at Mass this Sunday boldly embraces the world-wide destiny of the Gospel message. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The history of the Church testifies to this missionary spirit that brought the Good News to salvation to persons everywhere. Asia Minor and North Africa heard the Gospel message early on. Europe was eventually total immersed in Christ’s Good News. The New World and the Far East profited from the labors of Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits and numerous other religious congregations. Although the Church today is strong and growing in Africa and South Asia, the Christian world has receded in much of Europe and North America. In 2013, Pope Benedict commented on this loss: “From today’s crisis, will emerge a Church that has lost a great deal. It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity.” Pope Francis must now deal with this sad prediction.
While in previous millennia the Church worked vigorously for the conversion of many, Pope Francis seems more focused on the growth of all. Pope Francis’ embrace of primitive people in the Amazon, his participation in commemorative events with Protestants and Eastern Orthodox at Assisi, his out-reach toward the divorced and remarried, and his regard for the gender confused are certainly not any capitulation toward those groups but rather an invitation to take a deeper look at their situations the better to understood how Gospel teachings can heal and liberate and fulfill their authentic destinies. There was no turning back from the ancient Jerusalem, and there can be no turning back from the New Jerusalem. The words of St. Thomas still apply: “Let us go up to Jerusalem and if needs be die with him.” Christ did not flinch, nor should the modern Christian.