by Bert Newton
The story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness draws us into some of the most elusive, yet crucial, wisdom of the Gospel message. Matthew and Luke both lay out three temptations, though in slightly different order. Each temptation foreshadows, and contrasts with, something that Jesus will actually do later in the larger Gospel story.
The temptation to turn stones to bread, i.e. to do a food miracle in the desert, foreshadows the feedings of the multitudes in the desert. The temptation to be king over all the earth foreshadows Jesus’ entry as king into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple only to be saved by angels foreshadows his death on a cross, from which he is not saved by angels (In Matthew, Jesus specifically rejects that option) but rather rises from the dead.
The difference between what Jesus is tempted to do and what Jesus actually does reveals to us the deep wisdom of the Gospel. In each instance we learn something about how the Gospel calls us to use power, or perhaps what kind of power the Gospel calls us to.
The first temptation involves the power to produce food. Jesus rejects the logic that to produce food for himself is sufficient. Worldly rulers had the power to produce food, but they hoarded it for themselves while the masses struggled to survive. When Jesus does perform a food miracle in the desert, he does so as an act of sharing, producing an abundance of food for the people.
The second temptation, following Luke’s order, is to have dominion over all the nations of the world. To obtain this power he only has to bow before the one who embodies worldly power and domination, the devil. Jesus, however, refuses to follow this road of worldly power. Instead, when he does ride triumphantly into Jerusalem as a king, he does so in marked contrast to worldly rulers. Normally, when an Imperial dignitary would come to Jerusalem, he would do so with chariots and war horses, in a grand display of imperial power. Jesus comes riding on a lone beast of burden, a worker animal, an animal of the people. He has no army, no chariots or war horses. His only weapon is his prophetic word. John’s gospel records that one of his first acts as king in Jerusalem is to wash other people’s feet. Jesus as King reverses the whole idea of worldly power. He teaches us to wash each other’s feet, to create an egalitarian community of mutual submission in love.
The last temptation for Jesus, according to Luke, is to use his power to escape death. He refuses this power and instead chooses the power of the cross. The kings of the earth have their armies to protect them, and through their military might and imperial mythology, they become “immortal,” but in reality they die and their power dies with them. In contrast Jesus faces death honestly; he takes everything that worldly power can throw at him and refuses an escape route. Through death he finds resurrection; he reverses the worst that the worldly powers can do. He finds his power not in violence but in love, and he proves love to be the strongest power in the universe when he rises from the dead.
The story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert teaches us the deep wisdom of the Gospel, alerting us to the places that we can most easily veer off into worldly wisdom. When we blindly participate in an economic system that produces an abundance of food for the wealthy while allowing malnourishment for the poor, when we forsake the egalitarian consensus model for human society that Jesus took great pains to lay out for us and instead capitulate to worldly hierarchical structures in our churches and church institutions, when we fail to stand against the mythology of redemptive violence deeply imbedded in our society’s structures, we have succumbed to the temptations of the devil.
The powers and authorities of this world would have us blindly strive to produce wealth only for ourselves. Furthermore, they convince us that the natural social order is comprised of hierarchies because some people naturally deserve more power and authority than others; they are “smarter” or they have “earned” it. Lastly, the powers-that-be seduce us with stories of security through superior violence.
The Gospel, however, calls us to share wealth, to understand that nothing belongs to us but that everything belongs to God who calls us to distribute it according to need. The Gospel calls us to be a fiercely egalitarian community of priests for each other, serving each other and washing each other’s feet; a community where the “least” among us receives the greatest honor. The Gospel calls us to live in the power of love that drives out all fear, so that the fear of death no longer holds us captive. We are called to be children of God, walking in the light of love, to shine with the brightness of the sun and like the stars forever and ever!