First Sunday in Lent: Temptation and Power

For the first week in Lent, we go backwards to the time immediately after Jesus’s baptism. Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. (This recalls the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that fell on Noah’s ark, the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the 40 days that Moses was on Mount Horeb with God, and other significant 40-somethings.) At this point, some being (alternately called “the tempter” and “the devil”) visits Jesus to see what he’s made of. The tempter doesn’t happen to conjure up a brothel and offer it to Jesus. He doesn’t offer Jesus the chance to watch a gladiatorial match and consume massive amounts of meat strips and wine. He offers something far more tempting.

On one level, the temptations are ways of placing faith in things other than God. On another level, they are not just about Jesus’s personal piety, because they are very real directions that Jesus’s public ministry could have taken in the world. They provide the negative example against which Jesus’s subsequent ministry should be seen. Going through the text (Matthew 4:1-11) in sequence:

Temptation #1: Take power over creation (and then the masses)

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

Jesus 1, Tempter 0. Jesus is quoting a passage from Deuteronomy (8:3) that references manna, the food with an important history. When the Israelites were sick and tired of wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt — “we may have been slaves, but at least we had food to eat!” — God sent manna every day (except the sabbath) to feed them (Exodus 16). When the Israelites tried to store it up, not trusting that God would keep sending it day after day, the manna turned rotten and maggoty. So Jesus’s response to the devil is to trust God alone, rejecting the “hoarding” mentality that finds strength and security in things other than God.

Douglas John Hall notes another layer of meaning in this temptation: like the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in this week’s reading from Genesis, it is “a temptation to violate nature. It is the demonic suggestion that nature be used, its order set aside, for the purposes of establishing the prestige and authority of [humans]” (Lighten Our Darkness [Westminster, 1976], p. 94). Jesus refuses to bend creation to human needs. He doesn’t try to violate the nature of stones by turning them into something else, even though they could have been used to win over the masses. (Winning the loyalty of the people with plentiful bread is what empires like Egypt and Rome do. It is not what Jesus is supposed to do.)

Temptation #2: Take power over religion

Then the devil took Jesus to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘God will command angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

Jesus 2, Tempter 0. The tempter isn’t making up scripture here. Psalm 91 (11-12) really does say that God will protect us. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He replies with another quote from Deuteronomy (6:16): “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested God at Massah.” Massah (AKA Meribah) was the place where the Israelites again complained in the wilderness, this time that they had nothing to drink and that God had surely abandoned them. Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water came forth (Exodus 17). Jesus doesn’t want a repeat of that incident: he knows that God is with him and doesn’t need a sign to prove it. (You have to love the way that the tempter thinks that he can prove something to Jesus with a scripture quotation. It’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t take everything in the Bible at face value; context and the spirit in which we interpret the Bible really do matter.)

But what would it have meant it Jesus had successfully thrown himself from the temple and not died? It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the priests would have interpreted it as a sign from heaven that the Messiah was here. (Jesus took pains to avoid that perception.) The miracle would have immediately won the allegiance of the temple priests. As John Howard Yoder puts it, “we see Jesus contemplating the role of religious reformer, heavenly messenger, appearing unheralded from above to set things right” (The Politics of Jesus [Eerdmans, 1972], p. 33). In rejecting this temptation, Jesus shows that he isn’t going to wield religious power over people.

Temptation #3: Take power over governments

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone.'”

Jesus 3, Tempter 0. I think it’s hilarious that Jesus doesn’t argue with the devil about whether the kingdoms are the devil’s or God’s. He doesn’t get all indignant and say “Those kingdoms aren’t yours to give, Satan!” That’s not true, or it’s not important. He just knows he’s not going to worship anything other than God. He replies with a third quote from Deuteronomy (6:13). The passage immediately preceding the one that Jesus quoted is an implicit reference back to Exodus and another reminder of everything that God has done for us (Deuteronomy 6:12): “Take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

So Jesus does not take political power either. He could do so only by engaging in idolatry, by being less than faithful to God alone, by using violence — because all kingdoms and governments, no matter how democratic, owe their existence to violence or the threat of violence.

Essentially, then, Jesus’s faith in God alone allows (and directs!) him to reject the wielding of power over creation, religious institutions, and political institutions. This should give us pause, because we do this in countless ways. Not too many of us want to be in charge of religious or political institutions, but we all exercise power over creation in one way or another. The fuel that heats our buildings and transports our bodies and our food isn’t doing very good things to the climate. (I know that the Upper Midwest doesn’t feel that way lately, but there are lakes in Alaska that hadn’t frozen by late January!) And then there’s what we do to animals directly. Selective breeding of turkeys, for example, has yielded birds that are more than twice as big on average as a typical turkey in 1939 (see also here). Unfortunately, these turkeys can’t mate naturally, they don’t regulate their own food intake, they have lots of trouble walking because they’re so big, and they suffer from musculoskeletal disorders. And in general, very little about industrial animal agriculture is natural.

Abandoning our power over creation and the animals it contains is quite anxiety-inducing, no less than it would be if our government collapsed. All the survival we’ve known depends on it. In that light, it’s important to note that the gospel text concludes with an interesting coda:

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Apparently Jesus has been alone and finally feels God’s obvious presence after rejecting the tempter. We have three quotes from Deuteronomy by Jesus, each of which harks back explicitly or implicitly to God’s saving action in bringing the Israelites out of slavery and sustaining them in the wilderness despite their lack of faith. So we can trust God to be there even when all signs point to otherwise, and even when we don’t act to save ourselves. Jesus trusts in God’s presence and promise even before angels come to care for him. May we all have such faith.

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One thought on “First Sunday in Lent: Temptation and Power

  1. I always learn something from your posts. Here, I’m struck, for the first time, by the way the Temptation of Jesus story echoes the Exodus story. I should have noticed that before. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I’m studying on it . . . .

    Particularly like your comments RE the devil quoting Scripture!

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