The Temptations of Jesus
This biblical reflection was presented at the Friday morning, June 1, 2007 plenary session of the CCHF annual conference at North Park University. The reflection draws on the work of theologian Chad Myers. 1
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the Wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the World. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
After a wilderness baptism by John (Luke 3:21-22), and following a traditional ancestral genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) linking Jesus to this Exodus people, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness. We have a hard time understanding this from our contemporary urban cultures; however this ancient practice would be quite intelligible to indigenous peoples the world over. So if we see this as a practice of a tribal people, we can easily look at this as a Vision Quest. In that light, this is a journey of mystically retracing the footsteps of Israel in order to discover where their journey of liberation went wrong. That this sojourn lasted 40 days is clearly intended to evoke Israel’s forty-year wandering in the wilderness after Egypt, to remind us of the choice of Exodus: liberation from slavery or Egypt—oppression and captivity.
In the first temptation, the devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'"
Jesus stands in the mythic moment at the point of Israel’s origins—in the wilderness, surrounded by nothing but barren rock of the Judean desert. Like his ancestors, he hungers, and is understandably anxious about bread. Exodus means to face hard realities of life.
As in Exodus 16:2-3, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. “Wouldthat we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our flesh pots and ate our fill of bread! But you have led us into this desert to die of famine.”
Having internalized imperial appetites and desires, the people cannot imagine life apart from their dependence upon the very system that enslaved them. Yet the God who liberates captives also offers sustenance: the gift of manna (Exodus 16). The manna story illustrates Yahweh’s alternative to the oppressive Egyptian economy with three defining characteristics:
1) Gather just enough for their needs: not too much or too little; in contrast to Israel’s Egyptian condition of deprivation, everyone has enough;
2) The manna cannot be stored: a prohibition against the economics of surplus accumulation;
3) Keep the Sabbath: a communal discipline that concerns the setting of limits that privileges being over doing.
The manna is thus a symbol reminding Israel that the purpose of economic organization is to guarantee enough for everyone, so that material sustenance circulates rather than concentrates.
Satan’s challenge to Jesus to turn stones into bread, therefore, invokes the old primal wilderness anxiety about sustenance, and ridicules the divine economy as foolishness. Why not exploit the land for profit? Surplus promises security. Jesus renews the Exodus story by making a different choice - countering with Deuteronomy 8:3: “God has humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna.... in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.”
Thus does Jesus stand firm against the seduction of idolatrous economics and in support of the divine economy of grace. In his subsequent ministry, Jesus will rehabilitate the vision of Sabbath economics in the two central petitions of the Disciples’ Prayer: “Give us enough bread for today, f and release us from debt as we release others from debt.” (Luke 11:3)
Can the church do likewise today in a world under a death sentence by the gulf between the rich and poor?
The second temptation: Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the Kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone ‘I
IThen the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the World. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
In this temptation, the temptation to political power, Satan parades all the Kingdoms of the world before Jesus and offers to grant him jurisdiction over them—as a vassal-king of course. This can be seen as the archetypal seduction of Israel away from a confederated tribal governance into a centralized monarchy.
The initial politics of Israel was anti-monarchy. The vision for Israelite Confederacy consisted of-g twelve self-determining tribes with local adjudicators called “Judges,” loosely consociated under a Yawhistic covenant. Israel’s fateful turning away from this vision is narrated in 1 Samuel 8. The community, now settled in Palestine, again gathers in complaint, this time demanding, “a King to govern us.” (8:5)
The elder Samuel, representing the old wilderness federation (Judges 21:25), warns of dire consequences of such a political project. It will mean the construction of a military machine, compulsory conscription (1 Sam 8:11-13), state expropriation through eminent domain and oppressive taxation. (8:14-18) But Israel, in losing its distinct identity, said “No, we are determined to have a King over us so that we also may be like the other nations.” (8: 19) Sure enough, the house of David would soon establish oppressive control throughout Palestine, making Israel indistinguishable from the other regional powers.
Jesus returns to this crossroad - insisting on the exclusive sovereignty of Yahweh - quoting Deuteronomy 6:12: “Take care that you do not forget Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of hte house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear and serve and by this name alone you shall swear.”
Jesus emphasizes this in the second petition of the Disciples’ prayer in Luke 11:2: “May your Kingdom come; may your sovereignty be restored.”
To pray this is to delegitimize every other juridsiction. Otherwise, would the disciples not simply been instructed to ask God’s blessing upon the king-of-the-moment?
The Roman authorities understood perfectly the implications of Jesus’ renewal of the dreaming as it concerned Yahweh’s sovereignty. The church since Constantine, however, has not been so clear, and thus has succumbed repeatedly to the politics of domination. Jesus invites us to turn back to the wisdom of indigenous peoples to reanimate our imaginations about how we might work to disperse political power today, under the shadow of history’s most dominating empire.
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “
It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
So in this temptation—the temptation to idolatry—the devil transported Jesus to Jerusalem, and sat him on the pinnacle of the temple—the Fallen angel quoting scripture: Psalm 91:11.
Jesus returns to this crossroad—insisting on the exclusive sovereignty of Yahweh—quoting Deuteronomy 6:12: “Take care that you do not forget Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear and serve and by this name alone you shall swear.” Indeed this powerful statement of God’s protection of those who “abide” can all too easily be misunderstood, like so much of scripture. When read through the lens of power and privilege, the psalm becomes a text of entitlement, a hymn to invulnerability, and finally an ode to empire. Satan knows that behind every political economy is a theology—a sacred canopy thrown over the regime to lend it cosmic legitimization.
What Jesus confronts in this last temptation is the ultimate form of idolatry: identifying God’s name with our historical projects. This is the most consequential corruption of the original vision of Israel, which is proscribed in the first three commandments:
1) Nothing can be given priority over Yahweh. (Exodus 20:3)
2) No portrait can capture the Divine essence of presence. (20:4)
3) N0 profession of God’s name can place God on our side. (20:7)
This radical otherness, which refuses to be domesticated under any regime or civilization, was expressed in the name revealed to Moses: Yahweh—I will be whoever I will be.
Here again, Israel eventually abandoned its vocation. In the Solomonic period a centralized Temple-State is established, replete with foreign alliances, standing armies, expanding borders and oppressive taxation. (1 Kings 3-11)
The first temple was originally envisioned as a storehouse for redistribution of the community’s surplus, but it inevitably became the mechanism by which power, wealth, and privilege concentrated in the hands of Israel’s elite. Instead of a place where sacrifices were offered on behalf of people, it became a place where people were offered in sacrifice to the state.
Jesus answers the temptation by again quoting Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not test the Lord as you did at Massah.” He unmasks the devil’s attempt to reverse the divine mandate: it is not God who attends to our demands, but the inverse. The argument thus comes full circle, for at Massah wilderness Israel for a second time despaired of sustenance (this time water) and pined for Egypt. (Exodus 17:1-7) The “I Am" is no nation’s patron, but the animator of the only redemptive historical project: human liberation. (Ex 3:14) This is why the leading petition of the Disciples’ Prayer is “May your name remain Holy.” (Luke 11:2)
Inevitably Jesus’ struggle with idolatry culminates in his showdown with the system represented by the Jerusalem Temple, asking in Luke 19:45-48 whether it functions as a house of prayer or as a den of thieves, and in Luke 21:1-6, in his last public action, pointing to how the temple system exploits the poor and pronounces the whole apparatus be overthrown. In this third temptation, Jesus has chosen the road less traveled.
In this wilderness mirror we can more clearly see how Satan has lured us into all the other narratives that constantly compete with the biblical one for our allegiance. And the myths of Pharaoh and Caesar and Bush, of the National Security Council and the television news, of Wall Street and Hollywood, are seductive indeed. They promise prosperity, power, and prestige, but deliver only captivity. Jesus knows he can resist these imperial delusions only by staying grounded in the old Story.
The gospels re-narrate the Exodus journey as the “Way” of discipleship, and this way begins with Jesus’ Vision Quest in the wilderness. The three temptations he faces there, in turn, name the characteristics of the domination system: the economics of exploitation, the politics of empire, and the symbolism of omnipotence. Interestingly, Luke’s ordering of these temptations corresponds, in reverse order, to the first three petitions of his version of the Disciples’ Prayer:
May your name be hallowed;
May your Kingdom come;
Give us each day enough bread.
Jesus’ Vision Quest is no minor skirmish in the desert. It articulates the central issues with which the people of God always struggle in their journey of faith and liberation.
Lance Loberg, M.D, is a physician in Salem, OR. He was a co-finunder of CCHF in Mississippi in 1978-79. He can be contacted at casaloberg [at] comcast [dot] net.
1. Led by the Spirit into the Wilderness...” Reflections on Lent, Jesus’ Temptation and Indigeneity. Ched Myers. www.bcm-net.org.
Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1994.