“Shalom. This is Luke from Radio Palestine, on site in the wilderness, about to interview a very hungry man, Jesus, otherwise known by some of his admirers as the Messiah. So tell me Jesus, what have you been up to for the last forty days and forty nights?”
Except it wasn’t like that….and it could never have been like that, not thirty years after the event.
For those of us used to reading newspapers and watching or listening to documentaries and interviews on radio or TV it is hard to remember that for some communities and some earlier periods of time there were different methods of information gathering and dissemination. In those days truths were conveyed via a mixture of reporting, hearsay commentary and storytelling, and in particular it would be very hard from the various gospels (only four of which eventually found their way into our Bible) to know exactly how much was fact, how much was first-hand knowledge, how much was rumour or folk law and how much was intended symbolism….in fact doesn’t that make it sound a little like getting information from the Internet today?
We note in passing that, unlike Mark’s brief version of the same event, from the strong similarity of Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the temptations, that at the very least they were using the same source material for this part…which the expert scholars tell us was part of the mysterious Q source. What we don’t know is how many prior versions might have existed and how many retellings had shaped its form.
Yet I believe we all relate to this story of the temptations of Christ – and I would claim we probably even know instinctively that it represents an important set of truths.
Perhaps we need to admit at the outset that Jesus had taken on a role far beyond anything we might imagine for ourselves and accordingly his temptations are different in degree if not in nature. Nevertheless it is hard to find one of the temptations in this passage that would not in some way relate to typical human ambitions and dilemmas. Luke’s (and Matthew’s) chosen examples almost stress the humanness of Christ. This part of Luke shows us quite clearly that Jesus was not somehow magic and above being tempted. In the Book of Hebrews Ch 4 verse 15 we find an echo in the statement that: Jesus is one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are. Despite the understandable wish of generations of followers wanting Jesus remembered with God-like powers aka Superman, a moment’s reflection would help us realize that with such powers there should have been no genuine temptation in the first place. Furthermore, that Jesus could be tempted as we are, suggests since in our better moments, at least at times, we hope to walk in his footsteps, hence his dilemmas might foreshadow something of our own.
Perhaps we might remember that the temptation starts with Jesus first at his weakest. Forty days and forty nights is a long time to go without food – and right when he is the weakest, Satan offers him a chance for food. There is of course a parallel with possessions. For most of us in the West we are surrounded by advertising encouraging us to believe we need consumer goods. Our weakness comes when we develop a mindset that others are getting ahead of us and that we lack the resources to keep up. That gleaming car which is not a car – but a status symbol is filmed with desirable people, admired because they have this particular car….an ego booster. The latest make-up…..You’re worth it. And you know you’re worth it. The latest flat screen TV not just high definition but….. 3 D enabled, (a real ego-stroker that one)….and so on through the ever expanding list. Given that many of us develop and insatiable hunger for such possessions, accumulating more and more until the total goes far beyond any relation to what might reasonably be associated with basic needs, it seems somehow appropriate that today when we consider temptations, this should be the beginning of Lent.
[The poet] W.H. Auden defines prayer in this way. “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself.” As he goes on to say, whenever we so concentrate our attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that we completely forget our own ego and desires, we are praying.”
In short we forget our own egos most easily when we turn our attention outside ourselves which is the recurring underlying theme of Jesus teaching.
In general terms I guess the recurring stark choice with which Jesus was faced was the ego-focused temptation of using power to achieve domination, fame and status as opposed to the self-sacrificing path which he eventually chose to walk. The Luke reading outlines the seductive alternatives that must have been before Jesus at the start of his mission and everything that the gospels tell us about his subsequent words and actions show very clearly that they are alternatives Jesus rejected. It also incidentally conveys a general truth that sooner or later we will all encounter for ourselves….namely that the best choices for life’s key decisions in the long run are often not the ones that pander to the promise of immediate reward.
It is true that the internal evidence of the temptations suggest that this story is more like a parable than a factual account. To take just one example William Barclay observed that given an approximately round world, no mountain would be sufficiently high for Jesus to see all the kingdoms of the world – no matter how high the devil was said to take Jesus.
It is also intriguing, but have you noticed the very temptations that Jesus is recorded as rejecting are often those very characteristics which some of his modern followers insist characterise what his life has come to mean. At one extreme, the other day I was told of an amputee in New Zealand who was told by her Church friends that if she had enough faith her missing leg would start to re-grow. Similarly a friend who teaches blind pupils told me how on an outing with her pupils, one totally blind girl was approached by two tract-carrying young people who insisted their prayers would restore sight to the girl. The blind girl was initially very excited, then desolated when she remained blind.
Specifically, Luke tells of Jesus rejecting the path of attempting to work outside the laws of nature and for example refusing to attempt to turn stones into bread. This then raises the question of why so many insist that, despite what he is supposed to have said to the devil, Jesus was all about Nature defying miracle and that, instead of seeing Jesus multiplying bread and fish as a symbolic way of meeting needs, we must see it as magic, along with walking on water and fixing the weather with a word. Whether or not the belligerently credulous have thought it through to ask – well if Jesus could do and still does all these things – then how come the word to stop the disasters is deliberately withheld? In a year when it is hot and dry, bush fires still rage in Australia, flood waters still rise, cancers still destroy lives, along with the happiness of the families of the afflicted, unexpected earthquakes and volcanoes still characterise the shifting plate boundaries of the Earth, and gravity still works when the sky-diver’s parachute fails to open.
For me, the Jesus way is what Jesus lived and taught – the way of costly sacrifice for others. The miracle in disaster then comes – not in magic prayers to avert the disaster – but in the miracle of people offering compassion to strangers.
More to the point if we accept that Jesus insists that stones to bread is not the path of his ministry why would anyone who claims to follow him, claim that using the name of Jesus to do the equivalent of turning stones to bread and using prayer to demonstrate the defiance of nature is what Jesus is all about.
But the more serious temptation for the many who are clearly not the Messiah, yet who claim the title of Christian leader, is not to so much to impress the wondering crowds with seriously strange rituals like getting in touch with the dead, driving out demons or laying ghosts to rest in haunted houses. Rather the real temptation is the age old siren whisper to use the Church to exercise power and to seek prestige. All too often, there is something about the deference shown to church titles which leads more readily to a seat at the top table than the notion of genuine servant-hood.
Because there is something in the human condition that likes to impress, I guess we would all prefer other to notice our successes rather than our failures. This is why so many CVs give a distorted view of a potential employee. Unfortunately it also makes it possible to fool even ourselves when it comes to demonstrating how well we are doing with our faith. For example if we remember those who have apparently miraculously recovered from a medical condition and related that to the success of religious intervention but overlook the many whose condition worsened despite prayer or faith healing we are fooling ourselves as well as others about the nature of our faith.
At the end of the reading we find the devil leaving Jesus, but it is by no means clear that Jesus would have been able to put the temptations behind him in practice. John Howard Yoder in his book, The Politics of Jesus, is one, for example, who suggests that the temptations actually foreshadow key events in Jesus’ ministry where political temptations must have returned. For example the loaves to fishes story in one of its different forms has the impressed crowds wanting to crown Jesus king. That Jesus was able to leave the scene unscathed after the cleansing the Temple, suggests that he may have had sufficient popular and moral support to organise a political movement. And the version of Gethsemane when he played with the notion of calling upon legions of angels suggests at least a passing mindset for a Holy War.
So the awkward thing about such temptations is that they keep returning. In so far as we try to follow Jesus to some extent they are our recurring temptations also.
This season of Lent, we might remember that Jesus steadfastly resisted the easy desirable path to fame and fortune, preferring to walk the less trodden path. Would that we who follow, might gain the courage to do the same.