If you stop to think about it, today’s gospel reading has some really strange features and unexpected challenges. The first point is that although it is clearly a significant story it is one with clear puzzles. Jesus alone in the wilderness is tempted by the devil, seeing strange sights and facing dramatic choices. So did it really happen just like that? If so, are the temptations relevant for other leaders? What about Presidents or Prime Ministers or even bishops? Then there is the more subtle question. If we see ourselves as Jesus representatives, are the temptations somehow connected with our temptations?
The catch for those of us with the habit of frequent reading of newspapers and constantly watching or listening to news bulletins, is that subconsciously we come to assume other written narratives of reported events can only ever be assumed to be objective eye-witness accounts. When it comes to the gospel narratives this may not always be the best starting point. Most of the narratives recounted by Jesus for example were in the form of parable, and a number of the leading scholars of the New Testament including John Dominic Crossan even identify parables ABOUT Jesus presented in the gospels as reported events.
This brings us to the narrative reports about the Temptations of Christ. Was this widely reported and frequently retold sequence of events actually intended as parable, or was it objectively recorded historical event, myth or perhaps some compound mixture of the genres?
A moment’s reflection suggests some caution before assuming objective reporting on the part of Matthew. Clearly Matthew, writing many years after Jesus’ mission, was not an eye witness for this encounter between Jesus and the Devil, and his account is not a good match with the much briefer earlier version given by Mark.
The setting of the encounter in the desert, where Jesus has come aside for a spell of living off the land much as John the Baptist had done before him may seem an inappropriate way of sorting out his thinking by today’s standards, yet it also underlines an important teaching of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus in effect claims that chasing the extras in life should take second place to finding sufficiency in nature.
Consider the lilies of the field and birds of the air….. Perhaps Matthew and Luke record this setting of the temptations as a way of highlighting the subversive difference between the alternative lifestyle and setting of Jesus and the lifestyle of other Church leaders of that day (and perhaps ours!)
Certainly there are exact parallels between this from Matthew and the version in Luke whose account lists the exact same temptations (in different order) even if the writers give the account a different theological slant. Since Jesus himself along with the Devil are the only two recorded as present for the sequence of events, it is fair to assume that at best, Jesus may have recounted the story later to his disciples, but even there we find internal clues to suggest a non-literal intention. As William Barclay pointed out in his commentaries, it is all very well for the Devil to have taken Jesus to a place high on a mountain to see all the kingdoms of the world stretched beneath, but for a world that is round there is certainly no mountain from whence every kingdom could be seen, particularly when we remember that the cities of China and South America would be well over the horizon.
Assuming it is Jesus who was the original source of the story, perhaps the impossibility of the sufficiently high place observation point should be enough to convince us that the story is one of metaphor rather than literal description. This might then cause us to go on to question whether Satan is similarly a metaphorical symbol.
As to the themes within the story, there is certainly enough to discover close parallels between Jesus’ reported answers to the Devil, and the form of ministry he consequently chose.
Jesus rejects the choice of turning stones into bread, in other words he is rejecting the possibility of trying to exploit his powers to win support even if he is capable of having supernatural powers for such an act. When Jesus dismisses this as an option by replying, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’“, perhaps the intended allusion is to Moses leading his people through the desert.
We should note in passing that this statement most certainly is not intended to show Jesus has no concern for discomfort or hunger. After all, the recorded event (or is this perhaps another parable?) of the feeding of the five thousand was presumably intended to illustrate this concern. However the point of that particular apparent miracle is best coupled with the knowledge that Jesus made no attempt to exploit it for political gain.
Next the Devil has Jesus taken to a high pinnacle, not in this case a natural pinnacle of the sort that might occur naturally in the desert where there would be no one to see Jesus act in the solitude, but a pinnacle as part of the Temple where a crowd might witness Jesus’ what Jesus was being asked to do. The Devil’s test in this case was that Jesus should throw himself off and have the angels of the Lord rescue him and thereby convince the crowd of his supernatural powers. In this part of the story both Matthew and Luke claim the Devil quotes the scriptures – in this case Psalm 91:11-12 to show that God had promised this assistance. The astute Bible scholar may note that Psalm only promises that God would deliver those who trust and abide in Him.
For those of us who think it is sufficient to quote scriptures to justify a position, it may be worth reminding ourselves, that, just as Matthew has the Devil quoting scriptures in an attempt to mislead Jesus, the scriptures should not be used as a Talisman without considerable thought.
Finally the Devil offers Jesus possession of the Kingdoms of the world on condition that Jesus bows down to acknowledge the authority of the Devil. I guess because most of us are familiar with hearing and rehearing the story we are unsurprised to find Jesus responds by saying: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Parable or objective reporting, the Temptations story is a useful reminder that Jesus in his responses was in effect defining the sort of Messiah he was intending to be. Yet if we are to allow the story to speak to our situation we may need reminding that in order for Jesus to be that sort of Messiah to those who encounter his message, in other words one who sets aside the temptations of splendour, or power and the chance to impress so that he can live his message of servant-hood, we have to be careful that, assuming we wish to be his followers, we remain true to his chosen way of presenting his message.
In the history of the Church we cannot help but notice some Church leaders have been only too willing to assume the very power that Jesus turned aside. We can read in the history books of militant Popes assuming Emperor-type positions and Bishops who have led their troops into battle swinging swords. We have witnessed hierarchies of Church leadership where dress, authority and pay all reflect control rather than servant-hood. There may even be an implied question in the case of some Churches and cathedrals where the very architecture is designed to encourage wonder and we should acknowledge that in the not too distant past some denominations have even redesigned church buildings where the poor were consigned to watch the worship of the wealthy from the back of Churches through screens. It is also a fair question to ask if some of the modern day church leaders who have specialised in ostentatious acts of public healing may have opted to go with the temptation to impress the crowds.
But rather than divert attention to Church leaders perhaps we are better to start with ourselves. If as the New Testament teaches, we need in part to become the embodiment of the Christ we follow, then surely we need to find our own answers to the temptations we have to subvert his gospel. In essence we may even be talking of the same temptations. We too may be tempted to be seeking power by impressing those who see our actions.
Selling ourselves to the Devil is a very colourful way of expressing the temptation for everyone who wants control over others. Since putting ourselves first is the opposite of what Jesus stood for, is this not close to selling one’s soul?
Above all we need to be careful of the temptation to ascribe to Jesus the otherworldly and supernatural dimension that makes him all powerful and leaves us as unthinking puppets. We also need to be honest with ourselves in what the story tells us about the human nature of Jesus. Even in the days when the New Testament books were being assembled Jesus’ humanity was noted. For example Hebrews 4:15 claims Jesus is one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are. The author of the book of Hebrews clearly suggests Jesus was tempted in the same way as other humans (which presumably means without recourse to supernatural powers). If today’s scriptural passage is to have any validity, it only makes sense as a list of genuine temptations because Jesus was required to pass these tests without relying on powers that other men and women do not have.
Ultimately we have to turn our attention to the same problem that faced Jesus. This Lenten season, we should ask how we do what is right in accordance with what we understand God to mean, yet at the same time turn our back on alternative options focused on self interest?( or should that mean turning our back on other Gods?) We cannot pretend the world is other than the one we find ourselves in. If there are right options among the myriad of options they are not always easy to discern. With multiple religions and many different options even within Christianity it is no easy task to discover good options let alone the best options. Yet for each one of us life itself holds tremendous potential. Maybe for this reason alone it is worth choosing our direction with care.
John Dominic Crossan, parable, the humanity of Christ, the Temptations of Christ, servant-hood, self seeking leaders