March 1999 v.p. “Christ Tempted in Desert” p. 5
CHRIST TESTED IN THE DESERT
By Frank Cordaro
Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1
In the first Sunday of Lent, our Gospel Lectionary takes us back to just before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It picks up in Matthew’s story right after Jesus’ baptism by John and his “special effects” commissioning by His Father. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus to the desert to be temped by the devil.
Deserts are isolated and desolate places. Deserts are places where life is lived sparingly. It is traditionally a place to which people go to get away from the hectic life of the city – a ready made place for spiritual retreats, a physical setting best suited for struggles with one’s self, with one’s God.
An account of Jesus’ retreat and temptation in the desert is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. All three say it lasted forty days and nights, corresponding to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Holy Land. Only Matthew and Luke record the actual three temptations, differing in their ordering of the second and third.
It’s not hard to understand Jesus’ need for a retreat at this point in the story. It was a chance for him to “get his act together” before beginning his public ministry.
Each one of the tree temptations covered in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts will come back to Jesus later on in the story, in the midst of his public ministry. Also, by extension, each of the three temptations will plague his disciples and the Church that tries to follow in his footsteps.
If you are the Son of God, command these stones to turn to bread. (Matt. 4:3).
Jesus fasted throughout the forty days in the desert, was understandably hungry and needed food! The devil capitalized on this legitimate physical need and tempted Jesus to choose a quick fix to his physical hunger. “Turn these stones into bread”, says the devil. Jesus could do this with no trouble, for he had the power. Later in the story, he will feed thousands with much less. There was, at some level, a legitimate claim. Jesus was physically hungry, so why not fix the problem?
Jesus chooses not to succumb to this first temptation. Instead he responds to the devil by quoting a verse from the book of Deuteronomy: “Not by bread alone are people to live but by every utterance that comes from the mouth of God.”
The issue is one of hierarchy, what come first. Jesus’ purpose and missions have a broader, more inclusive agenda than meeting physical human needs. His mission is nothing less than the salvation of the human race, the making whole and restoration of creation, the reclaiming of God’s rule over all creation. Meeting people’s basic physical needs, especially hunger, will always be a part of Jesus’ mission, but it cannot be and end in itself.
The devil’s first temptation helps Jesus to see that he must not be short-sighted in his work. He can’t let the legitimate physical needs of people, especially the poor and hungry whom he will call his blessed, override his larger, more comprehensible mission of proclaiming the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
Let’s be clear about this: Jesus feeds hungry people during his public life. He expects his disciples and his Church to do the same. However, feeding the physically hungry is not a kingdom end in itself. Meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of people is what the Kingdom of God is all about.
This first temptation truly speaks of the sins of our time. It is where the ideologies of communism and capitalism meet. At their core, both are based on crass materialism. It is at the heart of the addictive spirit that so plagues our modern age.
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. (Matt. 4:6)
Next, the devil takes Jesus to the highest place on the outer walls of the temple in Jerusalem. The devil tempts Jesus to prove his faith in his Father’s love by saying, “Jump off this building and let’s see if your Father will save you”. Would not the Father want to save Jesus? Isn’t Jesus too important to the story to die now in the beginning of the Gospel? The devil even quotes a verse from the ninety-first psalm to prove his case. (We learn that every scripture can be used for evil purposes.)
Again, this temptation has some basis in a legitimate claim. Are we not to trust our God? Would God abandon his faithful son or His faithful people? Of course we can trust God’s love to save us, his faithful people, but it’s not a blanket guarantee or full coverage insurance policy for all faith, good and bad. We have a role to play in our faithful relationship with God.
There is such a thing as bad faith or “cheap grace”, as Dietrich Bonheoffer called it. There are people who claim to believe in God. They may even mouth the right words, attend all the necessary services, accept all the prescribed dogmas, profess the entire correct creed, but their faith is shallow with no real commitment behind it. These are the people who think little or nothing about themselves or others in ungodly or dangerous situations – situations of their own making. When faced with the consequences of their ill-gotten situations, they expect God to get them out of their predicaments.
The sin of bad faith can be both an individual sin and a collective social sin. Our modern day nuclear dilemma is a good example of how the collective social sin of bad faith works. Everyone knows that even a “small scale” exchange of nuclear weapons would mean death and destruction to untold numbers of people and the poisoning of large areas of the earth.
Yet, there are Christians who believe these weapons of mass destruction are necessary and so they do nothing to get rid of them. They also believe that God is saving them and will continue to save them from these nuclear weapons. It’s as though they have thrown themselves off the temple wall and, having not yet hit the ground, fully expect that God will intervene to save them. It isn’t going to happen that way. God loves and respects us too much to interfere with the consequences of our own making. That is what human freedom and responsibility are all about. Jesus sees through this temptation and answers the devil with his own verse from the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”.
“All these will I bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me.” ( Matt. 4:9).
For the third and final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to a lofty mountain peak and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, telling him that they can be his to do with as he wishes. All Jesus has to do is give the devil his due and pay him homage in the bargain.
This temptation reminds me of the time I was ending a six-month prison sentence in the Minnehaha County Jail in Sioux Falls, SD. A local Presbyterian minister brought his high school church youth group into the jail to talk with me. We met in one of the Jail’s classrooms where I shared about my life, why I crossed the line at Offutt Air Force Base and why I was sent to jail. I spoke about the nonviolent Jesus and the need for a resistance church.
At one point a student asked me, “If you were in a room with all the leaders of the world’s nations, what would you say to them? I told her, “I would tell them to quit their jobs because they can’t do what needs to be done for God’s kingdom from the positions they have.” I then told the class, “The worst thing that could possibly happen for the advocates for the Kingdom of God is for a world super power to adopt the Sermon on the Mount as their national agenda. That was not the answer the students expected to hear.
When the devil offered Jesus all the resources, power, structures and institutions of all the kingdoms of the world, to use as he saw fit, Jesus was given a similar, yet much more seductive, offer than was put to me by this high school student’s question.
Like the previous two temptations, this one has some legitimacy. Jesus’ mission was to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Any kingdom, God’s Kingdom included, is a social communal reality with its own set of rules, regulations, laws, structure and institutions to keep it going. Access to all the resources of the kingdoms of the world would help get the message of God’s Kingdom into the whole world in a very short time.
So, why didn’t Jesus embrace the devil’s offer? Because to do so meant that Jesus would have to prostrate himself in homage to the devil and that is something he would never do.
However, what if the deal was made with no strings attached? What if the devil offered Jesus use of the world’s kingdoms without the prostrate and homage clause? Such a deal is impossible to accept because to embrace the ways of the worldly kingdom is to already give homage and praise to the devil.
Every worldly kingdom in Jesus’ time up to our own time is ultimately backed up by the threat and use of lethal power. It doesn’t matter if the country is a democracy or a theocracy, communistic or socialistic, ruled by a president, prime minister, premier, king, queen, dictator or tyrant, governed by just laws or whim; whether it is a Christian, Jewish or Islamic based society. They are all ultimately backed up by their willingness to kill in order to maintain their rule.
This temptation is all about the means one chooses to reach the desired goal – the Kingdom of God. Worldly kingdoms and their violent means are a violation of this end. The one who proposes violent means to reach this end is in the devil’s camp and under the devil’s rule. Jesus understood this and refused the devil’s offer by quoting yet another verse from the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God, him alone shall you adore.”
This is the temptation to which the Church has succumbed over the last 17 centuries. Ever since Christianity made its peace with the Roman Empire in the 300’s, its proclamation of God’s Kingdom has been diluted and deformed. With the world prepared to destroy itself in so many violent ways, it is imperative that Christians reclaim the essential nonviolent character and means of God’s Kingdom message.