Somehow, the temptations of Jesus had never struck me as odd before. But what would be so sinful about the first temptation to turn stones into bread? And what would be so tempting about Jesus falling down and worshiping satan to gain control of the kingdoms of the world? More to the point, why would satan think it would be tempting?
I think now that these are all temptations for Jesus to take The Way Of Power Over rather than The Way Of The Cross. From time immemorian, we humans have known that something is wrong with the world. Usually, we’re confident that what’s wrong with the world is Evil, especially evil in Other People, and if we could just stop them, we could put an end to evil. If we could only make other people do what we want, we could save the world. And that is what is wrong with the world.
Jesus came to save the world. And Satan, I suspect, knew this. So Satan offered Jesus the way of “power over” in his three temptations. Satan always offers the way of power to anyone who wants to save the world. And most take it.
The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones into bread – feeding the hungry – to gain power over. The temptation is for Jesus to take over the world by giving everyone plenty of food. To gain “power over” by feeding multitudes. It’s tempting, but Jesus rejects both parts of it: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
The second temptation is simple: politics. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth in an instant, then says, “All of these I will give to you if you will fall down and worship me.” Imagine! A world ruled by Jesus! This is what many Christians dream about – Jesus coming to rule the world with force – everyone willingly following Jesus, and those who don’t, being sent away. Jesus arriving as the kind of earthly king that we had expected. But Satan’s offer of giving the kingdoms of the earth to Jesus to rule comes at a price: “Bow down and worship me.” I suspect that the gospel writers were making “ruling with power over” (political power) equivalent to worshipping the devil. Because that is ultimately what it is.
Jesus replies, “You shall worship YHWH your God, and Him only shall you serve.” Another double-thrust back at the double temptation.
Many fall into the way of power over by the previous two – doing good and politics – but for the truly righteous, the mighty, Satan offers The Way of Miracles. “Jump down from the temple, for it is written, “He will give His angels charge over you, that you may not strike your foot against a stone.” Do miracles. Convince people of your divinity, and they will worship you.
Why was this a temptation? Was this not what Jesus actually did: perform miracles in public so that people would follow him?
Well… not exactly.
Jesus replies, “It is written, you shall not test YHWH your God.”
And then Satan leaves. (Don’t worry, he’ll be back before the end)
Jesus continues on the way of the cross, the way of self-sacrificial love.
When Jesus performs his first miracle, he says “It’s not my time,” but does it anyway.
When Jesus heals people, he says, “Don’t tell anyone.” It’s not reverse psychology – He really doesn’t want to become known for his miracles of healing. But when he sees people who need to be healed, he has compassion on them and heals them.
When John asks if Jesus is who John thought He was, Jesus doesn’t say yes. Jesus simply explains what is happening: The blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have the good news preached to them. Jesus does not do these things to gain power; He simply does them because He is on the way of the cross, the way of self-sacrificial love.
When people try to sieze him by force to make him king, He… eludes them. He rejects the way of power. When He feeds the 5000, He immediately crosses to the other side of the sea. People follow him, but He sure makes it hard, because his mission is to save the world.
To Jesus, unlike the rulers of this world,
saving the world
and gaining power over the world
have nothing in common.
Jesus regularly points out that the greatest will be the least, the greatest will be your servant, and at the last supper, Jesus makes his point again: He washes his disciples’ feet. “You call me Teacher and Master, and so you should, for so I am, but notice that I am among you as one who serves. If I served you, you should so serve one another.” Greatness, in the way of the cross, is not the way of getting others to serve you, but rather the way of serving others.
And on the cross, at the termination point of the way of the cross, Jesus suffers. He suffers greatly. And Satan steps in to make him one final offer: If you are the son of God, come down from the cross. Get down. Everyone will believe in you. Everyone will worship you as God. Everyone will follow you. This is how the way of the cross ends. Don’t go all the way. You’ve done enough. Now take the way of power. You’ve earned the right.
Jesus says he could call down 12 legions of angels to rescue him. But doesn’t. The way of power is never more available or more tempting to anyone than it is to Jesus on the cross.
And He rejects it.
The way of the cross has only one guaranteed result: You die. But the key, the true power of the way of the cross, is in both the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion reveals the true end of the way of power: Jesus is crucified. The way of power always kills Jesus, and it never saves the world. It always has been thus, and always will be.
Jesus’ resurrection reveals the true power and end of the way of the cross: When you love your enemies to the death, even death cannot stop you. The way of the cross always leads through death to resurrection, and the way of power over always leads to killing Jesus. (“Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers”).
So how should Christians go about saving the world? The way of feeding the hungry to gain power over and convince people to follow us? The way of political power? (With the cross fresh in our minds, let us remember that the “moral majority” were the ones who killed Jesus). Or perhaps the way of the miraculous, the way of forcing people to see God by proving miracles?
Jesus rejected all of these ways.
In Dostoevsky’s words, the church has corrected His mistake.
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
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