Sunday, February 17, 2013

Power and temptations

Luke's temptation story (Luke 4:1-13), where the devil meets up with Jesus in the wilderness, is all about power and its dangers.  The final two temptations are great examples of how power can corrupt.

The second temptation:  “If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.” 

For the price of worship, the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to rule the world with justice. End the tyranny of Rome: instant regime change. Jesus could accomplish great things for the world by accepting this temptation, by “playing the world’s game for a good purpose.” (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor.) 

This fit the vision of what many expected of the Jewish Messiah:  the one who would restore the Davidic kingdom.  Put us back in charge of everyone and everything.  Certainly Jesus would be a better ruler than Caesar.

The third temptation: “Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)” 

This doesn’t sound like anything’s offered here, but in truth it may the greatest offer of all. Take control of the temple. Establish righteous leadership. Restore the rightful place of the temple as the center of faithful living. All it would take is an example to the community, and Jesus could have ultimate religious power to be used for good.

It might be troublesome to realize that the devil tempts Jesus with good things. We tend to think of the devil leading us to only do bad things, but that’s often not the case. Governance with justice is a good thing. Righteous religious leadership is a good thing. To make it harder, all of these things fit into Jesus ministry: Jesus, throughout his ministry, will advocate governing with justice and faithfully wield religious power.

The devil seeks to move Jesus only to solutions, or to taking “the end justifies the means” approach. The devil seeks to divert Jesus from faithfully walking God’s unknown path towards a more certain one with results measurable to the it worldly goods, political power, or religious power. The focus for Jesus, however, is the kingdom of God...and remains so in the midst of the temptations.

We can see parallels for us on a smaller scale.  We are temped to use our own politics of power:  be it force over someone, or under the guise of religious power where "we're right" (and you're wrong).

But for a moment, let's additionally consider the first, somewhat neglected temptation:  turning stone to bread.  I've suggested in the past that this is the devil suggesting that Jesus take on the blight of mass hunger.  Work your God magic:  feed the hungry and solve this societal woe.

Then again, perhaps this is not what is happening here...

Luke's text says that "for forty days he was tempted by the devil".  That makes it sound to me like they've been going at it for awhile, and what we have in Luke is the "final round" of temptations.  

I imagine the devil saying, "Look Jesus, you should eat something now before we continue.  You need your strength if you're going to best me here, and your rumbling stomach is getting on my nerves.  Just turn this stone to bread:  no one will know and it won't hurt anyone.  For God's sake have something to eat."

What would it matter?

Funny thing about temptation:  it's not usually the big stuff that first gets us in trouble.  It doesn't usually begin with hurting others, but in the rather careless way we use our power without considering what it does to ourselves.  

Episcopal priest Rick Morley wrote:

Satan starts by tempting Jesus to eat some bread, which Jesus can make out of a stone. 
I mean, why not? Is there anything particularly wrong with that? After fasting for forty days, he can’t eat a little bread? 
He can change water-into-wine, but stones-into-rocks is out of bounds? 
But, the real question is—is that what God had in mind for Jesus on that day? Was that God’s plan for Jesus right then? Was that how God wanted Jesus to be fed? 
Obviously not. 
You see, temptation isn’t just about the desire to stick your hand in the cookie jar. It’s about being led towards disobedience. It’s a lack of discernment—or the willing deviation from the discerned will of God. 
The Christian life is meant to be a life of seeking after God. Listening for God. Listening to God. Following God. 
And, when following God’s will, sometimes we’ll pass up things that are just fine. But, things which God didn’t have for us to do this day, or in this particular way. 
Spiritual maturity looks not just for the things that are passable, or explainable. Not just for the things that will get you into trouble. 
But, spiritual maturity looks for the way that God has set before us, and then summons the courage to go there—and to ask for God’s help along the way.

Luke did something very clever:  his long list of names of whom Jesus is related to differs to Matthew's in two significant ways.  Matthew links his audience back to Abraham, their spiritual father.  Luke, writing with a Gentile audience in mind, brings us all the way back to Adam.  Additionally, he has the list not at the beginning of his Gospel like Matthew, but right before the temptation story.  Right before the devil temps Jesus to turn stone to bread, we trace Jesus' bloodline back to "Adam, son of God."

"Don't worry Adam...that apple won't kill you...who's going to know?"

This realization concerning temptations can have great impact on our daily lives.   What is God calling us to be?  What helps us go forward in that journey?  What are the things that we can do to help live into God's vision for the world, and what distracts us from that path?  How often do the things that "don't really hurt anyone" keep us from living into the hope of God?

This Lent calls us to use our ears, mind and heart to discern the path God would have for us, and perhaps to resist some of our more familiar and comfortable temptations.

Together, we can do it.

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