by Isaac Villegas
Feb 17, 2013
In the wilderness, the devil asks Jesus a question, a question in the form of three temptations. The question is: Who are you, and who will you be? This is a question for us, during Lent, during this time in the church calendar to reflect on our lives, to contemplate, to meditate on who we are, on what we do, and on who we are becoming.
The devil knows Jesus is the Son of God. That’s not up for debate. But, as the Son of God, what will Jesus do? Will he turn stones into bread? This first temptation amplifies the growling in Jesus’s stomach. He hasn’t eaten for 40 days, as he wanders in the wilderness. The text says that he is famished, hungry, tired. “If [since?] you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Lk 4:3). This is the most ambiguous of three temptations, because what’s so wrong, after all, about turning a stone into bread when you need something to eat, assuming you can do it? It’s hard to see how it would be a sin for Jesus to use divine magic to make a loaf of bread to eat. But that’s just it: Will Jesus be like a superhero, with magical powers, who uses them for good, and also for himself when he is in a bind? Is that what it means to be the Son of God? Jesus refuses that option. He refuses to become God the self-sufficient one, the one who doesn’t hunger, the one who doesn’t have to wait for a meal. Jesus chooses patience, patience as endurance, suffering the pain of unfulfilled desires, instead of doing what he wants, doing what is within his power, in order to serve himself, to get what he wants when he wants it.
The second temptation is like the first, in that Jesus is offered what he wants, but, this time, not for himself alone, but for the world, for the sake of the peoples of the world, people who live under oppressive rulers, with unjust laws. The devil taps into the compassion of Jesus, the Son of God’s concern for the world. The devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, a temptation change the world, to fix it, to take control, to wield the power of kings and presidents. No more corrupt and power-hungry leaders. No more wars between nations. No more economic exploitation. No more conquest and suffering. Here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is given a chance to be the Messiah, to be the savior, to take control of the sinful world, this world under the spell of the devil. Here, at the beginning, Jesus is invited to become the Messiah, without having to undergo suffering, without having to endure the violence the people in power, to become the Messiah without the cross, to become the Messiah as master of the world, not Messiah as victim, as suffering servant.
For the last temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the most public spot in all of Israel — the temple in Jerusalem, the pinnacle of the temple, with the masses below, people from across the land coming to worship, people going about their commerce, their buying and selling in the temple courts. “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,” the devil says, “for it is written, ‘He will command his angels to protect you’” (vv. 9-10). The devil offers Jesus the opportunity to win over the masses with a spectacle. No one can resist the power, the persuasive power of a miracle.
In the book of Revelation, in a scene from the bible seared into my memory as a child, the beast wins the support of the people after being healed of a “mortal wound,” “a death blow.” Then, it says, “In amazement the whole earth followed the beast…saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev. 13:3-4). Here, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is invited to win over the crowds like the beast does in the book of Revelation — through the power of a spectacle, to win over hearts and minds with shock and awe, the power of the spectacle as domination of the will. If Jesus would go along with the devil’s scheme, the people in the temple courts would see that this man, this Jesus, is the chosen one, the one with access to God’s power, God’s protection. All of Jerusalem, all of Israel, would trust Jesus, because the miracle would force them to see Jesus as God’s chosen, as deserving of their loyalty, of their faith.
Jesus resists the temptation of this kind of apologetics, a coercion of belief, of winning over someone’s faith with a knockdown argument, with a full proof defense, where people who disagree, who don’t have faith, are thought of as irrational, as stupid, as denying the obvious, because there is undeniable proof — at least that’s the line of thinking in many popular books with titles like Evidence that Demands a Verdict and The Case for Christ and The Reason for God. These are invitations to become a master, to exercise dominion of someone else’s mind, to win their souls, their faith, as if it were a game or a war, to win over minds with spectacular arguments.
But Jesus refuses this last temptation, and the devil departs, it says, “until an opportune time.” That’s an ominous note at the end of this story — until an opportune time. Jesus isn’t free from these temptations, once and for all. At the end, when Jesus is on the cross, the onlookers repeat the devil’s temptations, the temptation for Jesus to be a superhero Messiah, to convince the world of his identity with a spectacle, with angels. With Jesus hanging on the cross, they yell, “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:35-37). The temptations in the wilderness recur throughout his life. They are haunting possibilities for Jesus, threatening to entice him away from who is called to be, to save himself, to give up on being the suffering servant, the one chosen by God to give his life for others, the one who lives a ministry of healing, of restoration, who endures the violence of the world, the one who teaches his followers patience, how to survive, how to persevere in a world we do not control, that we cannot control, how to resist the seductions of power, of coercive power, the temptation of using power to get what we want.
In the wilderness, with these temptations, the devil asks Jesus a question:
Who are you, and who will you be? And during Lent, we are invited into this question, to reflect on who we are, on what we do, and on who we are becoming. These are questions of identity, of our identity, of who we are called to be as we are drawn into the life of Jesus, the one who resists the temptations in the wilderness.
I hear this story as an invitation to learn patience, of learning to be at home, at home in my humanness, in my dependencies, in my weakness, at home in my body — a life that hungers, like Jesus, and learns how to be patient with those longings, to be at peace with them, and to refuse the temptations of coercive power to get what I want, no matter who gets hurt, no matter what compromises I have to make, deals with the devil and his power.
The temptation story begins with Jesus being led around by the Spirit, it says, in the wilderness, for 40 days. I can’t help but think of the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Perhaps that’s where we are supposed to find ourselves in the story: in the wilderness with Jesus, in the wilderness with Israel, waiting on God, unsettled in the world, always on the move, yet at home with God’s Spirit, at home with this life we have, held by God’s grace.
Right before he is tempted, before he enters the wilderness, Jesus is baptized, and when he comes up from the river, he hears a voice from heaven. It says: “You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” As we wander through this season of Lent, unsettled in the wilderness, in the world, by temptations, let us hear the words from heaven as words for us, all who share in the baptism of Jesus, the voice who says to us: “You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”