bible blog 1015



he only wants to help his country

he only wants to help his country

Luke 4:1-13

J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)

Jesus faces temptation

4 1-2 Jesus returned from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit and he was led by the Spirit to spend forty days in the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during that time and afterwards he felt very hungry.

3 “If you really are the Son of God,” the devil said to him, “tell this stone to turn into a loaf.”

4 Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God’.”

5-7 Then the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of mankind in a sudden vision, and said to him, “I will give you all this power and magnificence, for it belongs to me and I can give it to anyone I please. It shall all be yours if you will fall down and worship me.”

8 To this Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve’.”

9-11 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the highest ledge of the Temple. “If you really are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here, for the scripture says, ‘He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you’, and ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’.”

12 To which Jesus replied, “It is also said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’.”

13 And when he had exhausted every kind of temptation, the devil withdrew until his next opportunity

devilThis is a story that tempts commentators to be childish. Their assumption is that Jesus could, if he had wanted, have turned the stones into bread, that he could, if he had wanted, dived off the pinnacle and been supported by the hand of God. Unless we’re talking about someone who thought he was superman, we shouldn’t make that assumption. But commentators will say, “But  Luke made that assumption so we have to suspend our disbelief when reading him.” I don’t think so.

I think Luke has hidden one direct temptation in between two indirect ones. Jesus knows he can’t feed himself by turning bread into stones. Surely that means he’s not “the son of God”? Jesus knows he’ll smash to the ground if he jumps off the pinnacle. Surely that means he’s not “the son of God?” Jesus believes that he is God’s son without superhuman powers. But that’s a tough belief to hold. Perhaps he’s just an ordinary man with delusions of grandeur. Perhaps this whole son of God thing is a myth. The indirect temptation -to conclude that he’s not really God’s son- would be very  powerful.

The direct temptation is therefore even more powerful. To an able man who knows that he has no supernatural power, the resources of evil can seem overwhelmingly attractive. The example of Alexander the Great who conquered all the “kingdoms of mankind” through satanic courage and glamour was still part of Jesus’ culture. Perhaps he, Jesus, could rule from India to Spain and do so more wisely, more benificially than Alexander?

All three temptations are focused on the issue of power. They assume that the possession and exercise of power are necessary for achievement, perhaps even for survival. Without power a person is condemned to the restrictions of ordinary human existence, the need for food, the vulnerability of a mortal body. How could such a person dare to call himself God’s Son? On the other hand if goodness gives a person no real advantage, it’s clear that evil will do so. Someone prepared to do evil things when they are needed will hold the whip-hand over people who are restrained by conscience.  temptation

No reader should imagine that these temptations belong to Jesus alone. I can testify that they are at least mine also. What’s the point of thinking of myself as a child of God if it confers no advantages? Isn’t it a kind of self-deception that conceals my real identity as an accidental existence with no more significance than a sparrow or a bacterium. Why can’t I just live and grow and mate and die like other animals, content that my life will continue in my offspring?

And if I overcome this temptation and accept that God gives me no advantage, it is understandable that I  should feel an irrational rage when silly Christians tell me God found them a parking place or saved their investments from the banking crash. Yeah, while he let thousands die in Asian floods.

Still, knowing I am a powerless child of God leaves me open to the temptation of gaining power by evil means. Of course I won’t think of it as evil. I’ll just be taking the chances life offers to gain wealth, or authority, or popularity. I just want a decent life for myself and my family. Maybe I’ll have to climb on the heads of others, but hey who doesn’t? And the more I get for myself the more humanitarian my purposes will become. I’ll advise on what’s best for the poor, for international aid, for the future of the planet, because mere power gives me wisdom.

Well, of course, I didn’t ever do those things, I only hurt others in moments of arrogant folly, but I know the temptations of wrongful power enough to give thanks that I’ve never had the opportunity of serious financial, social or political position.

The balance of Jesus-believing in one’s God-given specialness while valuing the equality of human need – that’s what shows he’s truly the son of God.

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