Reading: Luke 4:1-13
The temptation of Christ is a rather interesting passage. I am never quite sure how it got into the Gospel narrative because there was nobody (except of course Jesus and the devil) there to see it happen. In spite of this being entirely hidden, it is the first thing you see in the life of Jesus following John’s Baptism. The temptation of Christ is part of the story of Jesus to the point that it is not only part of Mark’s gospel, but Matthew and Luke tell an expanded version rather than simply using the short version we find in Mark’s gospel.
I don’t know how much you know about how Matthew Mark and Luke were written, and I don’t really want to give a lecture on it today, but I do want to give enough of a summary to make a point. Mark is the oldest of the written Gospels. Mark is also the shortest and it tells a story. If we were to listen to Mark recited, in full it would take about an hour and a half. I believe that Mark was originally used in exactly this way — it was read out loud or recited by a story-teller in a single setting. As you might know, a storyteller convinced me of this as I listened to him reciting Mark.
Mark is wonderful for giving an engaging narrative that can be told in less time than we spend watching a movie, but Mark leaves a lot of important things out; specifically what Jesus taught and any stories about Jesus before John Baptized him. Basically Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark’s gospel; both of them add sayings and teachings of Jesus, along with some stories that are not found in Mark — but, they generally follow Mark’s narrative structure. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke had a shared “sayings” source that they call “Q”, and they believe that each had sources unique to themselves that scholars call “M” and “L”.
What is important here is that Luke and Matthew both have similar expansions to the temptation narration in Mark. The Temptation of Christ is both part of that short essential narrative that tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, and it is also found in those sayings of Jesus that people remembered. When we read how Christ was tempted in Luke 4, we are reading a blending of both the story of what Jesus did, and an account of what Jesus taught.
The first thing I’m going to do is respond to what it means that Jesus was tempted as an important part of the story. The account of the temptation of Christ in two verses in the first chapter of Mark:
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mark 1:12-13 NRSV)
That is all there is in the essential story of Jesus, simply a couple sentences saying that right after the voice in the clouds said of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son, I am well pleased with you,” Jesus felt compelled to spend about 6 weeks in the desert where he was tempted by Satan. Mark does not talk about what the temptations are, only that there was temptation.
The biggest lesson that I learn from the couple sentences that we find in Mark is that temptation is not fatal. It is easy for a person to see himself as a fraud because he has internal struggles. This is so common that it was given a name: “Impostor syndrome”. Syndrome, of course implies that it is a mental illness, but psychologist say that it is not; the problem with diagnosing these feelings of self-doubt is that most of humanity would be crazy.
Why do people feel self-doubt? We feel it because we know our own struggles and failures, but we don’t know those of others. There is a proverb that says: “a master has failed more times than a beginner has tried.” The thing is, even after we are competent, we remember our failures while not seeing the failures of others with similar skill. When our success is recognized we remember our failure.
When it comes to our spiritual life, it is even harder. We don’t know our neighbor’s struggles. I don’t know how the people I respected the most have struggled — because our struggles are often internal and not visible — it is so easy to think that we are the only one.
Seeing that Jesus faced a period of temptation, even if we don’t know the nature of the temptation, tells us that internal struggles are universal. We shouldn’t lose heart if we face one of the same things Jesus faced. C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity that Jesus struggled with temptation more than anybody because he never gave into temptation. The thing about temptation is that the only people who don’t struggle with it are those who give into it without a struggle. There is nothing wrong with struggling to do right — if one did not struggle, one would not do right.
Luke (and Matthew) have added material which, our best guess, says comes from Jesus’ teaching. If we assume that Jesus told the story of how he was tempted — we see that Jesus named three ways he was tempted — following the order that we find in Luke:
- Tempted by hunger
- Tempted by power
- Tempted by fame
I guess that the reason Jesus would tell this story would be to help people realize their own motives for things, and to see things that can get in the way. If this is the purpose, then we can assume that all of these are common temptations and something that might endanger us as well.
First, let us consider the first temptation: Hunger. Jesus tells the story where near the end of his fast, Satan suggests that he turn stones into bread. While hunger can be a metaphor for anything that we need and a metaphor for what desperation can do to a person, it also can be taken quite literally. Worldwide 1 out of every 9 people went to bed last night without supper and 1 out of 3 suffers malnutrition. Unfortunately, while the United States is wealthy, in 2017 our ratio of people who face “food insecurity” was 1 out of every 8 people. I’m not sure how these statistics compare, but I do know that hunger makes a person desperate, and this is quite a few desperate people.
Now, the Proverbs 6:30 teaches us that we are not supposed to despise somebody who steals food to eat; yet the Proverb also observes that the thief will be punished for theft. Hunger can drive people to do what they would not normally do; it can lead us to turn away from our principles and to make decisions based on desperation.
Now — I completely understand when a hungry person is selfish. Somebody who is desperate for his or her next meal, perhaps cannot afford to do volunteer work, but instead always wonders “what is in it for me”, although, when I’ve worked with people distributing food from food pantries, I’ve noticed that a number of the people who came and worked passing out the food also received from the food pantry. When I’ve worked with the Salvation Army — I learned that a number of people who rang bells did so because they were grateful that they had received help. In my life, I’ve met a number of people who never have quite enough, yet always finds ways of helping others.
Here is the thing; if we let ourselves fall into the habit of asking: “What is in it for me?” and always acting in desperation, then we fall into temptation — as Jesus said, we do not live on bread alone. Yes, we need to eat, but we also need to see beyond the needs of our own stomach. Christianity is about the whole community — and if we get caught up on our personal needs, we miss everything else.
In Luke’s account, the second temptation is when Satan takes Jesus to a mountain and shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and tells Jesus that if He worships Satan, he will be given rule over all the nations. Now, this is both pretty obvious, and yet it is also hard to see how it applied directly to Jesus.
We’ve had about 17 centuries of significant influence in the political system. From chiefs of state who attended a publicly significant church to Christian kingdoms that are Christian by law, to political parties in democracies fighting for the Christian vote, political power is a reality.
Now, I am happy to see Christianity have a positive influence on the world; but I’m not happy to see the world’s influence on the church. I’m not happy when I see what churches preach change according to what is politically inconvenient; that people will ignore those parts of the Bible that challenge their favorite leaders. I’m not happy to see people make exceptions for clear teachings in scripture, because they challenge the behaviors of a political party, and I’m deeply concerned about the tendency we have to seek a political messiah.
Perhaps this last part is exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about his temptation. Several of his disciples wanted a political messiah who would sit on David’s throne after expelling the Romans. Acts 1 even has an unnamed disciple asking Jesus if, now that he is raised from the dead, he will drive out the Roman occupiers and establish His kingdom in Judah. The temptation to seek political power has been going on since the beginning. Once there has been an opportunity, Church leaders have failed many times; and while I won’t enumerate these times, I will point out that secular politics, not faith was the cause of “anti-Popes” (where more than one person was made bishop of Rome, based on which secular European king each “Pope” would support), and ultimately corruption would cause a number of Christian leaders to rebel against Rome. The earliest extant group of Protestants, the Waldensians formed communities in the 12th century. By the 15th century Martin Luther would leave the church starting the Lutheran (or Evangelical) Church, and soon after, John Calvin would form the Reformed Church. At the same time that Luther and Calvin were trying to rebuild Christian nations, there was also a radical reformation that sought a level of reform that would include tearing down the barrier between clergy and laity and building a barrier between church and state.
Both the attempts to reform the institutional state church, and the attempt to form a free church that was separate from the state was a response to corruption, manipulative fundraising and preaching, and inappropriate relationships between kings and bishops. Even our word Nepotism came from a practice of several popes, starting in the 11th century, appointing relatives to positions of influence and power. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, this practice was so common that there was competition between the Borgia dynasty and the Medici family for both political and ecclesiastical power — both of these families produced 2 popes in the 15th-16th centuries. The condition was so bad that when Luther visited Rome, he learned that those who had the highest positions in the church were not pastors, nor theologians but politicians and opportunists. The Church had worldly power, so those who wanted worldly power worked their way into positions of power within the church.
The third temptation was when Satan took Jesus to the top of the temple and told him to publicly throw himself down so that he would be saved by an angel. The temptation was a spectacular public reveal that would bring much attention. It is quite tempting to seek attention; many people want fame — they want people to be talking about them.
While John does not talk about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, John does talk about when Jesus’ brothers noticed that Jesus was preaching and healing in small villages, and they advised him to go to Jerusalem for a major holiday, and very publicly reveal Himself to the nation. It is really tempting to seek a bigger venue.
The gospel, however, isn’t about putting on a show, nor is it about ratings, or poll numbers. The gospel isn’t a competition for the biggest crowd — the gospel is simply good news for those who can accept it. Boiled down to as few words as possible, I believe that the good news is the news that Jesus is God with us, that Jesus came to where we are and invited us to walk with Him. I believe that the good news is that Jesus forgives sins, heals broken hearts and souls, and teaches us to forgive as well. I believe that the good news is that the grave could not keep Jesus and that we live in an Easter community where God is a real and present part of our lives. I believe that the good news is that if we walk with Jesus, we end up where Jesus is.
This is good news, but it is not the kind of thing that brings fame; and when Jesus preached, eventually the crowds even left Jesus — but his disciples stayed. When the crowds left, Peter said of Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life” — and this is the good news, crowds or no crowds. Christianity isn’t about fame — it is about being a community that walks with Jesus and has faith that Jesus leads us into the kingdom of Heaven.