Alternative Paths to Power? - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C
4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Jesus was filled with the Spirit when he left the Jordan and headed into the wilderness. Led by the Spirit, he spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying. This time of fasting is the basis of the forty days of Lent. Lent is traditionally a time of when we give something of value so as to better focus on the things of God. I doubt many of us fast for forty days. Indeed, I expect that most of us, myself included, haven’t given much attention to fasting at all. We may have even found the tradition of giving something up for Lent to have little meaning, though I do like the idea suggested by Pope Francis that during this Lenten season we give up indifference. That might actually make a difference in the lives of people.
I titled this reflection “alternative paths to power.” That is because each of the tests proposed by the devil offer a path to power that differs markedly from the one envisioned by God. Without giving into binaries, Jesus is given the choice between taking up a ministry led and empowered by the Holy Spirit or follow the way of the Tempter. In contrast to the Spirit, the Tempter offers shortcuts to power, things like idolatry and spectacle. Since this is a political season we may recognize some of these shortcuts. It’s human to find a quicker way to success. Give the people what they want. Tickle their fancy. Hope they don’t see through the mirage. The way of the Spirit is different. It’s the long road, but in the end it’s the road that forms us as people of God.
When we think of the wilderness in a biblical sense, the best image is the Sinai, where the people of God wandered for forty years. It shouldn’t have taken forty years. The road from Egypt to Canaan takes a few weeks at most, but it appears that that it took forty years before they were ready to cross the river. They needed time to be formed as a people. They needed to learn to trust in God. They needed to understand where power derived.
We begin the season of Lent each year with this story. We’re asked to envision what it’s like to fast forty days. Since most of us struggle to give up a meal or two, the thought that he might be famished at the end of this ordeal isn’t difficult to conceive. Not only is he hungry from going without food (and drink?), but he’s spent much of the time battling the devil. Similar kinds of stories were told by the “Desert Fathers,” those ascetic masters that emerged in the third and fourth centuries. Following the example of Jesus, they would go out into the desert where they would spend their lives fasting and praying. Many Christians would seek out these spiritual masters hoping to receive wisdom for their own lives. Many of the “Desert Fathers” reported battles with demons and with the devil. Perhaps the most famous of these desert masters was St. Anthony, and Egyptian monastic, whose story was told by St. Athanasius.
But the devil, who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth, but endeavoured to carry out against him what he had been wont to effect against others. First of all, he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labour of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time. In a word he raised in his mind a great dust of debate, wishing to debar him from his settled purpose. [Life of St. Antony].
The devil tried to get Anthony to take an alternate path, but to no avail. He remained true to his calling, living as he did in the Spirit.
The tests here have to do with Jesus’ calling. At his baptism he was commissioned by God. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The argument is that there are easier paths to achieving power than the one Jesus is setting out on. It is a constant temptation for the people of God to take short cuts. Consider the temptation that constantly faces the Christian community in a place like the United States. If only we can partner with the powers that be, then we can achieve our goals. We can create a “more moral society” if only we can get the government to follow our lead. Let’s proclaim the nation to be Christian. Then things will go as we wish! The problem is that more often than not, when the church gets itself too entangled with the state, the realm of God simply becomes an extension of the reigning powers. That was the case with Christendom, and we’re still living with its aftereffects.
Miroslav Volf talks about the thinning of religion. This happens when the moral vision of a religion is reduced to a “vague religiosity” that is shaped by forces other than that religion itself. The thinning occurs when religions “identify too closely with a given community and the dynamics of power; and such ‘thin’ religions are most susceptible to being used as merely a political and cultural resource, and occasionally even as a weapon of war” (Volf, Flourishing, p. 189]. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for public engagement, but the temptations presented to Jesus suggest complete entanglement. Take the short cuts. Let the state impose your “values” on the populace.
It’s not easy to say no to power. It’s not easy saying no to one’s own needs. We who serve in the church know this all too well. With a family to support, it’s easy for preachers to tell people what they want to hear. That’s why the purveyors of the prosperity gospel are so successful. They tell us that God wants us to be rich. God wants us to be successful. God wants us to be powerful. Just believe and it will occur (oh, and by the way, be sure to send a check to this “ministry” so we can be rich and powerful).
Luke tells of three tests. One has to do with resolving Jesus’ hunger. The second has to do with idolatry (in our case that could be giving ultimate allegiance to the state or to the culture—American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, or the cult of Judeo-Christian America). The third has to do with spectacle (jump off the pinnacle of the Temple). Each time Jesus, filled with the Spirit, says no to the temptation. He remains true to his calling. He continues to walk in the Spirit. Finally, the tempter gives up and lives him alone, at least for now. Luke suggests that the Tempter will look for another more opportune time? Testing comes and goes and comes again. The path to this point was difficult, and it will continue to have its difficulties, but Jesus continues in the Spirit. Therefore, he invites us to do the same. There are alternate paths to power. Jesus invites to walk in the Spirit, and follow his example!