Tempted by Power -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C (Luke 4)


Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 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. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, 
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 
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,’
11 and 

‘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.

    In the year 2022, as the season of Lent begins, the world observes the second anniversary of a Pandemic that has taken millions of lives, along with a war in Ukraine pursued by Vladimir Putin and the Russian Army. The pandemic seems to be fading, but the war the question concerns whether the war is only beginning and where it will lead. From the perspective of many, including me, this war is all about power. Most wars are about power. They're usually launched when those in charge feel as if their power is being threatened. That seems to be the case here. It's not that Ukraine was going to attack Russia, but Putin seems to fear the presence of a democracy on his doorstep. Indeed, it seems that across the world national leaders are cracking down on democracy. There is a legitimate fear that democracy could crumber even in the United States, which is supposed to be the paragon of democracy. Well, the reading from Luke doesn't speak to democracy and the threats against it, but it does speak to the temptation of power. 

       The reading from the Gospel of Luke for the First Sunday of Lent picks up immediately following Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan. We're told that Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and then this same Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he spent forty days and forty nights fasting and praying. Thus, the foundation for the forty days of Lent, which is traditionally understood to be a time when Christians fast by giving up something they value so we can 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. 

           In this story of Jesus' wilderness journey we see him face a series of tests presented to him by the devil. Each of them speaks to paths to power that run contrary to the ways envisioned by God. Without embracing a dualism that pits God and Satan as equivalent foes, we can give attention to the way in which Jesus faces the question of what his ministry will look like. What path will he take? Will he embrace a path that is defined and empowered by the Holy Spirit or take the offer of the Tempter who offers a series of shortcuts to power? These shortcuts involve things like idolatry and spectacle, which might offer a quicker path to success. The temptation is to give the people what they want. Tickle their fancy. Then, you have to hope the people don’t see through the mirage. As for the way of the Spirit, it involves a long and winding 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, yet it took them forty years to get ready to cross the river into the promised land. They needed time to be formed as a people. They needed to learn to trust in God. They needed to understand where power was 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 Jesus might go without for this long a period is mind-boggling. So, the idea that Jesus would 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 who 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. Antony, an 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 Antony 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 shortcuts. 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 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. That has been the perennial challenge. It's easy to take shortcuts and let the state impose your “values” on the populace. Embrace the candidate who promises to protect your "rights." 

It’s not easy to say no to power or our personal 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 writes here about three tests that Jesus endured. One had to do with resolving Jesus’ hunger. The second had to do with idolatry (in our case that could be giving ultimate allegiance to the state or to the culture—American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, Christian nationalism). The third test proposed adopting spectacle as a means to power (just jump off the pinnacle of the Temple so that the angels can catch you and everyone will be enthralled). Each time the devil tempted Jesus, who is filled with the Spirit, he says no to the temptation. He remains true to his calling. He continues to walk in the Spirit. Finally, the tempter gives up and leaves him alone, at least for the moment. Luke suggests that the Tempter will look for another more opportune time to engage with Jesus, but for now, Jesus has won the war of wills. Thus, 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, the question is, which path will we take?  Jesus invites us to walk in the Spirit, and follow his example! It's not an easy path, but its the right path. 

Image Attribution: Rivière, Briton, 1840-1920. Temptation in the Wilderness, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56821 [retrieved February 26, 2022]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Briton_Rivi%C3%A8re_-_The_Temptation_in_the_Wilderness.jpg.


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