Read the passage here.
Being a numbers geek, I am always tempted to craft an artful sermon about the significance of forty – you know, going over the theological, cultural and political significance of forty as it appears so many times in scripture. I am tempted, but I know that I would probably be the only one who got anything out of it – and, as I so often need to be reminded, it’s not about me.
I am still tempted, though. If I did it well, it would be a sign that I was pretty gifted when it comes to theological study – it could make me look good. But, then again, looking good – making a big impression – is that what ministry is really about?
Then again, if I did it REALLY well and used a lot of theological language that was tough to understand – and I made sure that the right people got a copy of it – I could get some real mileage out of it in the presbytery. I could gain some power and prestige out of that, couldn’t I?
Okay – probably not. It would just be a weak attempt to play the worldly game of ladder climbing. So, while I am tempted to use this opportunity to satisfy my own curiosity – to draw attention to myself – and to gain a little power – I had to reckon with the reality that these things have nothing to do with my role as a minister.
My overcoming these little temptations pale miserably next to the temptations Jesus overcame, but aren’t so much different. Just – well, more everyday.
Jesus overcame the first temptation – the simple temptation to use divine power to serve self-interest. No one would see. There was only Jesus and the tempter out there in the wilderness. Jesus could just turn a rock into a loaf of bread, and have a bite to eat. We’re told that Jesus was, after all, famished. Jesus’ answer was, basically, “It’s not about feeding myself, but doing what God wants of me.”
Next, there was the temptation to create something of a miraculous spectacle to demonstrate how Jesus was special. Throw yourself off the temple, the tempter says, and have God send angels to save you. That would make you look good to the people at the temple, Jesus. Jesus, of course, overcame that one, too. Seems image and reputation didn’t matter.
Then there’s that really big temptation – up on the mountain overlooking all creation. The tempter says, “Give in to me – your temptations – and I will give you worldly power over all of this. All you have to do is worship me – your desires. Make me the desire of your heart, and you can gain all this power.” “No”, says Jesus, “I’ll worship no-one but God.”
Consider something. Jesus was fully God AND fully human – as shown, in this case, by the fact that Jesus could be tempted. That choice of words is important – Jesus wasn’t tricked; Jesus wasn’t tested; Jesus wasn’t challenged. The word used says Jesus was tempted. Temptation is different than being tested or being tricked or being challenged. Those are things other people do to you. Temptation is self-reflexive.
By that, I mean, temptation is something that happens from the inside – not from the outside. A tempter can hold up a prize – but it’s only a temptation if the prize is something I desire in the first place. Being fully human means that Jesus had to experience all that was human – including desire. Being tempted meant that Jesus faced the question of whether to satisfy internal desires to see to his own needs, to be special and to be powerful. All very human desires – and ones which Jesus overcame.
We can all equate with these kinds of temptations. Who among us does not want to have our needs met? Who doesn’t want to be well-known – to have a reputation – to be recognized as special? Who doesn’t want to have some kind of power – to be able to control outcomes – to influence culture? These are not unreasonable desires necessarily – they are not essentially harmful or negative.
Would it have been so bad if Jesus turned a rock into a loaf of bread and had a bite to eat? Didn’t Jesus turn a few fish and loaves into a feast for 5000, with leftovers besides? Yes, but, Jesus fed others – the point wasn’t self-satisfaction.
Would it have been so bad if Jesus drew attention by performing a spectacular miracle? Jesus did many miracles, and many were public. It’s just that whenever that occurred, Jesus was very intentional about those miracles pointing to relationship with God – not to Jesus’ individual specialness or reputation.
Would it have been so bad if Jesus took political power and ruled the world? Now, this one Jesus didn’t do.
Does this mean that the incredible crafting of this story in the gospel of Matthew falls flat on its face? This passage, coming right after Jesus’ baptism and right before Jesus calling disciples and beginning ministry, is here for a purpose. It functions as an introduction to the temptations faced by Jesus, throughout the rest of the gospel, which came from the expectations of those who followed.
It wasn’t that Jesus, as divine, didn’t have the power to all they wanted, it was that Jesus knew it wasn’t the mission. The crowds wanted Jesus to take care of them – just them – and, while Jesus was tempted to be just about the Jews, this ministry was open to all people including Gentiles.
There are many stories in which Jesus was asked for shows of miracles, but Jesus only used miracles to cure, to save and to point towards the glory of God. Jesus’ singular image and reputation was never the point.
And when it comes to worldly power, that’s what many of the people of Israel really wanted. A Messiah who would set them above the rest of the world – put them in control – make them the military power. Jesus always refused – opting instead to constantly stand against power in the name of the vulnerable – even unto death.
Jesus was tempted constantly by followers to serve their self-interest first, but instead saw primarily to the needs of the vulnerable – those who lacked power. Jesus was tempted by the followers to build reputation – but instead lifted up the lowly and gave them visibility and voice. Jesus was tempted by the followers to grab hold of power – but instead tried to place new opportunities in the hands of the powerless.
Jesus overcame these kinds of crowd pleasing temptations, but can we, as Christians, as churches, as denominations and as the Body of Christ in the world, not look to please and be pleased? You see, in our culture these things aren’t temptations, they’re business as usual – they’re normal. Seeing to our own needs; maintaining a good image and reputation; gaining, using and maintaining power – these are culturally acceptable – no, respectable traits.
“Charity begins at home”, should be quite familiar as a saying. It is perfectly normal, and completely understandable. There is obviously some common sense at play when we understand it to say that each of must have our needs met in order to serve others. It has, however, for many become a euphemism for “charity stays at home”; when unpacked it means we should take care of our own first and, possibly, only.
I would like to suggest that, when Jesus said “love neighbor as self”, it placed equal importance on the two. It isn’t being charitable to either ourselves or others first, but to both ourselves and others at the same time. Charity is also more than kindly giving money or food or clothes – which are immensely important in and of themselves. Being charitable is an attitude in which we allocate equal portions of respect, kindness, mercy, opportunity and expectation – to ourselves and others. It is an attitude of grace.
Reputation is a little tricky, isn’t it? Culturally, it’s very important and unavoidable, but Jesus never spoke well of people who did things to maintain a reputation.
What’s so bad about a reputation? We will get one – it could be good or it could be bad – but we will have one, unless we keep our head very, very low. Let me give you a somewhat technical definition of reputation and how it works in society – a definition, I think, that Jesus understood very well.
Reputation is the opinion (more technically, a social evaluation) of the public toward a person, a group of people, or an organization. It is an important factor in many fields, such as business, communities or social status. Reputation is known to be a universal, spontaneous and highly efficient mechanism of social control in natural societies.
Reputation is about approval or disapproval – it is an inherent aspect of judging others’ worth, and our worth being judged by others. That, Jesus asserts in a number of places, is God’s job. As God’s children, each of us has just as much inherent worth as any other – according to Jesus. When we judge, we control or corral people – intentionally or not. When others do it to us – they control us – but only if we care about it – only if a good reputation represents a prize we desire – then it becomes a temptation.
Then we have power. Power is something we could talk about for hours on end – we won’t, but we could. Every single one of us has power – it’s just that some of us have more power than others. To make a quick point about power, let me give you what is called my social location – my listing of characteristics that give me inherent cultural power without ever saying a word or doing a thing.
I am a middle-aged, well-educated, English-speaking, married, heterosexual, Christian, physically able, resident of the United States. I am also male – it’s not always about being the majority. Where I loose some inherent power is from being middle class and middle income. If, however, I live in a place or belong to a group in which I am more towards the higher class or higher income than others, I get some of those power points back.
Power is also something that people who lack it also understand very well. People without power, or those who don’t think they have enough, will try very hard to get power – many times, unfortunately, in some not so socially acceptable or healthy ways. The desire for power – whether we have a lot of it or not much at all – is a desire that results in a great many temptations. When people give in to those temptations, things get ugly – whether it’s a poor, urban kid selling drugs, engaging in prostitution or robbing people in the hope of getting rich – or a rich, businessperson embezzling funds or treating low-wage workers like slaves – the misguided desire for power is ugly either way.
Of course, we tend to judge people who give in to this temptation differently – many times based on how much inherent power they already have.
Despite the misguided expectations of the followers and crowds, Jesus didn’t set self-interest above the interests of others – all were equal. Jesus didn’t value someone else’s judgment of worth – but recognized the inherent worth of each and every person. Jesus didn’t use power directly – Jesus shared power. Jesus gave the power he had to be used by those who had none.
In all of this there is a message for the church – the followers of Jesus Christ – about how we are to be in the world. Do you see a correlation?