Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
-from Matthew 4
On this date, two thousand and sixty years ago, Julius Caesar was assassinated. As a good pacifist, of course, I’m obliged to tell you that all killing is inherently wrong. As an occasional student of history, though, I have to also note that Caesar’s knife-wielding friends make a pretty sympathetic case.
At the end of the Gallic Wars, Caesar possessed unparalleled military power. According to Roman law and custom, he was required to disband his army before coming back to Rome. In 49 B.C., though, Caesar decided that neither law nor custom applied to him anymore, and crossed the Rubicon with his army intact.
Caesar came out on top, in the resulting civil war. He immediately set about on the illustrious path of bureaucratic reforms- issuing a census, engaging in debt restructuring, and instituting a new calendar with 365.25 days per year. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to acquire more and more political power.
The Roman Senate eventually grew tired of being ignored, so they started making assassination plans. On March 15th – the Ides of March – in a special session of the Senate, they gathered around and stabbed him to death.
So, happy anniversary to the death of Julius Caesar! We can come up with appropriate toasts when we gather for fellowship after the service.
I was thinking about Caesar’s quest for power, this week, while studying today’s Scripture passage. See, right after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Spirit led him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil– and Jesus, obviously, has a very different response to the devil’s temptations than Caesar would have had.
So, Jesus spends forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness. Then, the tempter arrives.
Hero stories have an expected narrative, right? There’s the magical or prophesied or ominous birth- like when the god Zeus became interested in a mortal woman, and Hercules was born. There’s an early escape from danger- perhaps one that would leave a lightning shaped scar on a forehead. There a public acclamation of some sort that kicks off the character’s career as a public hero- as tends to happen when a nobody pulls a sword out of a stone.
And then, there is the temptation. In whatever way necessary, the universe aligns such that the hero is given the chance to trade in all their moral credibility in exchange for something that they really, really want.
This is Jesus’ temptation day. He’s out in the wilderness, and he’s hungry from the fasting. I’ve certainly never tried such an extreme fast (and I don’t recommend it), but when people share their experiences of fasting, they tend to describe a sense of focus. Something about the hunger drives them to focus on what’s really most important.
Jesus is hungry, and Jesus is focused, and that’s the moment at which the devil catches Jesus in the wilderness.
The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
That’s a pretty good first shot, if you’re looking to tempt a person who hasn’t eaten in forty days, right?
This is about more than just food, though. It’s actually two temptations in one. The first is summed up in the very first word, in a word that also burrows it’s tempting sound into our hearts as well: if.
If you are the Son of God…
In the previous chapter, here in the Gospel of Matthew, the skies were opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from heaven said This is my Son. So you’d think that the sonship question would be non-negotiable. And yet, there’s that little word of doubt: if.
If you are the Son of God, then remember that you do not need to be hungry. If you are the Son of God, then remember that you possess control over all of creation. If you are the Son of God, then quit moping around in the desert! Say the words, and a four-star falafel joint will appear right over next to that pile of rocks.
If. Sure, the voice from heaven told you who you are, but it’s been forty days, and you’re hungry, and can you really remember that?
Throughout this story, Jesus is tempted to forget who he actually is. He’s tempted to forget who he was created to be.
So. That’s the first temptation. Here’s the second: tell these stones to become bread.
Julius Caesar, returning from the wars in modern-day France with his army unbroken, wanted to acquire power for himself without causing unrest among the masses. He did so by making sure that the targets of his oppression had everything they needed. He opened up the grain houses.
That’s what this temptation is about. We’ve seen, at this point, Jesus’ angel-attended birth, his miraculous escape as a toddler from Herod, and his public salutation as the Son of God. Now we’re at the time of trial, where we find out whether or not our would-be hero will take the easy way to the top.
The devil, here, is merely pointing out the obvious: Jesus could be an influential religious leader, if he would just give the people what they want.
The problem here isn’t with the bread. Later on, faced with a hungry crowd, two fish, and five loaves of bread, Jesus will have no problem with supernaturally making enough food for everyone. What’s more, as the church begins to take form, among the first norms to develop are sharing goods in common and caring for the material needs of the marginalized. Giving away bread isn’t the issue here.
The problem is power. Jesus rejects this temptation, not because he isn’t hungry, and not because the world isn’t hungry, but because true leadership isn’t a matter of pandering. True leadership doesn’t make everyone happy all of the time.
Jesus knows this, and so he isn’t willing to turn stones into bread in order to create a following for himself. He isn’t going to buy his way into leadership, even with unlimited resources at his disposal.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
This seems like a solid way to garner a following, right? Demonstrate that you are supernaturally powerful. Demonstrate that no matter what silly and dangerous thing you choose to do, God will protect you. Go to a crowded area, attract a lot of attention, do something phenomenally stupid, survive, reap the rewards.
The devil doesn’t suggest just any tall building, though. This isn’t the equivalent of saying go jump off the observation deck at the Empire State Building. It’s the temple- the nexus of religious and political life in Jerusalem. The temple is where the power of God is found, where forgiveness of sins is found. The temple is the domain of the priests, and the priests are working hand in glove with the occupying army, so it’s also where the power of Caesar is found.
So, go do this incredibly reckless thing – jump off a roof with no parachute – and do it where none of the powerful leaders of your people can miss it. Demonstrate that you are more powerful than the temple itself.
Here, again, we’re looking at the difference between actual leadership and a fake version. The devil suggests that Jesus should simply force everyone to pay attention to him. Get that attention by any means necessary, right? Any press is good press, right?
Jesus does get to the temple, eventually. When he gets there, he knocks over the moneychangers’ tables and chases out those who are taking advantage of other people. He’s not afraid to upset the temple system.
He refuses to come to power, though, by showcasing his abilities for those who are in the natural position to judge. Jesus doesn’t start his ministry by dramatically reaching out to the well-placed. He starts it by bringing healing and hope to the forgotten poor.
So. That’s the third temptation. Here’s the fourth:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Imagine this. You’re standing on the peak of a mountain. You can spin on this peak, three hundred and sixty degrees. From it, you can see all the kingdoms of the world.
All of this could be yours. What would you give, for that to be true?
Ok, for me, I try to imagine this – all the kingdoms of the world could be mine! – and I can’t really drum up any attraction to the idea at all. It just sounds horrific. I could start off my morning by appointing judges to the high court in Kingdom A, and then move on to sorting out issues of inheritance in Kingdom B, and then run a lunch meeting on aqueduct issues in Kingdom C, and by mid-afternoon I’d be fantasizing about starving in the desert just to avoid all these meetings.
Maybe you’re like me, on that point. Maybe you’re in charge of plenty of things, at the moment, thank-you-very-much, and don’t fancy the idea of having more added to your plate.
Tweak the question ever so slightly, though. What if you could have power over all that you see?
Because, sure: no normal person would want to be the supreme lord of America and Canada and Mexico and all the nations of the Caribbean at the same time. Maybe a messiah would want that job. I certainly don’t.
Would I like to be the lord of all I can see, though? Would I like to have the final say over how things go in my family, and with my friends, and in my professional relationships, and so on?
My mouth will tell you no. My actions will tell you a somewhat more confusing story. I do not think I am alone on this.
So. Here’s an odd thought: if we were to take our contemporary moralizing about sin seriously, we would expect the devil to show up and tempt Jesus with illicit sex, weed, and some sinfully delicious chocolate cake.
That’s not what the devil does, though. The devil’s strategy doesn’t line up with our popular conceptions about sin. Given three opportunities to take a whack at Jesus, the devil tries more or less the same thing each time: power, power, power.
Use your power over the natural world to gain power over the gullible poor. Use your power over the angels to gain power over the religious elite. Use your power to chose what you will worship to gain power over the kingdoms of the world. And, in that pursuit of power and more power yet, learn to forget who you were called to be.
There’s a truth, in this story, about what it means to be human. Part of it is unpalatable: humans seem to be wired to seek out power over one another. If you want to tempt us way down in the very core of who we are, you start with some variation on you could have more control. You could have power over that situation. You could have power over that person. You could be the one in charge.
Here’s the good news, though: Jesus turned these temptations down. Jesus chose not to exercise power over people. Which means that as we are made new, as we begin to look less like Julius Caesar and more and more like Jesus the Christ, we, too, can learn to lay our power down.
In our own lives, we face all of these temptations. We’re tempted to forget who we are called to be. We’re tempted to become people pleasers, running ragged trying to give everyone what they want. We’re tempted to throw on a mix of bravado and machismo and try to bully our way through. We’re tempted to bargain away the core of what we know to be good and true, in exchange for just a tiny bit more power.
This week, when you hear that insidious voice encouraging you to seek control over other people, how will you respond?