As the story unfolds, Jesus is arrested and thrown into the dungeon. The Grand Inquisitor comes and lectures him on the terrible mistake of giving human beings freedom. He tells Jesus he has misunderstood human nature. By giving us freedom he has only added to our misery. It is not freedom we want. It is bread, security. “In the end,” the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, “they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’ “
What if Jesus were to return, not to Seville in the 16th century, but to America in 2005? What temptations would he face? What temptations does his church continue to face?
As Matthew tells it, the first temptation is for Jesus to use power for his own sake, to satisfy his own hunger, to ensure his own comfort and security. With a word from Israel’s time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus resists the Devil’s first offer. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
A second temptation comes on the heels of the first. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “the spiritual temptation.” Use your imagination–the Devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and invites him to put God to the test. “You say we to live by every word of God. Fine, let’s see if you do. Jump! “ Then Satan fortifies his temptation with Bible passages. “God will give his angels charge of you’” and “on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” The Devil can quote Scripture with the best of us. That may be his favorite weapon–to use the word of God to separate people from the purposes of God, a temptation we Presbyterians know well. Jesus refuses to play the Tempter’s game. True faith does not put God to the test.
Then comes a third and final temptation. Matthew sets it last to emphasize its allure. This time there are no quotes from Scripture, no pleasantries. “Now,” says Bonhoeffer, “the Devil fights with his own weapons.” He invites Jesus into an alliance of power. He says in effect, “Jesus, can’t you see how hungry people are for someone to take charge, to destroy their enemies, and get the economy going again? People are hungrier for a Power Messiah than for bread or miracle. Give them what they want! Religion and power wed! Piety and politics marching arm in arm.”
But Jesus does not debate the matter. “Be gone, Satan!” he replies sharply. “For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ” The political temptation is rejected as the idolatry it is. The Devil retires to the sidelines, and Matthew says, “Behold, angels came and ministered to Jesus.”
But who won the “war in the wilderness”? Richard Luecke says, “Jesus walked off the field to a cross while the Tempter has enjoyed many a field day ever since.” But the story does not end with verse 11. Dostoyevsky was right. In these three temptations “the whole subsequent history of mankind is foretold.” The story of the temptation of Jesus leads on to the story of the temptation of the Church and of us, as well. The age-old lure of using the Devil’s means to accomplish God’s ends is still the deepest issue we face in every decision we make. “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” (T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral) Martin Luther was right: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing… And He must win the battle.”
Allen C. McSween is pastor of Fourth Church in Greenville, S.C.
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