We live in a world of systems. From government, healthcare and education to technology, groceries and minor sports, it seems like our entire world is based upon and functions within some sort of system. In fact it does.
Whether we like it or not, our morning routines, work, recreational and social lives employ and align with micro and macro systems that are based on a set of specific rules, criteria and information that we have either embraced or deemed to be positive and beneficial to our lives. We often don’t eve give it a second thought. We just go with the flow and accept what status quo says is status quo.
Now this is not a negative thing, and in fact it is probably impossible for human beings to not operate within a social system or a connected network of some sort. As social beings we rely on accepted practices and norms to help us establish culture and function within in. But what if the very ‘systems’ that operate in the world and are used as foundational aspects to society and culture are broken? Worse, what if the system itself is actually evil?
Ok, now allow me to say right from the beginning that I can feel and sense your nervousness and tension about a statement suggesting that ‘the system is evil’. Statements like can unfortunately lead people into thinking that there needs to be a demonstration on Parliament Hill or a fist shaken at the powers that be. I am not suggesting anything of the sorts, nor have I ever participated in such a thing. But I am suggesting that the Bible helps me understand that we need to discern the economic, political and religious systems that are operating in the world today.
One of the fascinating scenes from the New Testament is the cosmic showdown between Jesus and the Devil in the wilderness. From Luke’s gospel we are told that Jesus (led by the Spirit), enters the wilderness for a period of forty days. But this is not some sort of rugged overland trip or adventurous journey into the outback. Jesus is going there without any supplies in order to be tested from the very source of all things diabolical: the devil.
Luke tells us that Satan indeed shows up and begins to tempt with a series of probing questions. Much has been made of this encounter over the years and many words have been inked in commentaries telling us the meanings associated with this trio of temptations. In a sense, I too am adding to the plethora of comments and opinions. But here is where I am going with this. When looking at the three temptations that Jesus faced, we are seeing a clash of two kingdoms: one that is potentially based upon the socio-economic, political and religious systems of the world, and another that is based on the Kingdom of God.
- The Bread of Economy: “If you are the Son of God tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3)
Biblical commentators over the years have pointed out that the gospel writers emphasize the fact that Jesus seems to overturn the socially defined constructs of the first-century world and culture. It is true that the gospel writers show Jesus not aligning with the commonly understood cultural code and social norms, but Luke however highlights Jesus’ association and time spent with the poor, marginalized and outcasts of society more than what Matthew and Mark do. You could say that Luke pays more attention to the Mediterranean socially constructed social system more than others.
In that system, ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ were ancient socially constructed terms used to classify humanity based upon their economic situation in society. The ‘poor’ had become accustomed to living on the fringes of society because the ‘rich’ have used their resources to solidify their upper position. In the dog-eat-dog world of the Roman Empire, the rich and powerful were all that mattered.
If that is true, then Jesus’ rejection to make magic food in the wilderness could be seen as a commitment to remain in a lifestyle of poverty and continuing to keep Himself aligned with the poor. Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee after-all. If Jesus did make delicious bread from those dusty rocks, His actions could have been understood socially.
If Jesus did miraculously provide bread in the desert, He would have used His divinity to elevate His social status from the majority of those living within the poverty stricken region of Nazareth. Seriously, who else is able to turn rocks into wilderness wonder-bread when hunger pains hit? In other words, Jesus would have been using the power of the Spirit to potentially not only meet His physical needs, but to also adjust and possibly elevate His social status among the poor.
2. The Power of Politics: “I will give You their splendour and all this authority; because it has been given over to me, and I can give it to anyone I want. If You, then will worship me, all will be Yours” (4:6-7)
Contrasting the mundane offer of bread, Jesus is instantly given a vision of promised absolute, earthly power. The devil instantly is able to show Jesus all of the inhabited kingdoms of the earth and claims to have the ability to offer them to Jesus.
Much has been made of the fact that Jesus did not dispute the devil’s claim to offer up the kingdoms of the world. Some people believe that the devil had the right to make this claim and that Jesus has specifically come to win back all those kingdoms. However, it can also be noted that Jesus did not affirm the devil’s offer either. It could be argued that such a claim was not even worthy of an answer. In addition, the devil is Biblically portrayed to be a liar. Regardless, the central issue here is the devil’s attempt to displace God as Jesus’ benefactor.
Notice in this back and forth conversation that the devil makes five references to himself, three to Jesus and none to God. It all seems to point to and highlight that the devil is seeking to extract a great price from Jesus: His allegiance. This matters big time. In other words, who will Jesus trust or look to in order to receive His kingdom?
It was well known in the Ancient world that Caesar was proclaimed as ‘god’ and was deemed to have an everlasting empire. Luke seems to pick on this and suggest that an absolute, earthly power looks like a diabolical claim and quest. If this is true, then perhaps the good news of God’s Kingdom is aimed at the poor for a reason. Also, the promise of God’s Kingdom seems to be given to those who are aware that their righteousness, consolation, reward and honor are found only in the love of God and the inclusive fabric of His Kingdom. In other words, the devil claims to have the ability to give Jesus total political authority and a powerful political kingdom. However, Jesus does not grasp the opportunity to gain this position of power by way of idolatrous worship since Father God is His benefactor.
3. The Spectacle of Religion: “So he took Him to Jerusalem, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here.” (4:9)
In this third and final temptation, the devil brings Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple where He is asked to make a spectacle of Himself in order to prove His divinity. If Jesus would fall to the ground, surely the angels of heaven would intervene and preserve His life. The devil is essentially asking Jesus to perform a self-centered act and use God’s power for His own ends. Had Jesus jumped, the sin would have been pride.
It’s been noted that temple worship was at an all-time low when the Son of God came to earth. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people were being extorted by the temple and its High Priest by forcing people to purchase sacrifices and not allowing them to bring their own. Jews who traveled from afar to Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices had to purchase their animals from the Temple in order to offer sacrifices within the Temple. It was a system of corruption. The priestly aristocracy had taken over and were charging exorbitant, monopolistic prices for these sacrificial animals. It was literally double duty exploitation of the greatest insult.
However, even worse was the fact that there were two High Priests in the Temple when there was only to be one. In the eyes of many people, the whole Temple system had become something opposite of its intended purpose, and essentially made it illegitimate because of its hierarchy. The temple had become a place of self-service to the religious leaders.
Jesus would have been following along the lines of other temple leaders who were using the building and system to selfishly serve their hierarchical needs and perverted purposes if He had thrown Himself down from its peak. Jesus will have no part of this spectacle.
In summary then, we could say that Jesus seems to resist these triple temptations and show a reluctance to use His power to elevate Himself socially, to gain power via diabolical authority, or to draw prideful attention to Himself via religion. In other words, it seems that Jesus holds fast to another way or alternate mode that seemingly dispenses with the economic, political and religious methods of this world.
So what is catch?
If the systems of the world are broken and maybe even diabolical, how then are we to live here on earth?
I guess that will be the subject matter of my next blog.
But perhaps you could ask yourself and consider what Jesus does seem to embrace, embody and enunciate for life here on earth.