A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Temptation of Jesus: The Ends Do Not Justify the Means

Luke 4:1-13

Before Jesus begins his ministry, he is tempted in the wilderness by Satan. It is important to note that even before Jesus has started preaching and teaching and healing, even before he's affirmed anything about what he believes, Jesus is first known by what he opposes, by what he renounces.

The first test that Satan offers Jesus is the gift of bread. After forty-days, he is hungry. Bread is a good gift from God. Anthropologists tell us that bread is the oldest food; that is, the first time human beings mixed ingredients together and added heat, bread was what they produced. The ancient rabbis said that bread was such a sacred gift from God that taking a knife to it was a sacrilege. Bread should not be sliced; it should be torn or broken.

So what is wrong with having some bread. If Jesus can turn the stones of the deadly wilderness into life-sustaining bread, why not? If we had the power to turn stones into bread we could feed the entire world. That's not a bad thing, is it?

And then the devil offers Jesus power. If Jesus will just give Satan appropriate homage, he can have all the power of the kingdoms of the world. (It shouldn't be missed that Satan is pulling the stings of the nations of the world.)

Why shouldn't Jesus take this temptation? This is JESUS we're talking about here. Think of what Jesus could do if he were ruling all the earthly nations? Surely, in Jesus' hands he would use such power for good. Is it not the case that most politically partisan Christians in the West, liberal and conservative, would take Satan up on his offer? After all, what's a little devil worship in exchange for the power to achieve one's righteous ends?

After his inability to tempt Jesus with bread and power, he now offers Jesus something that is really, really, good-- religion-- and it's not just any kind of religion; it's spiritual showbiz. Hey, Jesus, just jump off the pinnacle of the Temple down into the Kidron Valley and let the angels catch you so you float down as light as a feather landing softly to the amazement of the crowds. If you really want to get followers, you have to wow them, you have to be the Messianic Houdini people desire. Remember, when it comes to religion and spirituality the customer is always right. And after you wow them and get their attention, you then have to affirm, affirm, affirm them. Tell them that they are great just as they are-- an I'm OK, you're OK kind of religion. Wait! Forget the word "OK." That's not affirming enough. And while you're formulating the basic tenets of this non-transformational religion, forget all the sacrificial talk and the cross. People don't want Ash Wednesday; they want Fat Tuesday.

Satan offers to Jesus the three things we desire most--money, power, and religion-- and all too often they are sadly connected. We get more money so we can have power and we get more power so we can have money, and we use religion as an attempt to get both. One can certainly make the case that in right context all three of these things are good. And that's what makes temptation so appealing. In and of themselves, these things are not bad, but they have been used for much evil in human history. Sin is taking a good gift from God and perverting it for selfish ends. And for Jesus, avoiding such sin involved a one word answer-- "No!" Yes, it is true that Jesus quotes Scripture, and that's a good thing. Without the Scripture we cannot know what sin is. But we must not forget that the devil quotes Scripture too. Proof-texting is a dangerous thing, and the devil is as good at it as too many Christians.

The first thing we usually want to know about someone is what he or she believes. What they oppose is not as important, but here in Luke we discover first and foremost what Jesus rejects. And what he renounces is succeeding at his ministry by any means possible. Jesus is not a utilitarian. For Jesus, the ends do not justify the means. Sadly, for too many of Jesus' followers today, utilitarianism is used to justify righteous ends. Too often the church has made unholy alliances with the powers of wealth and politics and showbiz religion justifying it in the name of the good that will be achieved. And what sadly happens all too often is that violence, coercion, and manipulation are employed as justification to achieve the ends in view.

Let's be honest: there is something in Jesus that both repels and attracts us. We are frightened by Jesus who is offered everything we love, everything we want, all that we human beings give so much worth to-- worship-- and all that we give our lives for, and yet he refuses all of it. Indeed, he renounces it! At the same time we have to admit that there is something about him that also attracts us, even in his ability to renounce. And we, who are urged to follow Jesus by taking up our crosses daily following him, wonder what this means for us. It should not be surprising that the temptations Jesus faced are the same temptations we face today.

Lent is not only about what we affirm, but what we renounce as well.

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