Once again, this just comes from me reading the Gospels and thinking a bit about them, and reading a bit from things like the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Finally, some of you may know I’m very interested in preaching. The Bible is fertile ground for thinking about that, and that’s one thing I do know a bit about.
Mark doesn’t say much about the temptations, he just says, Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke and Matthew repeat a tradition about three temptations, and Jesus answers them by quoting from Deuteronomy(!). Luke, who seems driven by logic in his presentation, rather than some sort of strictly historic narrative, puts this story at the beginning, perhaps because he is more interested in the Church, writing as he does from a later perspective.
The message of Jesus in the later Gospel narrative is that the Kingdom is here. People around him know about kingdoms, they have been the subjected to kings for time out of mind. The first temptation is this: if Jesus is really the king, or the anointed representative of the king in some sense, then he should turn stones to bread. This I think suggests a political message for Jesus, and it resonates with the usual things we hear at election time: if you elect me, taxes will go down, everyone will have a chicken in their pot. Of course, Jesus does deal in bread at some point. The Gospels note miracle(s) of loaves. John who is very different from the others is the only one who gives us a little lived religion there. He tells us how people react to this. The congregation comes back the next day and says, hey that was great. Let’s do more. Jesus sees this as twisting the message. He’s blessing the hungry. It’s not like Galilee was suffering a famine at the time.
There’s an issue here about the place of God in society, particularly in the first world. This is the problem of the outcasts of the Zoramites. They are humbled and therefore in the story, receptive to the preaching of the gifts God has for them. In the first world, God is often a kind of sidebar to the blog of life. A convenient background which plays little role in our present lives. If there isn’t a God, then there’s still insurance, social security, a pension, bonus, etc. This works out fine until death happens or we get close to death ourselves. The first world invades the moment of death of course, but the inner self doesn’t care much about the convenience of death. The stark boundary it represents almost always propagates (expressed or not) doubt. In the midst of a possible fatal circumstance, we usually become very concerned if there is anything else. In this sense, the first temptation represents a kind of deep challenge to Jesus preaching the kingdom. Temptation: if you want to help the poor, give them bread, everyone will venerate you.
Luke then has Satan suggest that if you want your message to be broadcast, jump off the temple and show that you can’t die. This will attract the world to you personally. Jesus the Superhero. Then finally, Satan offers to make Jesus the king of the world. Jesus’ message is an awkward one. The most valued is the one who is servant to everyone. This was a terrifying message. It’s the opposite of the common conception of kingdom. Jesus’ brothers tell him to quit messing around in the backwoods of Galilee doing miracles. Go up to Jerusalem and show this stuff where everyone can see it. Embedded here is I think, the notion of prosperity gospel. Becoming part of the kingdom means you’ll live a more comfortable happier life, your business will be more successful, and be admired, if just within yourself, for your enabled generosity perhaps, or your beautiful residence, or something else (it’s never ourselves that suffer such things to be of course). I suspect that this is exactly what people wanted, and want, out of the proclamation of the kingdom of God. The danger for Jesus and those he ministered to, and us, is to make the kingdom what we want, not what God wants. I think this is why Luke and Matthew include the story, and put it first in a way. Maybe.
Now the devil leaves him after Jesus answers the temptations, but it’s clearly not a capitulation. He waits for a much more vulnerable time. The next time Luke mentions Satan himself is with Judas, and the awful darkness and temptation of Gethsemane. Failing to pervert the kingdom, at least in Jesus’ message, he will kill the king. The temptation is for Jesus to avoid the bitter cup of suffering to death. It’s interesting that the other Evangelists have angels coming to Jesus before Gethsemane. But only Luke has the angel come to the garden, in the middle of this temptation. This seems to show even Jesus, that the kingdom won’t come in power.