When we think of people who we identity with I wonder how many of us think of Jesus. Maybe he is too perfect and humble for us, and I wonder if we would even have liked him if we had been able to meet him in person. While we admire many of his characteristics most of the time, they are not the characteristics that we pursue. We like to have autonomy, recognition and power, but how did Jesus handle the desires of these three characteristics?
When we look at Jesus’ story, we find out that yes, his birth was humble, as in poor. His mother was away from home when Jesus was born and Mary and Joseph had to flee for their lives when Jesus was still just a baby. But poor is not the same as powerless. By the time Jesus was ready to start his public debut, he spent forty days in the wilderness and there he met one of his adversaries. His adversary’s job was to see what Jesus was really all about, what kind of a character he was when things were not going well. He did it by putting Jesus to the tests of autonomy, recognition and power.
Someone asked me the other day if the tests that Jesus faced came at the end of the forty days or if they lasted the whole forty days he was in the desert. That is a very interesting question and one that we can make an assumption about if we read the gospels closely. In good literature the introduction of a story sets the stage for what is to come. The story of Jesus being tested is the same, it should prepare us for what is to follow. If, as I think this first story of Jesus’ testing sets the stage for the rest of his life, then it seems that the tests were ongoing and did not start nor end after the forty days. Rather, they changed into different forms of the same basic elements of autonomy, recognition and power.
We read the story as in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Here we are told that Jesus spent forty days in the desert being tested. As we read about the forty days in the desert, we should be thinking about the forty years Israel spent in the desert and failed in all their testing. At the end of Jesus’ forty days the tests were amplified by the devil coming and giving us some concrete examples of Jesus’ testing.
The devil took Jesus up a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. He told Jesus these would all be his if only he would bow down to the devil. In the gospels we read all about God’s kingdom which Jesus was bringing. So what is the difference between the kingdom that Jesus was bringing and the one that the devil offered Jesus? Jesus’ kingdom in many ways looks very weak. It is the place where the poor and humble are honoured. It is a place where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is a kingdom where Jesus died because he refused to raise an army and pick up a sword to fight his enemies. On the other hand, we can assume that the kingdoms of the world that the devil showed Jesus were kingdoms like the Roman empire of Jesus time. We know that the Roman empire became great by the use of the sword. It was built on what was best for the Romans. As long as the wealth of the world flowed to Rome the kingdom worked. Therefore, Roman rule had everything to do with wealth and power and autonomy. The Ultimate Weapon the Romans used to control the people they ruled was the cross. The cross was a warning for those who thought of rebelling against Rome. If they tried to rebel the cross was where they would end up.
For Jesus to have chosen the kingdoms of the world would have been to choose the way of autonomy. He would have been in charge and would have made all the rules. When Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom he was speaking of a kingdom where even Jesus did not do what he desired, but what God desired. What God wants is best for the whole world instead of what is only best for the elite ruling class. To choose God’s kingdom means submission in contrast to the elite of the world’s kingdoms who make rules that will only benefit themselves. Jesus came to serve instead of to be served and therefore he did not choose the kingdoms of this world. As Carey Nieuwhof says, “The heart of the Christian faith isn’t about satisfying yourself, it’s about dying to yourself.” If Jesus had chosen the kingdoms of this world, it would have given him the autonomy to do whatever he liked. He would have been his own boss but he would have lost, because the kingdoms of this world in the end are defeated by the one who died on a Roman cross. To choose the kingdoms of this world is to go back to the story of the garden of Eden where the snake asks, “did God really say that?”
We face this same temptation today. One example of this is, wearing masks. “If I have to wear a mask when I don’t want to I have lost my freedom, and nobody has the right to tell me what to do.” I get this. I don’t like people telling me what I can or cannot do. But if we use Jesus as an example then we will be more concerned about other people’s safety than what we see as our rights. This has been a struggle throughout all of human history. If we place ourselves in the garden beside the first man and woman, we too would have eaten of the forbidden fruit. We as humans like to be in charge of our own kingdom. Just watch a new born baby. When they are hungry or uncomfortable they will let us know what they think about that.
Another temptation Jesus faced was that of recognition or popularity. The devil took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and asked Jesus to throw himself down. If Jesus would have done this God would have rescued him and all the people would have seen Jesus for what he really was, the Messiah. Jesus would have had acceptance and recognition. This would have given him an instant in. His life would have been easy from there on. Jesus lived in an honour and shame culture. If Jesus had done this he would have been honoured everywhere he went, and that would have been his reward. Instead Jesus chose the opposite route. When Jesus healed people, he told them, “don’t tell anyone that I did this.” To tell other people what Jesus had done for them seems natural and right for us, but during Jesus time that would have been repayment for what had happened. The point is simple, what Jesus did he did freely and not for the reward it would bring.
We as humans like to be recognized for who we are. I like people to recognize the gifts that I have. I don’t think that is bad, but when the goal of my actions is to impress others with how gifted I am, then I am doing it for the wrong reason and I have missed the point of imitating Jesus who came to serve instead of being served.
The final temptation was the turning of stones into bread. At the end of forty days Jesus would have been very hungry and have needed food. For him it would have been a simple thing to turn stones into bread, but he didn’t do that. Again Jesus didn’t use power for his own end. Power used for a one’s own gain works against them in the end. If we look at the political systems that we live in they seem to favour the powerful ones, but that power in the end fails and someone else takes over.
When we look at Jesus, we see he had power and he used it. We see this in the works he did by giving bread to the five thousand who followed him into the desert. But Jesus did not use his power for his own gain. The natural human tendency is to use power for our own ends, but our calling is to use it for the greater calling of using it for others.
Right now in our story we can be a part of using the power we have been given to better the lives of those who have been oppressed for years by slavery and racism, or we can oppose the movements, by posting things on Social Media like: it had nothing to do with me, or all lives matter instead of Black Lives Matter (when it is people of colour who are being oppressed), or I worked hard for what I have, why didn’t others work as hard as I did? I am always disappointed when I read statements like this because I know that those people, like me have gained from what has happened in the past. I see those people as fearful of losing the power they have instead of using it to free those who are oppressed.
All three temptations that Jesus faced of autonomy, recognition and power are closely tied to each other and they are all temptations that we all face in our daily lives. The big question is how will we deal with them? It matters a great deal at this point because our actions in this time of pandemic, and social unrest have the potential to either better and save lives or hasten death and keep others in bondage.