Once again the devil took him to a very high mountain, and from there showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their magnificence. “Everything there I will give you,” he said to him, “if you will fall down and worship me.”
“Away with you, Satan!” replied Jesus, “the scripture says, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve’.” Then the devil let him alone, and the angels came to him and took care of him.
Matthew 4:8-11 (JB Phillips)
So, Satan had tried tempting Jesus to base His ministry, and by His example the ministry of the renewed people of God, on the two classical appeasement strategies of the ancient world; bread and circuses. The meeting of people’s basic needs of life and the amusement of their social interests.
We saw in the French revolution and in many popular uprisings before and since, that if you can satisfy the crowd’s needs then you have their power at their disposal. Naturally this only works if you are in a regime that has stripped the people of the means of providing the basic food and shelter of life, but whether you look at eighteenth century France, first century Palestine or many parts of the twenty-first century’s global south, you can see the appeal of this route to power. It would have been so easy, with 5,000 well fed people at his back to march on Jerusalem, which may have been held by as little as 600 Roman legionnaires. Jesus resisted this temptation to use meeting people’s physical needs as a means of securing their allegiance.
We see, too, in the modern celebrity culture of music, film, sport, business and politics, and just as much in the idolatrous honours system of ancient Rome, that you can control the minds of the population through spectacle, amusement and trivial distraction. And the more spectacular the bigger the draw…
But Jesus wasn’t drawn by the temptation of providing bread and circuses and nor should we.
Obviously it is a good thing to meet people’s needs. To give food to the hungry, shelter and clothing to the homeless, company to the lonely, to be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate… But the temptation is to use that provision to coerce a reaction, to hold captive an audience to our well meant Gospel message, to create a loyalty of dependency.
Obviously it is a good thing to minister healing, deliverance, blessings, sacraments to people and we should earnestly seek to be used by the Spirit of God to bless and to heal and to minister and to make manifest the sacrificial presence of God at all times and places… But the temptation is to use the wonders, not as a sign pointing to the One who is the ever living priest of the whole world but as a pointer to our own programmes, ministries and churches.
Jesus said no, and so do we.
So how could Satan pull Jesus away from his Messianic vocation, and us away from our priestly vocation as the renewed people of God?
According to Matthew, Satan, the principality of this world, the power that stands behind all of the powers that be, played his Ace card. “You could run all of this Jesus.” You could have the power. More power than Alexander the Great, more power than Augustus Caesar, more power than King David, more power than Herod, Pilate and the whole establishment of lackeys, cronies and hangers on.
Of course there’s a catch. You don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and you don’t build an empire without breaking a few heads along the way. If you want to concentrate this much power in the hands of a few then someone’s gonna bleed.
It is a price worth paying say the Kings and CEOs, it’s the only inevitable way of the world say the Presidents and Generals, its for the greater good says Satan and the media barons. And what does Jesus say?
Away with you Satan.
Jesus identifies the temptation to use power, with its inevitable violence, as the temptation of Satan, the spiritual identity behind all the powers that be. The true face behind the celebrated image of Alexander, Augustus or Herod.
In the words of Brian Zahnd, whose reflection inspired me on this passage, “Jesus realises that there is no such thing as “good violence” and “bad violence”, there is only violence and that comes from the devil. To use violence for the sake of good is to bow down before Satan. Jesus would not worship Satan, even to do good.” The ends do not justify the means, although Satan’s words are gentle on the ears and coax us into thinking that.
And so Jesus, God’s rightful King of the world, is executed by some middle ranking provincial official, in a dusty backwater of Empire. In doing so Jesus demonstrated the true power of God as what Caputo calls a “weak force” in the world. A force of love from below, not power from above. The power of the cross overcomes a world which is beholden to the power of the sword, the bond markets and the law.
And so Jesus resisted Satan, which led inevitably to the cross. And the church? The church has fared less well over the centuries in resisting the Satanic temptations to create social justice programmes which turn human beings into mere animals, in resisting the Satanic temptations to sensationally market the gospel like a wonder product, or circus spectacle, or ally itself to the violence based powers of the world, as if by association it could achieve the redemption of Satan without the corruption of its own soul.
And as for us. We are tempted in every way like Jesus. We are tempted to use the resources we have to coerce or curry favour rather than to bless without any hope of return. We are tempted to do things for show and spectacle rather than merely for their own sake. We too are tempted into the system of honour and power, which greatly rewards its loyal subjects and renders the illusion of goodness and justice.
Jesus, help us to resist the temptations of the Evil one. We cannot do it without each other and without your Spirit, so inspire us today, in your name. Amen.