Lent 1(A): Isn’t There an Easier Way?
By: Ryan Young
I tend to avoid teaching on stories in which the devil is a main character because his character tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the room; the devil is all anyone wants to talk about, and more often than not, those discussions quickly spiral out of control. Ask anyone who is in or has recently been through the ordination process of the United Methodist Church about “Theology & Doctrine question #2” and watch them take a deep, uncomfortable breath. As a ministry candidate and a member of a theology and doctrine peer group I have witnessed the second question, “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in the world?” trip up more people than any other. It is unique in its ability to give ministerial candidates nightmares. It has an amazing ability to get candidates lost in the weeds of their own thought and can quickly give way to the despair and existential dread that comes with questioning the theological education that they are almost surely still in debt for. Biblical literalists will almost certainly back themselves into the corner of dualism by trying to use the devil to explain evil, and more theologically progressive candidates will often be taken to task for their lack of thought on supernatural evil.
However, I like this scripture because I think it speaks to an extremely human problem. I don’t mean the problem of temptation, although that is certainly in this pericope and has been written about extensively; what I see when I read this story is the inexhaustible desire to know why things are the way they are. I particularly enjoy the way that Tennyson writes about this desire in ‘Ulysses,’
“…And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
But if poetry isn’t your bailiwick, spend an afternoon with a parent of a kindergartner. They will ask “why” more in a single afternoon than you have asked in the past year. As a friend of mine recently said of his child, “I am extremely happy that she wants to learn everything about everything; I just wish she didn’t want to learn it from me!”
The scripture in focus is uniquely situated for the “why” question as it takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Directly after Jesus is baptized and the Spirit descends upon him, claiming him as God’s beloved Son, that same Spirit leads him into the wilderness to face three temptations. The questions that these temptations bring up speak a great deal to Jesus’ commitment to God’s purposes and perhaps a little to our own desires for an easier way.
In the first temptation, the tempter asks Jesus to turn stones to bread. As the preceding verse had noted Jesus’ hunger after his forty day fast, it would seem that the temptation is to use his miraculous power to feed himself. However, I’m not sure that this is the case. In 14:13-21 and 15:29-39 we have two stories in which Christ performs feeding miracles for five and four thousand people, and in a story that is even more odd, 21:18-22 tells about Jesus using his power to curse a fig tree that didn’t provide him with anything to eat. The argument which I find convincing centers around Matthew’s rendering the singular “loaf” present in Luke to “loaves.” Thus, Jesus was being tempted to live into his messianic calling, not by merely feeding himself, but by using his power to alleviate the hunger of the whole world. And why wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t ending hunger have instantly signaled his identity to the world?
In the second temptation, Jesus is taken to the busiest section of Jerusalem and asked to throw himself off so that the crowds could witness the angels serve him. To me, this is the most compelling temptation. It is not as if angels hadn’t protected Jesus before as his family fled from Herod the Great’s genocide to Egypt, moreover the angels would come and tend to his needs in verse 11. So why couldn’t Jesus use his position over them to make people see that he was indeed the messiah? Why wouldn’t Jesus want the most exposure and notoriety possible to spread his message? Wouldn’t it make sense: the more eyes that were on the Son of God the better?
The third temptation is the most obviously dubious. Jesus is offered control of all the kingdoms of the world, to bring about his kingdom immediately by becoming an earthly ruler. However, to gain this he would have to accept evil’s reign over the world and abandon the true God. Jesus’ rebuke to the tempter, “Away from me, Satan!” is echoed later in his ministry (16:21-28) as he rebukes Peter who is horrified at Jesus’ foretelling of his own death and forbids him from continuing on that path. Thus here we begin to see the “why” questions that were more obvious in the other temptations. Why did God choose to bring about the redemption of the world in this way? Surely there were more efficacious ways? Why did Jesus’ ministry end in suffering, death, and resurrection?
I find the temptation narrative to be one of the most human in the Bible, as it speaks to the universal questions about why things are the way that they are. When I was growing up, one of my mother’s favorite films was the 1973 masterpiece, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” During the crucifixion scene at the film’s conclusion, Jesus has a vision of Judas, played by Carl Anderson, who descends from heaven looking resplendent in angelic disco attire, complete with white fringe wings, to question Jesus’ motives and actions during his ministry. He sings,
“Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.
Now why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation,
Israel in four BC had no mass communication.”
Perhaps Jesus didn’t miraculously end hunger because that is the calling of his followers—Matthew 25:35-40 seems pretty clear on that. Perhaps Jesus didn’t perform amazing death-defying miracles because his ministry was not a spectator sport, but a deeply relational invitation to something meaningful. Perhaps Jesus didn’t become an earthly ruler because you cannot legislate the Kingdom of God into existence. The temptation narrative brings up questions that I can only guess at. What it does make abundantly clear is that Jesus calls us into something that is both incredibly meaningful and incredibly difficult. There is no via expedius; and may God be praised for that.
Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael and their dog Zooey.