Lent 1: Luke 4:1-13
March 10, 2019
Our Lenten theme this year is: Jesus from the Margins. This comes from the Justice Matters clergy conference I attended last month where our Bible studies were focused on “Reading from the Margins.” We’ll be exploring stories of Jesus from the gospel of Luke. Many of these stories will be familiar—like the one we heard this morning—but my hope is that we can view them from an unfamiliar angle—from the perspectives of people more likely to be on the margins of society than in its power center.
This type of biblical reading is often referred to as “liberation theology”—an approach to scripture that has certainly been around for a very long time, but was recognized and brought into more mainstream contexts in the mid-20th century through the work of Latin American Christians. The people in these “base communities” came together to read and interpret scripture, and the margin they existed within was primarily an economic margin. They looked at these stories from the perspective of people who were landless and poor.
As you might imagine, there are many streams of theology that look at scripture from various marginalized perspectives—feminist theology from women’s perspectives; womanist theology from the perspectives of women of color; queer theology; black theology; disability theology . . . Each of these perspectives can offer us a new glimpse into the Word of God, a fresh understanding of the work of Jesus in the world—the first century world and our world today. And the fact is that many of these perspectives bring us closer to the perspective that would have been held by Jesus’ earliest followers. (Show picture: one of the earliest known paintings of Jesus; dates from before the 6th Century; in the Coptic Museum in Egypt.)
So, reading from the margins.
This morning’s story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is often simplified into an encouragement for us to resist the temptations in our lives. Like, maybe, eating unhealthy foods or saying bad words. That’s what happens to this story when it is read from a perspective of privilege—it becomes about how Jesus can help us overcome temptations in our lives. And it’s not that resisting the temptation to do bad things—or eat bad things or say bad words—is a bad thing. It’s just that this story is about so much more.
Those on the margins will tell you pretty quickly that this is a story about power. The word often translated “if”—“If you are the son of God . . .”—is, according to many scholars, more aptly translated as “since”—“Since you are the son of God.” The question underlying these temptations is not whether or not Jesus is God’s son, but rather how Jesus will live out his identity as the son of God. How will Jesus use the power that is inherent in his identity?
Will he control the elements of nature—like the stones—in order to satisfy his personal desires—like getting food when he is hungry?
Will he compromise his principles to gain political power?
Will he use his power to manipulate God and elevate his own popularity?
Jesus answers “no” to all of these temptations, which sets him apart from many others who wield earthly power and use it in just these selfish ways—to satisfy personal desires, to gain even more power for themselves, to manipulate others and make themselves look important.
People in power may not even be aware of the ways they use their power, but those watching from the margins see it all too clearly.
Those on the margins will also tell you that this is a story about community. Which seems silly, because Jesus is all alone in the desert. But for first century Jews, the entire context brings to mind the Israelite’s wandering in the wilderness. Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days, while they were there for forty years. The scriptures Jesus quotes are references to that wilderness wandering. When the devil tempts Jesus to turn the stones to bread, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8, which, in a little larger context, reads: “[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus’ reply to the final temptation, is also from Deuteronomy, and also, in its larger context, about the Exodus community.” Even though Jesus is alone in the desert, the “you”s and “your”s in these passages he quotes are grammatically plural. Jesus does not resist temptation only for himself and his personal well-being; in resisting temptation, he is upholding the values of his community and positioning himself to lead that community with integrity.
And, finally, people on the margins will tell you that this most definitely is a story about empire. Raymond Pickett, the New Testament professor who led our Bible studies at the Justice Matters clergy conference, talked about how we can read the “Gospel of Luke as a counter-narrative against the backdrop of imperial society.” That is to say that in Luke, Jesus lives out the values of the Kingdom of God, which often stand in stark contrast to the values of the Roman empire.
Some have suggested that the devil in this particular story represents the empire—possibly even one particular emperor: Caligula. In his discussion of this text, biblical scholar N.H. Taylor highlights the historical context of Luke’s original readers.* Caligula was emperor and had threatened desecrations in the temple. Agrippa I was the king of the Palestinian territory, serving under Caligula. So Agrippa had the unfortunate position of needing to obey and appease the emperor without upsetting the primarily Jewish populace. The way Agrippa maneuvered this was to blame everything on the small, emerging sect of Jesus followers, thus leading to early persecution of Christians.
Taylor argues that in the story of the temptations, Jesus acts in stark contrast to Agrippa. This is most notable in the second temptation where the devil takes Jesus “up” and shows him the kingdoms of this world. The word for “kingdoms” used in Luke is different from the word used in the parallel story in Matthew’s Gospel. The word in Luke suggests the Roman Empire in particular. The devil claims to have been given authority over this realm—and it is notable that Jesus does not argue with that claim.
If Jesus wants to share in that power, all he has to do is worship the devil.
In the world of the first century, Caligula has been given authority over the realm of the Roman Empire. And all Agrippa has to do to share in that power is worship Caligula—to serve Caligula to a higher degree than he serves God and God’s people. As everyone reading or hearing this text in the first century would know, Agrippa is more than happy to concede to this temptation—to bow down to Caligula in exchange for political power.
But Jesus says “no” to the devil. Jesus is not willing to betray God to gain worldly power.
So, if any of you are giving up something for Lent—chocolate or Facebook or single-use plastics or whatever you have decided you want to let go of to have more space for God—if you are giving something up, may God bless your efforts. I believe that God is with you and the Holy Spirit empowers you to resist the temptations you will face.
I also believe that, particularly when we read from the margins, that’s not what this particular story is really about.
This story is about the difference between worldly power and Godly power; about how seductive worldly power can be—and how harmful. It is about the need to resist the power over models of this world and claim the power with model of God’s community.
And this story is a reminder to us that the power of empire has not changed much over the past two thousand years. It is still selfish and demanding of allegiance and manipulative.
May this story also be a reminder that the power of the Holy Spirit also hasn’t changed over the past two thousand years. That power is still with us in the wilderness–granting wisdom, courage, and comfort.
Thanks be to God.
*See: Taylor, N.H., “The Temptation of Jesus on the Mountain: A Palestinian Christian Polemic against Agrippa I,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2001.