Alone in the Wilderness – Part 3
In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the easy way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger. In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith. It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it. There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.
For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.
The Second Temptation
The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:
Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it. You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer. After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it? So think about this: You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish. You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia. Just imagine! The New Jerusalem! Heaven on earth! Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?
This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone. But then Jesus hears something to this effect:
Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans. Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board. And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here. I mean, Jesus, just look around! Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people! Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!
Jesus doesn’t fall for it. Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so he responds:
It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:
There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world. (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)
The Third Temptation
The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:
Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it! So come with me.
Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.
Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace, hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father. And no wonder! This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame. I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases. What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus? If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?
No. What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them. If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you. They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth. All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have. You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.
Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself! Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses! Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!
Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:
And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.
So, what do you say?
The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”
This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance. Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted. So how is it that Jesus feels tempted? If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission? If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God? This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine. The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….” It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself. If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple. In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.
But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him? Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish? Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity. Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate. Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer. Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience. Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship. It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send. In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.
Interesting point you raise Chuck about why Jesus would be tempted to throw himself off the temple; I must admit I never considered that before.
There are two ways one could interrupt Jesus’ answer to this; either he is not going to test his father, or Satan should not be testing him. Rather than tempting Jesus to prove to himself, or the people he is going to be ministering to, that he is the son of God, could Satan have been demanding that Jesus prove it to HIM before telling him to “get thee behind me”?
Of course, what you suggest could be the intended meaning of this scripture. but for me that doesn’t amount to much of a real temptation for Jesus, and if he isn’t really tempted then there is no point to the story for me. Also, I don’t really see Satan as a separate being standing in front of Jesus, but as that inner voice of temptation everyone knows all too well, a part of us that is always there. If Jesus doesn’t experience that voice, then to me he’s not human.
But, still, I could be way off in what this episode is meant to communicate. Thanks for raising other interesting possibilities, Ken. 🙂
Thanks for that excellent piece. I think it is sometimes helpful to state things in a less formal colloquial type of language in order to make a point.
I’m especially intrigued by the thought of how much Jesus actually realized of his divinity while he was earth bound. It’s a fascinating topic but pretty much speculation from my standpoint. In any case, in his temptations he seemed very much human like the rest of us.
I hear you on the speculation, brother! It seems to me that speculation is often necessary if we are to find possible meanings that speak to us more personally and directly.
I love the voice you give to Satan! Sad to say, we can truly relate to him.
Your thought-provoking and witty dialogue draws on what the people expected the Messiah to be: a warrior and wonder-worker. I hadn’t thought of the temptation this way before, but it makes very good sense that Jesus would have had to confront very real temptations to be the glorious Messiah desired not only by the people, but also, very likely, by Jesus himself.
Next, I appreciate your perspective on his doubt of his identity. This is an idea I have contemplated before, though not with your eloquence. I would agree that if Jesus had not had to face the doubt of his identity, then his “temptation” would have been an empty ritual.
But on this idea that he also had to face the temptation to be that glorious Warrior Miracle-working Messiah, hmmm . . . yeah. This also gets at the notion that he had to confront his ego. Which Messiah: the humble servant or the glorious Warrior hero would we each of us like to be? I think I’d choose the warrior hero. Hmmm . . .
Thank you for drawing this out,
Thanks for the kind words, Karina. Yeah, I think a lot of us would have preferred the Warrior King Messiah, and are still hoping for him to come in our lifetimes. I suspect if Jesus had taken that route, we wouldn’t remember him any better than we do the many militant zealot leaders exterminated by the Romans. And you make a great point that we are all faced with similar choices in our own lives, and that it’s usually the ego and the voice of temptation that urges us to forsake the path of peace, compassion, kindness, sacrifice, giving, trust and forgiveness.
[…] Meditations on being present with Jesus in this way have influenced some of my posts on this blog, including this series: Alone in the Wilderness, parts 1, 2, and 3. […]
[…] to reach out to me in the meantime, and I’m grateful for the kindness. I left off with Part Three of “Alone in the Wilderness”, intending to write a concluding Part Four, but ran squarely into a good case of writer’s […]