If we were to reduce Jesus’ three wilderness temptations to one-liners, we might say that the first temptation is the temptation of need . . . the second, the temptation of surrender . . . and the third, the temptation of power.
The temptation of need is the temptation to turn away from or to blame God for our lack, our problems, our needs. This is the temptation which says essentially: God won’t help you, so you better help yourself any way you can. The second temptation says: This is too much for you. Just give in. Quit. It doesn’t matter what you do – God will save you anyway. The third and final and perhaps most seductive temptation of all is essentially this: Imagine what you could do if you were in charge!
Consider this temptation as told in Matthew 4.9-10 from The Message:
For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.” Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy:“Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.” The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels!Satan is claiming to be able to bestow everything in creation to whomever he chooses. Remember that the real meaning of Satan’s name is The Liar. From humanity’s first encounter with this figure in the Garden until the end of time, The Adversary’s claims are lies. The earth is not his to give. Bowing down to him doesn’t get you the world; it gets you kicked out of the Garden.
The next thing to consider is what is being asked of Jesus. The NRSV and The Message, as well as most other translations in English say Jesus is being asked to worship, the inference being that Jesus is being asked to worship Satan and not God. In the Greek, it’s a bit more subtle than that.
The literal translation reads something like this: Again he is saying to him, “All these I shall give to you if ever you should fall prostrate before me.”
To fall prostrate or to bow before can be an act of worship. But it is also, especially in Jesus’ world, an act of recognition of someone’s superior status to you. Recognizing someone’s superiority doesn’t necessarily make of them a god. But it does recognize their power. And this temptation is all about power and status, about the things that get so much attention and importance in this world. Thus it bears remembering that immediately after this encounter is when Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Mount with the beatitude blessings upon the the societal nobodies.
The Adversary offers Jesus all the power of the world if only he will recognize The Adversary’s own claims to power, to which Jesus says, no thanks.
Literally what he says is, Then Jesus is saying to him, “Be under [your] leading, Satan? It has been written, “For God, your master, you shall be prostrate before and to him only shall you be offering service.”
In telling The Adversary to go away, in rejecting this third temptation, Jesus is saying two things: (1) the world isn’t yours to give; and (2) even if it were, none of that can compare to the worship of God, the serving of God, to God’s very self.
What might we learn from Jesus’ encounter in the desert wilderness? What might be our take--aways when it comes to this third temptation?
It’s doubtful that any of us are going to be offered the ability to control the whole world any time soon. So what are the temptations to power in our lives?
Perhaps they’re the temptations of the every-day . . . the things we don’t even think of as being related to power at all. . . things we bow down to without giving it much thought . . . things like our schedules . . . our agendas . . . our desires . . . our vision of how things ought to be. . .
And we have lots of power or power-potential, whether we think so or not . . . all of us . . . we have power in our relationships with other people – our children, our spouses, our family and friends . . . we have power in how we spend our money . . . we have power in how we spend our time . . . if nothing else, it is the power to choose – and as Jesus points out, the power to choose is to be about the worship and service of God – always.
So perhaps some questions we might ask ourselves during this lenten time of reflection might include:
1. How do I react when I don’t get my way? Do I recognize that I’m not the only person involved and that others might see things differently? Or do I get mad? Judge the other person? Withdraw my support? Undermine the others by complaining?
2. Have I ever agreed with an opponent about anything? Or do I always see my opponents as wrong simply because they are my opponents?
3. When I choose to buy something, do I think about whether this buying will glorify God? Does the question seem silly? What might I do differently with my money if I thought about it in those terms?
4. When someone asks you to do something, do you think about whether the doing is in service to God? Do you pray about it? Or do you just answer based on what you think or feel at the moment?
What Jesus faced was a time of trial. And what times of trial do is winnow away the unimportant, reducing life down to the things that matter, which makes the matter of choosing much simpler than in the day-to-day of life.
In the day-to-day of things, perhaps we might do well to recall the parting words of Joshua: Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you gotta serve somebody – the question is who.