Excerpt and reflection from Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action (1991):
It can be fairly said that discipleship is the topic of Lent. The liturgical road from Ash Wednesday leads straight to Passion-week Jerusalem. To enter wholeheartedly into the season costs more than tag along admiration from the margins of a multitude. A call and a choice are put point blank: take up your cross and follow.
Lent was first and still remains a season of baptismal preparation. Before the church year took shape there was only the unitive feast of Easter which went on for fifty days until Pentecost. But for some (those initiates to be baptized into the death and life of Christ on Easter) it was the culmination of a three year period of instruction and discipline. In the underground rigors of pre-Constantinian faith the scrutiny was serious, the preparation prolonged, and the prayer intense. Those demanding final days before baptism were marked with a fast. In part, by a simple act of solidarity and intercession, other members even whole congregations, were drawn instinctively to join the fast and renew their own sacramental vows come Easter sunrise.
Eventually, the association of Easter with Jesus’ forty days of wilderness fasting occasioned by his own baptism, gave the season reference and duration. For as long as the church can remember (or at least from its earliest records) the temptation narrative (Luke 4:1-13, Matt 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13) has been the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent.
It’s a perfect match. Insofar as ‘the way of the cross’ is the theme of Lent, the temptations enumerate an array of potential deflections, co-optations, repudiations, and misdirections that would refuse the cross. They lead other ways. Ways which Jesus, thank God, declines to follow.
Insofar as a theme of Lent is the humanity of Jesus (who-he-is-uttered-in-the-Word-of-God-to-be, as the theologians say) the temptations offer a radical confusion of his identity and vocation. Happily, for our sake, he passes through more fully and freely himself.
Clarence Jordan suggests an unusual etymology for the word diabolos (devil) in this passage. He says in The Substance of Faith:
[Diabolos] comes from dia meaning ‘around through’ and bollo meaning ‘to throw.’ Our English word ‘ball’ comes from that. Diabolos means ‘one who throws things about’ – one who stirs things up – gets them confused. The work of the devil is just to get us muddled. 
The father of lies (who scatters them about), the slanderer, the accuser of the saints, then, is really the Great Confuser. Apropos of Lent, the confusion which Jesus suffers is not just over tactics; more than just program or method or means or way is up for grabs. It is Jesus’ identity and vocation as such which are being subverted and assaulted.
Jesus’ baptism is a moment of divine-human clarity. His identity is made pain as day. It seems to burst from heaven for his own (and in some gospel versions, for everyone’s) eyes to see. Luke is not content and compounds all that with a slightly heavy hand by immediately piling on the genealogy of his lineage. But in Matthew and Mark it is a mere two or three verses before that identity is under subtle attack. “If you are the anointed one, the chosen of Israel…” A question interposes, packed in the “if.” A twisted syllogism follows: “…then take power.”
The insidiousness of the temptations lies in the integrity of “how” and “who.” Power and person are the topic. The one crouched ready to gobble up the other. Power may consume, corrupt, inflate, distort, dissipate, or simply deaden the person. The Confuser’s scheme is for Jesus to forget who his, by getting lost in how he’ll work, so that the One who is the beginning and end will be swallowed up in the means.
It seems to be more and more widely recognized that each of the temptations is to power: the first is to economic power, the second is to military/political power, and the third is to religious power. In all, we’re granted a concise and compacted exchange on issues at once very concrete to the life of Jesus and pertinent to our own. Remember that at the conclusion of the encounter the tempter doesn’t slink off into oblivion forever defeated, he withdraws “until an opportune time.” Such times present themselves repeatedly to Jesus and his followers.
Perhaps we’re blinded to the power question by the mundane simplicity of the first invitation: yield to hunger, make stones bread, break fast. In the plainest terms the invitation is to seek first his own needs and appetites. To be ruled by them. To join the “enemies of the cross” whose “god is their belly” (against whom the Philippians were once duly warned.)
We need look no further than our own lives and times to comprehend the runaway enormity of the temptation. In consumer culture it is writ large and with a vengeance. Appetites are researched, targeted, hooked, inflated, managed, and manufactured. People are held in bondage by them. Their servitude and silence and single-minded distraction are guaranteed.
To undertake a lenten discipline, to fast or deny an appetite is not to inflict some perverse self-punishment or to be justified by a religious act. It is a prayer of freedom: to loosen the bonds and to restore a right relation to the created order. It is so politically loaded because it breaks with the culture precisely at its main method of control.
If in his own fast Jesus is exercising a similar kind of freedom, the tempter manages to come back at a more subtle level. The temptation is to power because more than Jesus’ own needs are at issue. Can there be any doubt that in his aching need he intercedes for all those who are hungry? He bears all who suffer poverty and want. Can there be doubt that he wants justice so bad he can taste it? He hungers after righteousness.
The sharing of bread is intimately entangled with the ministry of Jesus. It is the great sign and metaphor of the kingdom. I have a friend who says if you can read the gospels without getting hungry then you’re not paying attention. The ministry reads like a gigantic floating potluck. From the opening wedding feast to the feeding of the multitudes, by way of banquet parables or eating with the tax collectors and sinners, through the last supper and the resurrection meals, Jesus can be seen with bread in this hands — blessing, breaking, offering, partaking.
The temptation, perhaps in all of these, dogs him relentlessly: build a movement of bread alone. Wield it as power. Following John’s account of the loaves miracle, Jesus must escape to the hills lest the people “come and take him by force to make him king.” (John 6:14) A bread messiah. By a simple twist, the same bread offered freely as sacrament or justice may be withheld and granted as a means to power.
Mindful again of ourselves, this temptation has its triumph in the food-as-a-weapon side of our foreign policy. America has nearly the same corner on bread as the OPEC nations do on oil. It appears we do and will exercise that option in concert with the other instruments of global domination, putting on the international squeeze with threat and promise. We beat our ploughshares into swords, targeting nations for slow starvation. This is nothing more than the blunt underside of consumerism’s power exposed.
The second temptation is perhaps more straightforward, but nonetheless seductive. It captures my own imagination, so let me draw it freely as though privy to a more extended version of the conversation.
Jesus is taken high above the earth to giddy and dizzying heights with a view from sea to shining sea. One could suggest he’s taken for a ride in Air Force One — the Presidential jet — but let’s be more blunt and make it a Flying Nuclear Command Post. Hear the Confuser’s argument something like this: “Think what influence you could have from a position like this. We need someone here who wouldn’t be soft on evil. We’re looking for someone who’d put kingdom priorities in the Empire budget. Someone who’ll organize the world for justice and back it up with real muscle. Let’s make this place safe for Christian freedom and religious worship. Hell,” says the devil, “we could make the whole damn world a Christian nation! You’d ensure that every war was a just war. Think: Commander-in-Chief of Christian Nuclear Forces Worldwide. The thing is, this ultimate power exists. I have it to grant, and I’ve got to give it to somebody. I’d much prefer you than some reckless megalomaniac with no real moral scruples.
“Of course,” (his voice dropping ever so slightly) “there are going to be some compromises. Just little ones at first. But after all, we’re talking about the real world. This suffering love business is great sermon material. Keep preaching it. That’s the way things will be someday, and of course how they are in heaven already. But I’m offering you what works now in this world. If you want to really make a difference, and not just feel good in your conscience, then here’s the system and your place in it — at the top. Anything else, this cross business for example, is plain naive foolishness. Go ahead, trust and worship God. But hedge your bets, trust me too.”
The offer smells to high heaven of idolatry. Jesus’ answer is explicit about that. Whom do we worship? Where do we put our faith, trust, hope?
I would never suggest building a theology of the state on this passage (any more than I would on any other single passage) but I sure would urge that it come under consideration. Jesus doesn’t quibble over the tempter’s ability to deliver. He doesn’t quote Romans 13. Jesus repudiates military/political power by repudiating idolatry and does both at once by taking up the cross.
He faced all this very concretely. Do we not have before us an intensified version of his ongoing conversation with the Zealots, as they eventually came to be called? They were the revolutionary nationalists, kick-the-Romans-out-insurrectionists. They advocated not only non-collaboration, active disobedience, and tax resistance, but also guerilla violence and (eventually) terrorism. I believe that Jesus had some sympathies for them. There’s suggestion in the gospels of a running conversation. Some among his disciples are named as Zealots. Perhaps they hoped he would in the end “come out” for them. He would surely make a fine convert to the movement: a good charismatic king in the Davidic mold to serve the liberated country. Anybody who could gather a crowd in the wilderness and march it into Jerusalem would get their nomination. Someone who had the guts and popular backing to walk into the temple, turn the tables, and occupy the court, could certainly keep going on to the praetorium, to Pilate’s house and really turn some tables. Or, as they might have it, turn some real tables.
Jesus meets this temptation more than once. Peter’s judicious advice against the cross at Caesarea Phillipi is very tempting but Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan.” And if the momentum of Palm Sunday’s triumphal entry and the enthusiasm of his disciples carry any weight, then that too was likely a day of confusion, an opportune time.
What is most amazing is not that Jesus says no thanks, but that he sees the implication so clearly. He sees very deep and very far. Behind the insurrection he sees the popular kingship, behind that the military governor, behind that the emperor, the chairman, the president, the fuhrer, premier — as Luke puts it, “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” He comprehends the logic of power. He sees, in effect, all the way to the flying nuclear command post and beyond, which is to say that Jesus is wrestling with our own temptations.
There is something even more amazing. I personally take this to be a real event and not just a schematized literary summary. It was a real trip to the desert, a real fast, emptying out and stripping down. Here in the wilderness, so vulnerable, so frail and human, Jesus is alone with his identity and calling. And here, away from the crowds, away from the collaborators, away from the Romans, away from the Zealots and all their worthy arguments, he runs smack into it all, this is where the voices start echoing around in his head, inflated to their (true?) cosmic proportion.
In one sense it’s reasonable to say that the whole battle ground for this struggle is in our hearts — the human heart. We’re the turf and the wilderness. But it is even more important to me and my own salvation to understand that the battleground is Christ’s heart. Yes, Caesar is out there with his bold and blasphemous and tempting claims to be confronted and rebuked, but Caesar is also there – in Christ’s heart.
The Pacific Life Community struggling against the Trident submarine has a much repeated saying: “We must face the Tridents which are being built, and we must face the Tridents in our hearts.”
None of these are simply messianic temptations suited for Jesus “in scale with his glory.” We want to let ourselves off just so easily, but they are all our own. We, the North American Church, the community of disciples have manifestly yielded to the very temptations which Jesus resisted in himself and on our behalf. By dribs and drabs, by degrees and by silence, we have chosen and chosen again the flying nuclear command post and its derivatives over the cross (or somehow, we think, along with it.)
We have lived with a confusion so long that it has grown quite comfortable. It is said most truly that because we have refused the cross, we are in the grip of empire and the bomb.
All of the wilderness temptations conjure up alternatives to the cross, but none is so explicit as the last: not to die.
This one is often called the religious temptation. The view from the Temple, of course, predominates. Scripture is deftly quoted, but in the manner of prooftexting. The Confuser does not counsel faith; he commends mere religion. The freedom of God is not honored, but is instead circumscribed. God is being presumed upon, pinned down, manipulated, if you will. To tempt God is to try to force the divine hand, to leap of your own accord, expecting God will hop to and follow in compliance with your own grand designs.
Certain scholars — including John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus — aver that in the moment of this temptation, Jesus envisions surviving a religious form of the death penalty prescribed for blasphemy: to be thrown from a tower on the Temple wall, down into the Kidron valley. That would certainly make detailed sense of an otherwise obscure and peculiar vision.
The devil says to him, “Now take it a step further. Walk to the edge and jump off yourself. Think how your ministry could be furthered. If you land on your feet and hit the ground running, your credentials would be established in an instant: a wonder-working superstar. Give them a sign? You bet, but not the sign of Jonah. Make it a prime-time miracle, a spectacle to remember and proclaim. You’ll accrue all the grandstanding benefits of martyrdom, for less than half the cost.
“Your reputation will forever precede you, not to mention carry you through the tough spots. Crowds will hang on your every word, no matter what you say. You will be the idol of the masses, but high above their common fate — you will be safe and immune. If you play it right, the Sanhedrin will fall all over you. Even the Romans will take note, consulting you on key matters of import. That kind of influence is not to be spurned, and you would never need to dirty your hands.
“But mostly, you don’t have to die.”
Let us not be naive about what it means to find our security in God alone. In the cross, Jesus trusts God completely. That means he is utterly free to die. “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
The temptations against that pursue Jesus nearly to the moment of his arrest. In the garden he is still torn and wrestling, sweating this one out in blood. Yet there and finally, he freely honors the freedom of God.
In the wilderness he had first engaged the principalities and powers. If Jesus’ eye were already on Jerusalem, they, for their part, seemed to see him coming from afar. Aggressive as always, they go out to meet him, not to drive him off like a robber, with blunts threats, swords and clubs, but to suck him in, to make him one of their own. That is their guile and finesse. The spirit of power would seduce him in one form or another. They would transform him into the very thing against which he strives. He, however, slips their grip.
In Gethsemane he is alone once again. Now they are more straightforward. Hovering at the margins of his prayer, besetting him on every side is the power of death in its most blatant form. The troops are on their way, making their search. “This is your hour and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). Power is still trying to have its way with him. Will he not reconsider, take concern for his life, and flee? May it be said that deep in prayer he dies to that fear, dies out from under the rule of the powers, dies finally to his own will, which is their only hook and handle on him. From that prayer, he rises, free to die.
To keep Lent is to follow Jesus in the prayer of wilderness and garden.
To keep Lent is to confront the principalities and powers first of all in prayer. With Jesus we face the dark side of ourselves that is so susceptible to capture and control by the powers. If it happens that we vigil publicly at the gates of economic, military, political, or religious authority, we do so confessionally, acknowledging the solidarity of sin.
To keep Lent is to discover and remember who in heaven’s name we are, as person and community. We pray against all confusers and confusions for our true identity and vocation. We know that means standing before the cross and making some choices.
The grace of this season is that Jesus suffers the choice with us. He’s been over the turf and is our brother exactly on that score, with us in the struggle of our hearts. Let the further grace be that we make our choice as disciples, in the mind and heart of Christ.