The Pope's First Jesus Book—- Chapter Two

At the beginning of Chapter 2 which proposes to discuss Jesus’ temptations, the Pope makes the point that the Spirit abiding on Jesus reflects his anointing for the messianic office.  Nothing is said about the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted, but the Pope does pick up the Edenic motif and Jesus being out there with the wild beasts.   Jesus has been empowered for ministry, but his ministry will be characterized with identifying with the lot of fallen humanity, even in their temptations, which brings us to the story at hand.

If we are to discuss tendencies in the Pope’s interpretation of the life of Jesus, he tends to favor the Matthean and Johannine readings of the story.  It is the former, and the order of the former, rather than the Lukan order that he follows in making sense of Jesus’ temptations.  The Pope suggests that in these stories Jesus is depicted as being like the Exodus generation, wandering for 40 years in the wilderness and being tempted.   This may be an echo in the Matthean account (p. 30).   One of the things that is notable throughout the Pope’s Jesus books is how good the English prose is, and how few typos there are in the books.  Someone has done a very fine job of translating from the German and should be commended.

The Pope is decidedly on the right track when saying that Jesus is being asked to prove his divinity, not his humanity here.  Only divine beings can turn stones into bread, or could be tempted to do so.    There are reflections here about world hunger,  Jesus participating in the hunger not only of the wilderness wandering generation but of the world.  The Pope says we could as easily ask ‘If you are the Church of God, what are you doing to feed the world’?   It’s a fair question.  At the root of these temptations is the reality of God, not even Jesus’ human need.  It is God who supplies the bread in the wildneress, not Jesus by doing a miracle that would only benefit himself.   And furthermore, when we place our earthly hungers ahead of the will or work of God,  we have disordered reality and disobeyed God.  There is considerable critique here by the Pope of the failed Marxist experiment which thought God was a second order question at best, and what people most needed was bread.   As the Pope says “History cannot be detached from God and then run smoothly on purely material lines. If man’s heart is not good, then nothing else can turn out good, either.”  (p. 34).

The Pope realizes that the second temptation must be seen as some kind of visionary experience, and here the Devil is portrayed as a Bible scholar and theologian!  So we have a sort of ‘verse’ off here, between Jesus and the Devil.   The Pope recalls the impressive story by  Vladimir Soloviev   called ‘The Antichrist’  in which the antichrist gets an honorary theology degree from Tubingen no less!    Exegesis and the Bible can even become a tool of Satan, so the Pope sees here an admirable warning against erudite exegetical aberrations and text twistings.    More interestingly the Pope notes that the Psalm that the Devil quotes,  Ps. 91 is about protection in the divine sanctuary  in Jerusalem.  Surely, the reasoning goes, Jesus could expect divine help there, were he to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple.    Jesus’ response using Deuteronomy shows that he sees this temptation as inviting him to put God the Father to the test, which he will not do.   The root of the temptation is a request to make God our servant who comes to rescue us whenever we beckon.   God the cosmic bellhop.

The third temptation is about Jesus taking a short-cut to rule the kingdoms of this world, namely by worshiping Satan.  The Pope contrasts this with Mt. 28 where the risen Jesus is given all power in heaven and on earth, not just all power on earth.   “The Lord has power in heaven and on earth.  And only someone who has this fullness of authority has the real, saving power. Without heaven, earthly power is always ambiguous and fragile.  Only when power submits to the measure and the judgment of heaven—of God, in other words— can it become power for good. And only when power stands under God’s blessing can it be trusted. … The temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power.  The struggle for the freedom of the church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.”  (pp. 39-40).   This is on the one hand a confession of the sins of the past of the papacy in the age of the Holy Roman Empire, as it is a critique of modern attempts to meld together faith and politics (are you listening conservative Christians in America)?   So Jesus in rejecting the third temptation is rejecting the quick fix ‘political solution’ as opposed to being a messiah who goes to the cross.   The contrast is between a messiah like Barabbas, a zealot, and a messiah like Jesus—a suffering servant.

As the Pope realizes, it is one thing to say that Jesus’ kingdom is not ‘of this world’  but then one has to ask— since it hasn’t brought world peace, prosperity or in general a better world, what has it given us?   The answer is God he has shown us God’s true face, and the way of faith, hope and love, not the way of political machinations.   The Pope closes the chapter by noting that now, and after Jesus has passed the temptations or tests, at the end the angels come and minister to Jesus in the wilderness, and Ps. 91 is fulfilled.  Not by kowtowing to Satan or giving in to temptation, but by God choosing to minister to his Son after the fact.

  • Michael

    “are you listening conservative Christians in America”

    I fell for it today. Dr. Witherington surely you must see the overlap of values between Holy Scripture and the broad categorical aims of the GOP. Values of life to name just one. Are we really to think twice before casting a vote?

    I’m just a lowly grad student though.

  • Ben Witherington

    Michael, I’m afraid that the GOP has a very inconsistent view on the sanctity of life. Yes to the unborn, and not so much to the born when it comes to those on death row, or to war. I think we need a totally pro-life ethic, not a selectively pro-life one. I also find the GOP’s strong tendency to protect the rich and disenfranchise the poor completely against the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, and other teachings of Jesus. Thus while I think Democrats have their own ethical problems, the GOP is hardly better from a Christian point of view.

    BW3


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