The Temptation Of Jesus

The Temptation Of Jesus December 1, 2023

We’ve all heard sermons on the temptation of Jesus from Luke 4. I’ve personally witnessed it used as “proof” of an ontological devil, and that Jesus is perfect in some ambiguously obscure way simply because he succeeded on his vision quest. Pretty boring, am I right? But what if there is something much more going on here? What if this little narrative is an admonishment of mixing two means of power? The state and religion.

Notice, Jesus is first tempted with the one thing we all need in order to think rationally – food – before he is brought to a high place and showed all the kingdoms of the world. “All this, you can have,” says the devil, “if you worship me.” In other words, Jesus can be the supreme ruler of all the nations if only he gives in to the devil.

So, what is the devil? Scholars have long debated about that very question, with answers ranging from “the accuser” to “the executioner.” Jesus describes the devil as “a liar and murderer from the beginning,” which, from a Girardian perspective, rings true: the mimetic accusatory spirit leads to the expulsion and/or murder of a society’s surrogate victims. A tale as old as time, but if we’re honest, something completely anthropological. In other words, we can be, and often are, the devil (just ask Job!).

But Jesus isn’t interested in such power, as he knows where this power leads: to disaster. So, the devil hits him with the switch-up, taking him to Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple. What does this change represent? Jesus’ religion. More specifically, the so-called place of authority within Second Temple Judaism. This, too, is quickly rejected by the Nazarene, as Jesus is well aware of the same fate for anyone seeking religious authority and power over others.

From here, the devil flees, knowing he won’t be holding any sway over Jesus at this point (spoiler alert: he’ll have much better luck, 2,000 years later in America).

Jesus, however, isn’t done yet. Having just been tempted with two sides of the same coin – political and religious power and authority – Jesus strolls into Nazareth to counter the temptation and teach where true political and religious power comes from: in serving others. Here’s how Luke 4:18-19 read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What takes place here is quite significant if you understand where this passage comes from. You see, within Judaism, adherents of the faith celebrated something called the Day of Jubilee, whereby the very things laid out in Luke 4:18-19 would be expected to take place, along with the forgiveness of debts. This was to happen every seven years.

But Luke 4:18-19 is nothing unique to Jesus. It’s an echo of Isaiah 61:1-2, the only difference being that Jesus doesn’t include the “day of vengeance of our God” in his reading. Why? Because for Jesus, God doesn’t smite his enemies; God liberates the oppressed without such violence. If God did use violence, God would be just like the devil from earlier. After all, vengeance is a lynchpin of both systems of power offered to Jesus: political and religious.

Within political spheres, the enemies of the people are often sanctioned and done away with altogether through genocide and war. Within religious circles, perhaps the means to weapons of war are less obvious, but the psychological warfare can be just as troubling. That’s why Jesus brings both political power and religious power into alignment by rejecting both, offering a better way forward.

This angers the people, who challenge the Nazarene. But Jesus puts them in their place by mentioning Elisha and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest prophets of all time, and how each helped serve not only their own people, but their enemies. Enraged, the onlookers attempt to throw Jesus from yet another high point, but he escapes just in time.

Should any of this surprise us? No! When challenged, what do we tend to do? Exert power and authority over others. Challenge our politics, and we are ready to prove your point in a mimetic minute with violence and bloodshed. Challenge our religion and we’ll do the same, but in the name of God. For Jesus, however, the kingdom he was here to establish included a different type of power – one from below.

Fast forward to today, and the only Christians who are listening to Jesus are the ones who are serving their fellow human, while refusing to engage in any religious or political behavior that lords over others. There are really no two ways about it, and if you suggest there are, perhaps you’ve had your own encounter with the devil and have fallen under his sway (I’m looking at all you self-proclaimed Christian Nationalists). Just be careful where this desire for power and authority lead (hint: see 70 A.D.).

So, I’d be curious what you think of my interpretation of Luke 4 and the temptation of Jesus. Have Christians fallen for the bait? It seems obvious to me, given how often they attempt to justify their positions of political and religious authority. Comment below if you disagree.


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About Matthew J. Distefano
Matthew J. Distefano is an author, blogger, podcaster, and social worker. He lives in Northern California with his wife and daughter You can read more about the author here.
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