Most Americans, I’d guess, think of temptation as something politics leads you into. And of course this is right. Power tends to corrupt, famously wrote Lord Acton, the 19th c. British politician and Catholic writer known as the magistrate of history, and he added, absolutely power corrupts absolutely.
Most politicians advertise that they are not about power, they are about goodness. Usually, good times as well. Often with a drumbeat of freedom as their theme. And even, salvation.
The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness expose the politics which lie in the roots of power, rather than in its privileges. The wisdom of the story turns on the politics of temptation, which are real and powerful despite Jesus’ ability to resist the temptations themselves.
Here’s what I mean: Jesus, filled with the Spirit, is plunged into the wilderness, where for forty days he is tempted by the devil. Thus, the story begins. And we know from this, that the forces of evil (devil), from the very moment Jesus was lifted up before the crowd as blessed, at his baptism, have been hungering and thirsting to get to Jesus. This blessing, this power that Jesus has, is what the forces of evil want to corrupt. So the temptations begin. Jesus is offered power to rule nations, power to control the bread of the world, and the opportunity to defy death and take even more power from God. All these powers will be his, if he will claim his divinity openly (be the king he tells us not to call him) and if he will worship the power of his tempter (a kind of addiction).
You know Jesus’ answers.
Yet we witness politicians who identify as devout Christians making these deals.
Ted Cruz walked in front of the cameras to claim his victory in Iowa saying, To God Be the Glory. But he did not, then, walk away, and leave the crowd to worship God. No, he accepted the mantle, proclaiming himself the chosen one of Iowa, as if the words, To God Be the Glory were somehow an absolution for the vanity and idolatry he was about to commit.
A day or two later, we learned about the dirty trick his staff had pulled. But the trick itself is not the main issue here, the politics of temptation that led him into the trick is the issue.It has become a practice in American politics to use Christianity as the scenery for campaigns that unfold around other values. In the midst of Christian props, candidates vow their allegiance to the military, to a school of Constitutional interpretation, to a tax system, to something other than gospel values.
Wasn’t this exactly what the Devil was trying to get Jesus to do? To develop an economy, and a justice, in which Jesus would be the all-powerful ruler, establishing a theocratic kingdom based on his own status?
In fact, Jesus becomes the Bread of the World. But not in a power grab. He creates a brother-and-sisterhood of sharing bread, not a hierarchy in which bread is made available by him. He creates an open table and a perpetual welcome.
Jesus does become a powerful presence in every nation on earth, but never as a ruler, instead, through the Spirit, as servant, friend and guide.
Jesus goes to the cross not as a dare-devil acting in defiance of death, nor as a loyal soldier, but in tearful recognition that he will die in humiliation, and in faith that God will not be defeated by those who serve the forces of evil he resists, and that he, too will not be defeated by death.
Purity of heart, such as Jesus maintained in himself, requires us not to praise might and wield death. Not to sit on thrones. Not to defend systems of distribution that feed some and leave others hungry. The politics of temptation are always with us, tempting us to believe we do not have to die, and we can always be in control.
1. Jesus Carried up to a Pinnacle of the Temple. 1886. Tissot, James Jacques Joseph. Brooklyn Museum, NY. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Christ in the Desert –1872. Kramskoi, Ivan Nikolaevich, Moscow, Russia. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.