Temptations in the Desert –the End of Luke’s (Second?) ‘Introduction’

Temptations in the Desert –the End of Luke’s (Second?) ‘Introduction’ January 23, 2022

Sixth in a series on social justice in the Gospel of Luke.

A winged devil offering temptations to Jesus.
Jesus resists the devil’s plan and the temptations many others will face. (Image credit: LetterPile)

It’s standard to see Luke’s “Infancy Stories,” Chapters 1 and 2, as an introduction to the rest of the Gospel. That rest, then, gives us Jesus “public” life, beginning with his baptism and some temptations in the desert. But the New American Bible calls Chapter 3 “The Preparation for the Public Ministry.” I think of this chapter as a second introduction or a continuation of the first.

There are several reasons to think of Chapter 3 as still introductory. First, it’s a mixture of realistic and fantastic events, characters, and scenery, like Chapters 1 and 2 and unlike the continuation of Luke’s story. I’m thinking of angels breaking in on otherwise homey scenes in Chapters 1 and 2. In Chapter 3 it’s a dove and a voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and the devil, who engineers some fantastic scene changes in the temptations story. By comparison, the rest of the story, all the way to the crucifixion, is earthly. Devils make their appearance but only in possessed human beings. An angel comforts Jesus in his agony, but that’s probably not in Luke’s original text. (New American Bible, Luke 22:43-44 footnote) The Transfiguration has an unearthly tone, but that’s the only exception until the Resurrection.

Jesus isn’t actually ministering in Chapter 3, nor is he much in the public eye. The baptism was visible to the public, but that takes up only a third of a sentence. There’s no indication that anyone saw the dove or heard the voice from heaven except Jesus. These also are reasons to think of Chapter 3 as introductory to, not part of, Jesus’ public mission. But the really important reason is what this post in the series on social justice in Luke is about. It’s Luke’s way of warning us, in advance of the real story, what Jesus’ mission is not.

Jesus, the voice from heaven, and the dove — the Trinity?

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)

Christians have understood this scene as an image of the doctrine of the Trinity. The voice is the Father’s, Jesus is the beloved Son, and the dove represents the Holy Spirit. Luke clearly has the Father, the Spirit, and the Son Jesus in mind, but he did not foresee the later theological development of three Persons in one God. John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus (p. 30) suggests Luke was thinking of his own Scriptures, where the psalmist has God speak about Israel’s king:

I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.… You are my son; today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2:6-7)

The words from heaven are like an anointing of Jesus, just as kings of Israel were anointed. At his baptism by John, Jesus receives his commissioning from God, and it looks like Jesus will be a king. But when Jesus’ temptations start, we’ll see Luke has second thoughts about that image.

John’s “good news”

Prior to Jesus’ commissioning, John the Baptizer had been preaching “good news” with some striking images and words like:

Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire…. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:9, 17)

How is this good news?

Yoder says we must not spiritualize John’s message. (p. 28) I’d say also that we must not privatize it. John is preaching repentance for sin, but not just the kind of sin that anyone might be guilty of. That wouldn’t be good news or even any news at all. It’s the sin of the powerful against the week, oppressors against oppressed that John is ranting about. That’s why Luke can say John “preached good news to [most of] the people.” (3:18) It sounds like a powerful figure, a new king, is coming to set things right.

The devil sees an opportunity.

John’s description of the good news doesn’t go well with Jesus’ approach. That’s what we learn from a desert encounter between Jesus and the devil.

As I’ve written before, I think we’re dealing with embellished history, history plus commentary in symbolic form. Jesus certainly underwent baptism by John, but the dove and voice from heaven may be an early addition to the story. It’s Mark’s or his source’s commentary on the meaning of this event. Jesus certainly experienced temptations. Luke’s three scenes detailing those temptations are not in Mark’s earlier Gospel. They’re Luke’s fanciful commentary. But the story as Luke tells it is true to the meaning of Jesus. You can’t leave out the extra details, the symbolic commentary, and still have the whole meaning.

As I look at the fanciful details, I imagine the devil hanging around, listening to John’s description of the good news and the voice from heaven calling Jesus the “beloved Son.” In the devil’s mind these add up to a perfect opportunity to turn Jesus toward his own purposes. Notice how slyly the devil echoes the voice from heaven:

Voice from heaven – “You are my beloved Son …”

Devil – “If you are the Son of God …”

What the devil wants

Luke’s story, up to this point, envisions drastic change in the world with a hint of violence to it. Even before the Baptizer’s ax at the root of the trees and the unquenchable fire, we heard Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat. There the mighty get cast down off their thrones and the lowly lifted up; the hungry are fed and the rich sent away empty. (Luke 1:52-53) The angels sing of peace to the ones God favors (2:14). That means not to everybody. Simeon predicts “the fall and rise of many in Israel.” (2:34) These are the actions of a Messiah coming as a powerful king. The voice that identifies Jesus as God’s Son suggests the same. “Son of God” is a title given to kings in Israel and surrounding cultures (to emperors in Rome’s case).

The devil, as a character in Luke’s story, knows all this. We can easily imagine him listening attentively to Mary’s prayer, the angel’s song, the Baptizer’s rants. Finally, the voice from heaven says, “You are my beloved Son.” The devil hopes that he can get Jesus to set himself up as messianic king by using these same words: “If you are the Son of God….” For Jesus it was a tempting prospect. Jesus would start out small, as leader of rebels, of which there were many, chafing under the oppressive Romans. But that’s how King David got his start. Slyly, the devil holds out three royal images to Jesus.

The three temptations

  1. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (4:3) Kings were supposed to ensure the people have food. Jesus has been fasting 40 days. He’s hungry. But the devil isn’t tempting Jesus to feed his own hunger by a miracle. That traditional thought just trivializes the whole scene. The temptation is for Jesus to host a messianic banquet so people will hail him as king. In John’s Gospel, though not in Luke, people actually do try to make Jesus king after he feeds the multitude. Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (4:4)
  2. The devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant…. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” (4:5-7) I can picture the devil unrolling the scroll of Psalms. He finds Psalm 2, verse 7, which has the same words we heard the voice from heaven speak:

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

He reads on to verse 8:

“I will give you the nations as your inheritance.”

“See Jesus,” the devil says. “I’m helping God. I’m offering to give you exactly what God says you should have. Think of all the good you could do as ruler of the world.”

I’ve heard it said that Jesus should have been born rich. He would have been able to accomplish so much. Jesus should have married and established a powerful dynasty. But Jesus refuses to worship power, as much of the world still does. Jesus answers the devil, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.’” (4:5-8)

The last temptation and the logic of Luke’s arrangement

  1. “Then he led him to Jerusalem,” Luke’s story continues, “made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him:

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you.” And, “With their hands they will support you lest you dash your foot against a stone.” (4:9-11)

Matthew and Luke in their Gospels tell the identical story of the three temptations, but, oddly, not in the same order. Matthew, as one would expect, puts the biggest one, the offer of the kingdoms of the world, last. But Luke’s arrangement has its own logic. First, Jesus would make a symbolic claim to be king by providing bread. Second, Jesus would get from the devil official title to all the kingdoms of the world. Third, Jesus would make an impressive display of power, jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple and coming to rest safely on the ground. That would attract people to his side, an army of followers to secure his throne, incidentally doing the devil’s bidding

In answering this last temptation, Jesus for the third time quotes scripture: “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” Both parties have been using Scripture all the way through. Whose interpretation of Scripture will prevail?

Dramatic turns in Luke

Luke enjoys dramatic turns. Like the about-face I wrote about in my last post. The parable of the Good Samaritan holds up an example of unbelievable heroism, by one who is an enemy to Jews, no less, and tells the Jewish lawyer to go and do the same. But in the very next story Jesus praises Mary, the sister of overworked Martha, for doing basically nothing.

In the present case Luke primes us for some serious action with phrases like:

  • Casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly,
  • Feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty,
  • The rising and falling of many in Israel,
  • The ax laid to the roots of the trees, and
  • Burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.

The devil offers Jesus the chance to do all of this and more, everything we’ve been hoping for. And Jesus turns him down. Near the end of Luke’s story, as Jesus is entering into his passion, there’s a similar turnaround. Jesus gives to his disciples some strange advice as they are heading out from the Last Supper. They should take along some swords. Is Jesus finally going to take up the rebels’ cause, fight for us? They only have two swords, which Jesus says is enough. Enough for what? Just enough for another dramatic turn. A disciple strikes the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. “But Jesus said in reply, ‘Stop, no more of this!’ Then he touched the servant’s ear and healed him.” (Luke 22: 49-51)

Jesus isn’t going to fight the system with swords. No more in Luke’s introduction to his public career would he raise an army for God and do God’s work with the devil’s tools.

What about social justice?

Is Jesus not going to do anything about the peoples’ poverty, hunger, and oppression? Or is he only concerned to assist a few persons, here and there, with an occasional miracle? What about his followers today? Is it enough for Christians to feed the some hungry people, heal some sick people, and donate money to charity, but leave the unjust system unchanged?

In his “introduction” Luke has raised our hopes, not to quash them right away but to purify them. Jesus overcame the temptations others throughout history will face whenever it looks like the devil’s means can accomplish God’s ends. Jesus will fight for justice but with weapons unknown to the devil.

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