Temptation!—Satan faces off against Jesus in a battle often poorly understood by 21st century Western Christians.
Temptation given to Jesus in the wilderness by Satan makes for a story about which most Western Christians are only spuriously familiar! Diving into our Lenten journey toward Easter—yet still reeling from recent Catholic abuses of power— this upcoming Sunday’s Gospel tells a Synoptic story that might offer us healing and new direction if we have new eyes with which to read it. It is the story of Jesus Temptation in the Wilderness—but it should be better thought of as “the Honor-Trial by Ordeal” of Jesus.
This upcoming Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, offers us the Matthean version of this story. But in this post we will be focusing on the Lukan version. There are key differences between how this story appears in “Matthew” (4:1-11), “Mark” (1:12-13), and “Luke” (4:1-13). This is a three-part post and we will devote time to each Gospel version of this curious story.
Last year around this time we read the Lukan version at liturgy. Watch the video below to get some key differences…
Temptation to Ethnocentric Misunderstanding
The Mediterranean world of the Bible is unlike our Western world in so many ways. One of the many differences is the pan-Mediterranean belief in countless other-than-human persons (i.e., spirits) that fill the winds around us. Their pastime? They enjoy screwing around with human life. Is that how Americans perceive reality? Not really!
Various Mediterranean cultures believe this so much they take measures to defends themselves. Since long before the days of Jesus these peoples have employed a great number of amulets, charms, medals, formulas, symbols, and the colors of the sky to prevent attacks from these powerful beings. Jesus’ Middle Eastern people were no different.
At Jesus’ baptism, the thunderous voice from sky vault declared his identity—“Now when the voice from heaven identified Jesus at his baptism, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Do you think that any spirit whether on earth of in sky vault failed to hear that complement? Beware the envious Evil Eye!—whenever you pay a compliment in the Mediterranean world, don’t be surprised when people spit in defense against the Evil Eye.
Temptation or Test?
Ask any Mediterranean native about what must happen next to a person like Jesus given such a praise. Spirits will balk at that, and say, “O is that who he is? This nothing-person from a nothing-place?? Well let’s just test that, shall we?” These spirits seek to discover if the compliment is true. In the possibility that it is true, the spirits will try to force the one complimented (i.e., Jesus) to displease his praising Patron (i.e., the God of Israel).
What follows next in the Gospel narrative shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus must be put to the test—a trial by ordeal—to see if the honor-claim about him is true. So that’s why a good spirit drives Jesus into the usual domain of other-than-human persons, the wilderness. There he will battle an evil other-than-human person, the devil.
Scholar John Pilch points out that nowhere does “Luke” report that Jesus was wearing blue or purple clothing, or that he bore an amulet, or employed a magical formula for his protection in his battle with the evil spirit. Astonishingly, the very human Synoptic Jesus goes one-on-one against the devil in a contest over Scripture quotes.
When the “Temptation” Takes Place in “Luke”
This takes place in the fourth chapter in “Luke.” Recall that chapters one and two deal with the birth, infancy, and childhood of Jesus. There “Luke” describes a wondrous event of divine involvement in the birth of a “lowlife” Galilean village peasant. This is all to address how such a lowly peasant will, somehow, eventually become a great person able to perform wondrous healings and speak in public.
Right after his birth story, “Luke” provides a fictitious genealogical “honor-pedigree” for the peasant Jesus. It goes all the way back to Adam and God. Any Mediterranean or Middle Eastern reader reading that would be shocked by its mind-boggling audacity of such an honor-claim. “Are you saying that a nothing-village lowlife day laborer has this genealogy!!??” Disbelief would be the expected reaction. It sounds bogus and even ridiculous. In fact, the Lukan audience would challenge it. And this exactly why “Luke” arranges what follows into his narrative.
So “Luke” has to put the honor-claims of the infancy narrative, the voice from the sky vault, and the genealogy to the test to see if they are valid. Satan “tempts” Jesus three times to displease God. Really the Greek means “tested,” not tempted. Jesus gives three replies, each a quote from Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:13; 6:16). Amazingly, the devil, despite also using Scripture (Psalm 91:11-12) cannot destroy Jesus with his trials. And so, impossibly, the lowly human Jesus wins—but the evil spirit will return later on at just the right opportunity (Luke 22:3).
Looking Closer at Each Temptation
Satan asks, “If you are the son of God…” In Jesus’ Mediterranean world, people derive their honor-rating from their birth family. Recall that the Lukan genealogy traced Jesus’ honor all the way back to Adam and God. The devil tests the truth of that by asking “C’mon! If you are…” In other words, let’s see if that kind of audacious, ridiculously over-the-top honor-claim can withstand testing.
And how does the Lukan Jesus respond? By saying, “It is written…” Understand that if in public Jesus did anything to demonstrate his honor on his own, all he would have accomplished by doing so would be to convince everyone that he has no honor whatsoever. Only by quoting his Father can this Middle Eastern man demonstrate his ascribed honor. In the Middle East, any loyal son will inform everyone that his honor originates in his Father, the Patriarch into which he is embedded.
The Temptation to Worship Satan
Next Satan tests Jesus saying, “If you would worship me.” What does “worship” mean here? It means to fall down in front of someone, or to prostrate oneself before another. In Jesus’ world social inferiors do that sort of thing to their superiors. Satan, a constellation come to earth, is significantly higher on the honor-scale than any earthly king, or even any spirit haunting desert, much less the lowly human peasant nothing-person, Jesus. Therefore this is Satan trying to demolish unequivocally the honor-claims given to Jesus.
In all the tests Jesus quotes the Scriptures of Israel. This is exactly what any loyal Mediterranean and Middle Eastern son would be expected to do. He refers to his Father, his Patron. So the lowly human Jesus wins against Cosmic Powers!—a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern audience would hear that and be impressed. “Perhaps there is more to this Jesus than what the eye immediately sees!”
Temptation in View of Honor and Shame
What follows the “Temptation” story in “Luke”? The anonymous author reports—
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.
If you understand honor and shame, you will realize why this must be the next details that “Luke” puts into his narrative. Honor and shame are public realities. Honor means a PUBLIC claim to worth and the PUBLIC acknowledgment of this claim. What is “honor” that goes unrecognized by the public? Not honor at all, just shameful braggadocio, like the braying of a jackass. So “Luke” must inform his audience that the whole countryside recognizes Jesus having won the honor-challenge with Satan. His reputation—honor!—spreads.
And it makes sense also that “Luke” takes his story next to the one place beyond all his spinning, the one place beyond all BS about Jesus, Nazareth. That’s the place where they know Jesus best. We’ll talk about that episode, later. For now, enjoy this video on the subject…
That One Time Jesus Lost
Again and again Jesus is put to the honor-test, challenged by people in the Gospels. In all but one of these contests, Jesus wins every time. He only loses once in these public honor-challenges, to a foreign woman who beats him at his own game (Mark 7:24-30 // Matthew 15:24-28). The takeaway here is that honor and shame mark every page of the Gospels and the Bible. You will never understand these documents until you recognize how central honor and shame are to them.
What the “Temptation” Story Means
The earliest version of this “Temptation” story is found in the first Gospel, called “Mark” (1:12-13). It is surprisingly light with details, and very brief! The later, more elaborate versions we see in both “Luke” (4:1-13) and “Matthew” (4:1-11) are based on the Markan version but with augmentations from another common tradition. Israel’s own legendary “trial by ordeal” in the wilderness sets the pattern for the more elaborate “honor-test” stories.
There are significant differences between the versions of this story found in “Luke” and in “Matthew.” For one thing, in “Matthew,” the “temptations” end on a mountain, whereas for “Luke,” the final test happens on top of the Jerusalem Temple. This is because common post-Markan material has been edited and rearranged. As we will see later, the mythical mountain is a very important symbol for the Matthean Jesus group. But for “Luke,” Jerusalem and its Temple are the special motif.
Pilch explains that in no version of this story is there a suggestion that average baptized disciples of Jesus should go around battling evil spirits like the Master did. This story is not a model for spiritual warfare. Jesus is tempted to misuse powers that none of his followers possess.
So what is the point of the story? For “Luke,” the spin-meister of the New Testament, it is to establish Jesus as the “more powerful one” (Luke 3:16). Interestingly, later on the Lukan Jesus will describe himself and his actions precisely in this way (Luke 11:22).
Why Forty Days?
Forty days is not only significant to Catholics, but also to the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ Middle Eastern world, says Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh. The number forty, as in forty days or forty years, is found all over our Bibles. With one Noah story it rains forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:4). Moses, whose life is divided into three sets of forty years, was on the mountain with God for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18). Elijah spends forty days and forty nights walking to the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:8). And Jesus is put to the test for forty days by the evil spirit (Mark 1:12-13 // Matthew 4:1-11 // Luke 4:1-13). What is the significance of forty?
Dr. Richard Rohrbaugh was in the Middle East when the Gulf War happened. He explains that the day the bombings of Iraq commenced, Saddam Hussein gave a speech. His opening line? “My fellow Iraqis, today we have won the war.” From a military perspective, Saddam’s forces were totally outclassed and beaten on every imaginable level. Military defeat was immanent and inevitable and everyone recognized this, including Saddam.
Rohrbaugh who studied the Middle Eastern culture for decades was informed what was going on and how people there were interpreting the situation. When a bully stronger than another male beats up that male in the Middle Eastern world, nobody expects the beaten man to withstand or defeat by force his bully! What is expected is that the overwhelmed male courageously and honorably resist just long enough to show his manhood—so that when surrender inevitably happens, no shame is brought to the family.
Saddam and the Great Satan
Guess how many days it was from the time allied forces began bombing Saddam Hussein until he surrendered? You’ll look at Lent differently if you do that—it was forty days.
Rohrbaugh explains that before the conflict began, George H. W. Bush and Saddam Hussein were involved in a pissing match. Iraq called the U.S. the Great Satan, you will recall. And one week before the war broke out, Hussein sent foreign minister Tariq Aziz to Russia (the Lesser Satan) to negotiate for peace. This is the Middle Eastern way to prevent escalating such conflicts into violence.
And Bush? He refused negotiating. How did Middle Easterners react to Bush’s refusal? Even Middle Eastern people who loathed and detested Saddam Hussein considered Americans to be barbarians. Once we bombed Iraq, in their eyes, we lost the fight! Why? It is because we resorted to violence and therefore Saddam won the argument. Therefore, the honor-ranking of a cruel despot, Saddam Hussein, sky-rocketed as a result.
The Temptation for Ongoing Stupidity
Just before war broke out a paper was presented to Bush explaining honor and shame. It also explained that, given Hussein’s track record on treating his Arab brothers wickedly, the other Middle Eastern leaders would take care of him without U.S. led involvement. But the paper argued that should the U.S. become involved militarily, the effect would be Saddam’s life would be saved and his stronghold secured. Bush arrogantly refused to read that paper. History tells the story of what resulted—Saddam remained in power.
We continue blundering in the Middle Eastern world in culpable ignorance—stupidity. The lives cost by this stupidity are astronomical. Because of our willfully ignorant and greedy actions millions have died. And on it goes. So knowing about honor and shame isn’t just Bible trivia, folks.
Getting “Luke” Correctly
Put yourselves in the shoes of the first century listeners to “Luke” and his Gospel. They are probably urban wealthy elites. “Luke” himself was an elite Mediterranean writer. By the time of “Luke” authoring his Gospel, we are far removed from the illiterate and starving peasant world of the Galilean Jesus. What would motivate these Mediterranean “great ones” to believe in Jesus?
“Luke” is by far the most talented of all New Testament writers. He’s slick. He’s a spin-meister. And he is a considerate author who understands his audience. So, he provides culturally appropriate answers to the question, “Why should we believe in this executed Galilean nothing-person?”
The Lukan Jesus somehow has authority over life and creation. Therefore we see that until he is arrested and put to death, the Lukan Jesus always wins the arguments, always maintains his honor and is never shamed. Thus, until the trial happens, neither human nor spirit can shame Jesus or distract him from his goals. Consequently, the Jesus that “Luke” presents is a “more powerful one.”
Jesus and Power
Admittedly, in some ways, seeing this story in the culturally appropriate manner makes it somewhat alien to the American Christian experience. Do we 21st century Westerners believe that spirits teem around us in the air? Do we attribute every sickness and misfortune we experience to these spirits? The biblical way of looking at and believing in other-than-human persons is strange and foreign to us!
However, when it power and its misuse, 21st century Western Christians understand all too well. We just got a reminder these past few weeks, one with the abuse record of “living saint” Jean Vanier, and the other with disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield. Scholars like Pilch ask what powers, besides those he used over demons and other spirits, did Jesus ever wield? How different Jesus is from those in ecclesial positions and ministries today who long to move upward in the Church and society!
Next time we will explore the Matthean version of the Temptation story.