The Three Temptations

When the serpent comes to Eve and says, “Is it true what God said?” She says, “No. God actually said…” But from there it is all downhill. The serpent has her questioning.

And when she looks at the fruit. It looks yummy! And she has something to gain: the knowledge of good and evil! And the serpent was right. That fruit tasted good, like a good-fruit should. And although she did not get (and we have neither inherited nor attained) a functional, practical knowledge of Good and Evil, she got something else (a bonus) in the bargain: the knowledge that she is naked, vulnerable. At that moment, she probably realized she was a creature, human, made of mud, that she would die. For Nelson, that happened when he was about four.

When Moses sees the burning bush that is not consumed by fire, which is likely just a wick for an oil well, which has been struck by lightning; he takes off his sandals, kneels, and prays. He asks, God a hypothetical question, “If I were asked what your name is, what should I say?” And God says, “I AM THAT-WHICH I AM.” [Exodus 3:14]

I translate it “Never-you-mind-what-I-am!”
And “I yam what I yam!” (The Popeye description.)
And “I am foundational being.”

But nothing sticks.

I spell it YHWH, and my mind is boggled;
I pronounce it as a voiced inhalation (YAH…)
and exhalation (WAY),
and I am thunderstruck.

If Moses had then asked, “Can you create a rock so big that you can’t lift it?” or “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” the Israelites would still be in Egypt. God would have thought, “Well. This one doesn’t get it.”

In Luke 4, when the Deceiver comes to Jesus in the Desert, after Jesus has fasted for forty-days (which is ancient Hebrew for a really-long-time) and he is hungry, the Deceiver says, “If you are God’s Son, turn this stone into bread.” Jesus says, “Homey don’t play dat.”

And that is enough to convince me
he is the Messiah right-there.

He does not need to be born of a virgin
or to be crucified, dead, and buried
and on the third day raised to Heaven
to sit at the right hand of the Father.

He just needs to know what to say to the Deceiver
when he is hungry, in the desert, and there is no one else around.

And yet, when the United States is presented with a stone and asked whether we will ween ourselves from fossil fuels or turn it into oil, we say “Drill, baby! Drill!” We frack it. And we damn the consequences, our selves, and our children.

As Jesus was tempted to turn stone into bread, Esau was tempted by his twin-brother Jacob into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup. (Genesis says that Esau took his birthright lightly, he disdained it.) Jesus refuses to use his unearthly-power to fulfill his earthly needs. We can be sure that he respects his birthright; he will fulfill his calling; he will do what he was born to do.

Returning to Luke 4, Satan lays out all the kingdoms and riches of the world. He says, “These things are mine. And I give them to whomever I choose. Worship me, and I will put them in your control.” Jesus refuses saying, “Worship YHWH and YHWH only.”

I wonder if there is any truth in what the Deceiver says, but how can there be?

It seems true that the kingdoms and riches and power are the Deceiver’s.

But Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” And Jesus will later tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” [John 18:36]

But this is the bargain that we make in the secular world. A little power over these people and these things is granted to us, but we must still answer to our bosses, to our masters. We wind up being driven by the question, “What is your bidding?” And we are haunted by the thought of our power and position being eroded or taken away. We are in this world, and some of us are of and from this world as well. And all of us are at least some of the time.

Jesus did not put himself in the position of borrowing power from someone or a system. He relied on God, and built his power from the ground (from the stones) up. Thus, he becomes the Chief Cornerstone in the wall between church and state.

If ever a church and state were separate, it was in Jerusalem, c. 0 BC under Roman rule. Yet, “the factions (Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin) soon agreed” [as in James K. Polk by They Might Be Giants] that “this Jesus must die.” [as in Jesus Christ Superstar]

During the run-up to the 2016 election, I was thinking of Trump as Hitler. And I was thinking that some people thought Hillary was the Anti-Christ.

And then I thought, that’s all wrong.

Neither one of them is perfect, far from it. Neither one of them is pure evil. And then I thought, Jesus, when offered the kingdoms of the world, refuses to have anything to do with it. [John 4]

If Jesus didn’t want to be Roman Emperor, he surely would not run for President of the United States. Then I wondered, why? Wouldn’t that be the best way for him to establish heaven on earth?

Then I thought, politics, our idea of government by coercion must be wrong, flawed. It is a system of power, not a system of truth and grace. [Insight brought to me by What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancy]

This does not absolve us from advocating for public policy based on our moral convictions. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to the vulnerable, the immigrant, the voiceless. We cannot wash our hands. But we also must be careful if we find ourselves staking out the moral high ground, because very few of us have been to the Mountain, and none of us can tell Good from Evil.

Thirdly and finally, Jesus is tempted to jump from the top of the temple, to leap from the peak of religious power and defy the Laws of Nature. Why would you do that? To prove that you are the Son of God? Why would you play a losing game to prove a point to someone? If he jumped and flew, he couldn’t be fully-human. He wouldn’t know what it was like to be me. And he couldn’t be the Christ, the Messiah. I would never have any hope of following him.

Well, Caiaphas, the chief priest, will take that leap of faith. He will pass judgement on the Son of God just to prove that it is he (and he alone) at the head of the Jewish religious establishment. And he will fall, and no angel will rescue him. Still, perhaps, Jesus did rescue him. I can’t deny Jesus that right, that ability, that Grace.

The first temptation (turn this stone into bread) is about trusting God (not yourself) from moment to moment. And the second establishes the division between church and state. After all, politics is a graceless system. It is a hopeless cause, doomed to exist only on this side of eternity. The third is about not testing God. God is an axiom. God cannot be proven because God cannot be put to the test (scientific, logical or theological).

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