No Shortcuts past the Cross

Week of Sunday February 17 – Lent One
Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”, 
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

We are meant to remember Moses and Israel. This is no hint; the number 40, being led in the wilderness by the Spirit— Moses too, was full of the Spirit— the mention of the Jordan, being taken up on a high mountain all amount to an instruction to remember.

Matthew’s gospel develops this more explicitly. The last temptation in that gospel is made to be the event on the high mountain, which is Moses’ last act before his death in Deuteronomy 34, where he looks over the whole land.

When we compare the two figures we see they are both leaders of Israel. They have a wilderness experience which lasts for a long time. Israel’s desert time is marked by failure and succumbing to temptation; even Moses does not enter the Promised Land. Jesus does not fail.

At his baptism, and the beginning of his ministry, Jesus shows he is worthy of his calling.

A similar summary is made by Bill Loader who begins to link the temptations with later events in Matthew and Luke.

The offer of bread recalls the gift of manna; the offer of power recalls Moses’ view of the holy land; the temple miracle recalls the miracles of the wilderness days. Jesus’ responses are drawn directly from Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy. Jesus is faithful and obedient in contrast to Israel’s unfaithfulness in the wilderness, a typology which Matthew has already been developing in the birth narratives. Here is the true ‘son’. He is also the new Moses, able to view far flung kingdoms. But the devil is fooled in offering Jesus all authority from the high mountain; God will grant him that at his resurrection (28:18)

In my other favourite online exegetical notes, Brian Stoffregen comments

The devil asks Jesus to prove his faith on the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus will not do that now -- neither will he do it later. The next time Jesus goes to the temple in Jerusalem, he throws out the sellers. He isn't taken to the top of the temple, but to the top of a cross. It isn't the devil who tempts him to jump down, but the people who cry out, "If you are the Son of God, jump down from the cross. Save yourself and then we will believe in you." Jesus will not come down. The angels will not save him from hurting his feet. They will not save him from an agonizing death.

Brian quotes Nickle’s Preaching the Gospel of Luke.

Without trivializing the intensity of Jesus' wilderness encounter, it is nonetheless appropriate to point out that all Christians find themselves struggling with similar temptations to dilute the quality and even exchange the object of their commitment during the course of their pilgrimage.  There are times when they too, in response to the call of God, are tempted to be satisfied with offering the adequate rather than the best that their disciplined service can offer ... or, having caught the vision, to succumb to impatience and seek to accomplish God's purposes by means alien to God's character ... or, to seek to coerce God by taking shortcuts to success. [p. 40]

That last sentence is profound.  I had decided Luke was teaching us that there are no short cuts to being the Messiah. And, therefore, that there are no shortcuts to being the Messiah’s disciple.  

But look again at Nickle’s summary of the temptations: adequate rather than the best... impatience that ends up with compromises alien to God’s character, and seeking to coerce God. It’s a picture of modern politics, and also much of the internal politics of the church.

 It’s not that there is to be no miracle working by Jesus. But the signs and wonders and miracles are to bring him to the cross, not to avoid it! True salvation, which means being brought to a fulfilled, true humanity, is through death and resurrection, not by avoiding them. The devil is offering Jesus a shortcut around the cross. Luke repudiates this from the beginning.

The gospels are all hard line. They are uncompromising, which appeals to our uncompromising natures. But we emulate this lack of compromise wrongly, because we refuse to be uncompromising about justice and about compassion and love, the things the gospels are most insistent about! We become hardliners by insisting on our doctrinal constructions being followed by everyone, (although we will make exceptions for our own failings) instead of insisting on compassion toward all people and all creation, and insisting on justice for all people and all creation.

Each time we make these comprises, we fail and fall back into the wilderness, like the people of Israel, and we need someone greater than Moses— a real Joshua—   to baptise us again through the Jordan; to bring us back into living the Promised Land. Except that the waters will not be parted as for the first Joshua. To follow this Joshua we will need to go down into the waters, and trust in resurrection.

We are living in the collapse of an era. The gap between rich and poor is increasing and accelerating. Climate change, massive storms and droughts, mass starvation and disease are bearing down upon us. As our technical expertise increases, and our hospitals work even greater wonders, the mass of the excluded people is growing.

The temptation to produce or procure bread in unjust ways will increase. Remember, we often call money “bread,” and “dough.”

This political reading is not hijacking the gospel. The devil took Jesus up on a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. This was Rome. They controlled all the kingdoms of the world. What a relief to be rid of them, and their empire of oppression. Even a small Jesus, with a small independent empire, would be an improvement; but the whole world! What an opportunity... except there has never been an empire whose improvements did not unjustly rest upon an underclass of God’s people.

In Australia and the United States, our democracy and human rights at home rest upon the unstable foundation of the exploited in poor nations. (We call this trade.)  But there is a salt damp; the poverty is creeping up from the foundations into our own walls, rotting the structure of our societies.

A Marxist lecturer in my philosophy classes once claimed human rights are a compromise by the ruling class to buy off the pretenders to the throne. He was uncompromising in his cynicism.

If we are to be uncompromising in our compassion and in our living justly and seeking for justice, there will be no cheap bread; the bread we have will be gift. With blood. And perhaps our own.

We cannot be bought off. We cannot own power. We could look at it this way. We could stop saying, “My denomination has the distinction of being the largest non government service provider in the country.” (It is.) Instead, we could say it has the habit of being jealous of the recognition and status, and the superb PR, of the Salvation Army, who by comparison, are miniscule service providers, and yet sit large in the Australian consciousness. But the Salvos are running concentration camps for the government; off shore refugee camps which are a contravention of international treaties, and an offense to the gospel.

And there is no protection except resurrection. No stopping of our falling. Only a hard won experience of resurrection which is often hard to hear over our cries of dereliction. But nonetheless real.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


Full of the Spirit: Numbers 11:29 [Back]
Led by the Spirit: The pillar of fire and cloud: Exodus 13 [Back]
High Mountain: Deut 34 [Back]



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