The fourth temptation of Jesus

Week of Sunday January 31 – Epiphany 4
Gospel: Luke 4:22-30

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepersin Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

In my own little Nazareth, both church and city, we seem to be coming to the brow of the hill more often. It worries me. What's happening to us?

With unmistakeable imagery, Jesus tells his own home town that it has missed out on the blessings of God: Luke aligns Jesus with the great prophets Elijah and Elisha [1], and tells a story of each bringing God's favour and healing to people who were not from Israel, but were from an enemy nation. [2]

In Luke's time, as my colleague Greg Crawford points out in a lectionary discussion group, this fits in with some of Luke's major themes. It answers questions such as why so few Jewish people had followed Jesus, and justifies the mission to the Gentiles.  [3]. He says, "The question one is then faced with is how this can mean something for us today."

Who we are
What if we identify ourselves as the people of Jesus' hometown; the place where he lives? Are we not meant to be body of Christ?

In the culture of the time, he was expected to show preference for those of his own home town [4], and this is what he refused to do. How does that relate to us?

How do we live as Jesus' own home town? Do we expect some privilege from being Jesus' people?

In a poignant post reflecting on the falling apart of the world described in Mark 13, Richard Beck says

So what were Jesus's followers supposed to do? This is Jesus's constant refrain in Mark 13: Watch. That is, in fact, how Jesus's apocalyptic discourse ends, with the command to watch.

That's what I'm doing now with my beloved America. I'm just watching it fall apart. Personally, I think we are headed to a very bad place and we've lost our ability to save ourselves. In our fear-driven panic we've lost our ability to turn back from the precipice. We're going to go over the edge. Maybe sooner, maybe later. But it's just a matter of time.

But you know what? That's okay. Empires come. Empires go.

And the church simply watches.

Beck is no retreat-from-the-world Christian. He is actively involved in prison ministry and other Christ inspired social justice activities. Rather, his watching is prophetic acknowledgement of what is happening in our world: the Empire is going down. In our globalised society it is difficult not to see this fall taking the rest of us down, too. Beck highlights the grief of the loss of our world, grief that a nation which had so much potential for good, is falling apart.

As Jesus' hometown we are first called to decide if we are on the side of Empire or Jesus. If we choose Jesus we ought not to expect too many of the benefits of Empire. This should be obvious, but prosperity theology remains common, and there is even more preaching of victorious, relatively untroubled life which seems to assume we will live under the peaceful protection of Empire.

As Jesus' hometown, we are also called to decide if we are among the prophets— who see what is happening, and who creatively bear the pain of it and bear witness to it— or on the side of the enraged. We live in a world full of grief at the loss of our expectations. We can choose whether to rage like Nazareth, or whether to respond in some other way.

There is "one thing certain in the study of the long history of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism—a 100-percent failure rate." (James Tabor quoting Norman Perrin.) I am making no claim about end times, but if we are not honest about the severity of our situation, and the depths of our grief, we will remain blind to what is happening around us.

Where we live
We live with an underlying but largely denied anxiety about the biosphere upon which we depend for survival.

Reading and writing about climate change for a living is a bit like being a beer taste tester: It’s interesting, but if you’re going to do it on a daily basis, you have to spit it out, or you’ll wind up incapacitated. My wife has forbidden me from talking about my work with her, because she doesn’t want to think about it more than she already does.

So, yes, I feel a mix of anxiety, depression, hope, fear, and dread every day. On most days, I’m able to separate myself from thinking about what’s actually going on and just cover the interesting new scientific developments from a step back. But there are days when I physically can’t write what seems like one more dumb article about a problem so huge and overwhelming. Eric Holthaus

Climate change denial is, underneath all else, a response of deep fear. At the most frightening understanding of climate change we have Roy Scranton saying

If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.

Scranton's article is called Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. As I try to speak creatively to my church about climate change, I find my own grief almost overwhelming, and, as Holthaus says, sometimes simply incapacitating.

It is difficult not to conclude that we also live in a time of cultural decline. Indeed, the fear of climate change is almost certainly a factor feeding the absurd spectacle of the American pre-presidential hoopla which is decline writ large. In The Guardian, Katharine Murphy describes widespread disenchantment as one reason Trump has gained such a foothold in the electioneering, along with the traction Bernie Sanders seems to be gaining against Hilary Clinton. She writes:

We [Australians] don’t have to contemplate soul-searching about why the great 20th century superpower has turned in on itself and become almost ungovernable in the new century, largely because of the institutionalised idiocy of a political system that has Balkanised into hyper-partisanship deployed for its own sake, not for any greater end.

Given recent history, green shoots of economic recovery notwithstanding, it is entirely rational for Americans to look at their system and feel either fear or boiling rage.

In Australia, our institutional failures are smaller in scale…. [but Australian] … politics also needs to grapple with fundamental questions of integrity: can voters have faith in the system that exists now, or do we need to buttress the foundations?

Otherwise our political party game beamed live from the US is less summer spectacle, and more harbinger of our own, collective nightmare.

There is growing hatred and disenchantment on both right and left in Australia toward our political elite, and this will be further fuelled by rage and panic as the climate crisis heats up. The symptoms are already clear. In Australia there is a frightening hardening of attitudes against those who are different. We perpetrate prolonged, unrepentant crimes against humanity with the imprisonment of children in offshore concentration camps. We are just now sending children back to Nauru.  

So how does this all tie in with Luke, and our living as Jesus' own hometown?

At our last bible study my friend Audrey said, "He has just been tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple [5]and rejected that temptation— and now they are trying to throw him off the cliff! There must be a connection." Perhaps the echo of throwing is more an accident of the English than it is embedded in the Greek text, but there is a tempration to provide signs from the devil, which Jesus refuses, and a demand for signs in the present text, which Jesus also refuses.

It is explored in notes made by Paul Nuechterlein on work by Gil Bailie.

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We have to read this more carefully. He sat down. That was it. Then, all the eyes were fixed on him. He stopped the service. He didn’t read it and say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He read it and sat down. He stopped the show with everyone’s eyes on him, and then he said, “Today…”

Bailie suggests, on this reading, that "Jesus had no intention on commenting on this scripture when he went up to read it. It seems that he wasn’t moved to comment until all the eyes were upon him. "[6] If we grant him that interpretation, what then?

[What does it] mean to have all the eyes upon him? True ontology is to be grounded in God. And false ontology is to be the observed of all observers…

So this is another temptation: to have all eyes fixed on him. (Ibid)

The temptation is to be the demagogue, the trump, the great leader. And in our case, this resolves itself as the temptation to join the cavalcade behind him, and cheer him on in the stadium, and enjoy the riches his victory brings us. It is the temptation to win, or be on the winning side. It is the temptation of privilege.

But Jesus chooses the way of the prophet [7] rather than the great leader. He rejects the temptation.

… a prophet is rejected by those whose acceptance would have made his prophetic vocation unnecessary [8]. Rejection endows the prophet with what Andrew McKenna calls the victim’s “epistemological privilege,” the ability to know things that other people can’t know. The victim is precisely the one who can see things that other people cannot see. The prophet is the one who can see and speak of these things. In order to have the victim’s epistemological privilege, he has to be one. To some extent, he has to suffer social rejection. We tend to think that the prophet gets rejected because of his message, which is, of course, true. But it’s also true that he has a message because he’s been rejected. (Ibid)

To be clear: we are not talking about "playing the victim." That is the stupidity of men's rights groups, or armed fools taking over wildlife sanctuaries, because their hurt and rage at the loss of their privilege blinds them to the real ills of society.

The prophetic victim is the one who sees. Who sees that good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight, is about solidarity and stepping down from privilege; that it is the removal of demarcation by difference rather than reinforcing difference to maintain privilege.

 Bill Loader shows a home town which succumbs to the temptation of privilege.

… the principles of human behaviour (including religious behaviour) which Luke enunciates are as relevant today as they were in his. People become possessive about truth and knowledge. When their knowledge power [— this is also often privileged power] is threatened, they often become aggressive. This can include refusal to face new truth. It can include vilification of the other. Luke could have written similar things about Christian communities, had he known what we know about the history that followed. A different race, a different culture, a different setting - to those obsessed with protecting their own and fearful of change these are dangers to be avoided, enemies to be attacked….

Luke could have written similar things about Christian communities…

Bill continues

At one level Luke’s message is simple and uncontroversial: if you join Jesus in living a life of compassion that is inclusive and without prejudice against the despised and feared, you will be living the life of the Spirit and you will be courting danger.  (Ibid)

Inclusive compassion underlies our participation in the good news of Isaiah 61. It is not about vengeance. Luke and Jesus purposely leave that out. [9]

So as Jesus' hometown, accepting him means to court danger. But in our fear and grief at this danger, and our fear and grief at the loss of our world there is the peculiar fourth temptation of Christ, which we must also reject: we cannot have the eyes of the world upon us. We must step down from our privilege and join the rejected. In the context of this discussion this includes how we deal with our grief at the loss of our world. There is one way not to go:

If you start hating the sources of danger and thus dehumanising the enemy, you have become part of the problem, rather than part of its solution.


The mission and message of Jesus according to Luke are about undermining the dehumanising categories wherever they have been applied (usually to people seen as threats). This is not about a naive denial of danger where it exists, but it is about living out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value, are never written off. That really is good news also in today’s world. (Loader)

The fourth temptation is to maintain privilege, and to win; that is, to have the eyes of the world fixed upon us. Jesus refuses. To maintain privilege means to designate losers, people to blame and victimise, to justify our privilege. Jesus refused. So the question is, would Jesus be at home among us, or would he just be in his home town?

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!

 [1]  Fitzmyer The Gospel According to Luke 1-1X Anchor Bible pp 530

 [2] The king of Israel interpreted Naaman's visit as an excuse to start war.  (2 Kings 5) Tyre and Sidon where the widow of 1 Kings 17 came from,  were centres of Canaanite religion cf. Matt 15:21-8 where he changes Syro-Phoenician woman to Canaanite woman.

 [3]The discussion group is PRCL. See also Bill Loader: Luke’s church will have faced fierce competition from resurgent Judaism of the 80’s and had to grapple with the pain of its relative failure among Jews. Also Fitzmyer op. cit. pp 537: Elijah and Elisha "provide a justification from the OT for the Christian mission to the Gentiles."

 [4] Jesus is a hometown boy, and, therefore, special favors for Nazareth are expected.  In terms of middle-eastern mores of the first century, a person had an obligation first to their family and then to their hometown.  "Is not this Joseph's son?"  Was not Joseph one of us?  Does not Joseph's son, then, have a special bond with us?  Should we not be the first beneficiaries of his "gracious actions" which, we are now assuming, follow his "gracious words"? John Petty

 [5] Fitzmyer pp 517 notes "When the King, the Messiah, reveals himself, he will come and stand on the roof of the temple." In Pesiqta Rabbati 36. But this is dated to 845 CE and may not have been the view in the time of Jesus.

 [6] Although, in the culture of the synagogue, sitting is the stance of exposition. Fitzmyer op. cit. 533

[7] Fitzmyer op. cit. pp 530 sees that Jesus is being compared by the texts with the great prophets Elijah and Elisha. He does not see that the anointing of Isaiah 61 points so much to Jesus being the (anointed) Messiah in the way I suggested last week. Although on pp 517 he notes "When the King, the Messiah, reveals himself, he will come and stand on the roof of the temple." In Pesiqta Rabbati 36. But this is dated to 845 CE and may not have been the view in the time of Jesus.

[8] cf Alyce McKenzie: He knows exactly what he intends to say: he intends to point out the truth to his audience. That's what prophets do, in their hometowns and beyond. If his hometown folks are offended, let them prove him wrong by heeding his teachings and amending their lives. … Nobody else had the guts to tell them what Jesus told them and us: "You won't be able to claim God's blessings for your life unless you claim them for other people's lives at the same time." Nobody else but you has the power to accept this hard message as the guiding light of your life. Nobody else but you has the power to accept Jesus' gifts of peace, forgiveness, justice for your life.

 [9] Fitzmyer op. cit. Leaving out the line on vengeance is "a deliberate suppression of a negative aspect of the Deutero-Isaian message… The "today" of verse 21 is not to be identified with a day of vengeance." pp532



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