Justo Gonzalez points us to the end of the Lukan genealogy to interpret the Wilderness Temptation. In that genealogy, we go from Jesus, son of Joseph to Adam, son of God. Prior to the genealogy in the Lukan account, we hear the voice from heaven which declares to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in you I take delight” (Luke 3:22c, my translation). And the satanic question which drives the Wilderness Testing is, “If you are the Son of God…” Gonzalez writes, “Thus there is a particular connection between Adam, who in a sense is also a sort of son of God, and Jesus, who is the Son of God” (Kindle Location 1110).
In some way or another, the Lukan author sees Adam as a type for Jesus, the Son of God. “Adam is the beginning of the old creation,” Gonzalez writes, “and Jesus is the beginning of the new” (Kindle Location 1116). This typology continues, then, in the Wilderness Testing, according to Gonzalez and numerous others, where Jesus is tempted in ways similar to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The typology, according to Gonzalez and others, is deeper and more complex. The genealogy, Gonzalez writes, “sets the stage for a double typology, in which the theme of Adam in the garden parallels the theme of Israel in the wilderness” (Kindle Location 1124). Therefore, he concludes, the Wilderness Testing story, at least in Matthew and Luke, becomes a “typological axis” that runs from the Garden of Eden through Egypt and into the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews, “showing that from ancient times God was beginning to undo the evil that was done in the fall” (Kindle Location 1126).
In the Lukan narrative, Gonzalez argues, Jesus comes to undo the sin of Adam and to complete the mission of Israel. That requires confrontation with and conquest of the powers of sin, death, and the devil. That confrontation begins here in the Wilderness Testing and is consummated in the cross and resurrection. There are numerous similarities between Adam and Jesus and the Hebrews and Jesus. But the differences will make all the difference to the Lukan author.
In the first temptation, Jesus is tempted to eat just as Adam was tempted to eat. “The temptation is not simply to prove that he is the Son of God by turning a stone into bread,” Gonzalez writes, “it is also to eat when he is not supposed to do so” (Kindle Location 1152). The connection to Israel in the Wilderness comes with the quotation from Deuteronomy 8, that human beings shall not get life from bread alone. No shortcuts to life with God. There is only the long road (see Deuteronomy 8).
It is worth practicing the “small text, big context” method of interpretation at this point. Go back and read the full paragraph that begins Deuteronomy 8. Levine and Witherington make these comments. “Jesus’ rejection of the first temptation indicates more than his finding a successful proof-text. The problem with turning the stone into bread,” they continue, “which would be a great benefit for those who are hungry, is substituting the quick band aid for a problem that needs greater redressing” (pages 108-109).
The Diabolical One invites Jesus to short-circuit the need for trust and to find short-cuts for problem-solving. This will be the common factor in all three Wilderness tests. In the effort to find pain-free solutions to life’s problems, The Diabolical One invites Jesus to solve these problems with parlor tricks that require neither risk nor trust. The temptation, Gonzalez argues, is not to claim what is offered but rather to claim what is offered “prematurely and by an easy concession to the power of evil” (Kindle Location 1192).
“All our temptations can be seen as fitting into the three categories of tests that Jesus faced,” Levine and Witherington write, “temptations to self-interest and expedience; temptations of power and glory faced by false worship; and temptations of invulnerability, self-importance, and entitlement” (page 111). That inventory would make a good checklist for personal and communal self-examination during the Lenten season. That’s one of the reasons our journey starts with this text.
Gonzalez notes that what the Diabolical One promises to Jesus will in fact be his at some point. There is reason to believe the same would have been true for Adam and Eve. “Adam stretches out his hand in eager – and therefore untrusting – anticipation,” Gonzalez suggests. “Jesus resists the devil by reaffirming his trust in God and in God alone” (Kindle Location 1203).
This trust, however, is not a mere acquiescence to the status quo, Gonzalez argues. Prideful and powerful acquisition is the prerogative of those with power, position, privilege, and property. It is not an option for the oppressed. Pride may go before the fall for those who have a distance to fall. But for those on the bottom, he declares, the problem is not pride but rather false humility.
“Just as the temptation ‘You will be like God’ has power only if one forgets that one already bears the divine image,” Gonzalez writes, “so does the invitation to claim one’s rights and possibilities become a temptation only if one forgets that one bears the image of God” (Kindle Location 1212). I am reminded of the insight from scholars that the first man and woman are imagined as a royal couple, not a couple of dirt farmers. Thus, they had some distance to “fall.”
Pride is a problem for those with position, Gonzalez continues. “From the perspective of the powerful, the root of all sin may be pride,” he writes, “but ‘from below,’ it is false humility, acquiescing to injustice, not trusting God’s definition of who we are” (Kindle Location 1218). In the Wilderness Testing, Jesus does not allow the Diabolical One to define him either as self-absorbed tyrant or as deprived victim. The point is that God defines who Jesus is. Satan does not.
It’s worth noting how Jesus’ capacity for resistance is shaped and provided. He comes in the Wilderness testing filled with the Holy Spirit. That capacity does not diminish during the sojourn, no matter how hungry and tired he may be. He also comes into the testing filled with the word of God in scripture as a ready resource and tool. The earthly Jesus knew his Bible and how to use it. If only that were true of many contemporary church folk.
“Jesus’ temptations differ in quality from normal human temptations,” Levine and Witherington write, “but everyone is tempted to engage in the quick fix rather than promote systemic change, to put self-interest ahead of communal need, and to worship the gods of this earth: money, power, fame, beauty, longevity. Thus, the temptations of Luke 4, although part of the cosmic battle,” they continue, “are also lessons for all people. As Jesus shows,” they conclude, “knowledge and the use of the Torah are one of the keys to overcoming demonic lures” (pages 103-104).
Why have Christians historically seen Lent as a time of increased self-examination, additional worship experiences, and deepened interaction with scripture and theology? We engage in such practices because these are the tools the Holy Spirit gives to us to endure the tests of life as Jesus endured them. The ongoing desire for bumper sticker theology and tweet-length Bible study results in Christians who are ill-equipped for the ongoing struggles we have with sin, death, and the devil.
The impatience with deep study, reflection, and meditation as part of the Lenten (and larger Christian) journey is a small symptom of our inveterate desire to cut corners. I think Richard Swanson’s image of the Diabolical One as the “cosmic building inspector” (page 115) is so apt in this regard. “He is the person appointed by God to inspect the structure of creation and of human lives. If there is shoddy construction,” Swanson continues, “it is his job to point it out.” While the Diabolical One may remind us of those rare inspectors who take pleasure in ordering us to tear up a driveway that doesn’t meet code, the point remains. Our default tendency in this sinful world is to cut corners and to do God one better in the process.
For example, I think about Austin Channing Brown’s critique of the White (Mainline, Liberal) Christian rush to reconciliation. “I am convinced that one of the reasons white churches favor dialogue,” she writes, “is that the parameters of dialogue can be easily manipulated to benefit whiteness” (page 170). We White Christians know that reconciliation is our calling in Christ, but we’d really like to get there without all the muss and fuss of repentance and reparation. Repentance is painful, and repair is expensive (for us). So, let’s take the shortcut straight to reconciliation, so people of color won’t pass “Go” and collect “our” two hundred dollars.
“But we cannot negotiate our way to reconciliation,” Channing Brown writes. “White people need to listen, to pause so that people of color can clearly articulate both the disappointment they’ve endured and what it would take for reparations to be made.” That long, hard, slow, and patient work is often too painful for White Christians to consider, at least in the beginning of our experience. So, we opt for rapid reconciliation. “Too often,” Channing Brown observes, “dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come” (page 170).
I believe that patient work, study, prayer, and action can lead us White Christians away from our idolatry of comfort and short-cuts. But that will happen only if we choose to make it happen.
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018. Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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