Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Six)

What is the good news that we can hear and proclaim in the Lukan story of the Wilderness Testing? I might perhaps put it in the words of Bryan Stephenson in Just Mercy. “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths,” he writes, “including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (pages 17-18). The truth about ourselves is a source of healing and hope rather than one of humiliation and horror.

I’m not suggesting that Jesus confronts some terrible truth about himself in the Wilderness Testing. Indeed, we have seen that even the Diabolical One acknowledges the truth of what Jesus hears in his baptism – that he is the beloved Son of God, in whom God takes delight. But the Diabolical One wishes to take that truth, twist it to perverse purpose, and use it to lead Jesus onto a path that violates and invalidates that very truth.

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Jesus comes to recover and redeem human beings as the bearers of God’s image and likeness, to recover and redeem the identity with which we are created. This is the connection the Lukan author makes in identifying both Adam and Jesus as Son of God. Jesus will not be deterred from the truth of this identity by false promises of easy glory and quick fixes. Nor will we be imprisoned by sin and locked away from this identity forever.

The simplest good news in the Wilderness Testing is that Jesus wins. But Jesus will not use the tools of the Diabolical One in that victory. He will not use magic tricks or political violence or publicity stunts to try to accomplish what only self-giving Love can do. This is consistent with the commands in the Sermon on the Plain. There we learn that we also cannot defeat the Enemy using the Enemy’s tools. We who follow Jesus are called to a different way, the way of truthfulness.

Each of us sinners is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. No one needs to be defined by our past failings and falsehoods, our hatreds and hungers, our misdeeds and mayhem. We all have truths we wish would remain hidden and histories we have worked hard to bury. Truth-telling sounds much more like threat than freedom. But the sins of omission and the lies of not telling deform and deface us just as much as do aggressive acts of violence. It is in truth-telling that we find real liberation.

Here in the Wilderness Testing we see the One who joins together truth and love, honesty and grace. There is no healing from trauma without truth-telling, either for the victim or the perpetrator. And we have been each and both in our lifetimes.

I think about the reconsideration of the “Mark of Cain” that Robert P. Jones offers in his book, White Too Long. He describes the jars of soil one can find at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These jars have come from places where Black men, women, and children have been lynched over the last one hundred and fifty years. One of those jars was filled just a few miles from my home here in Omaha and brings to remembrance the lynching of Will Brown in 1919.

Jones notes that each of those jars embodies God’s words to Cain after he murdered his brother, Abel, as recorded in Genesis four. God declares that Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for justice. The very soil itself bears witness to the crime. “And despite our denials, equivocations, protests, and excuses,” Jones writes, “as the biblical narrative declares, the soil itself preserves and carries a testimony of truth to God” (page 231).

Cain resists the truth and compounds his crime by lying to God. He complains to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to that question, of course, is yes. “Here, it’s clear that Cain’s decision to lie about his hand in the murder and to deny responsibility makes his future harder, just as our denials threaten our own future,” Jones continues. “The challenge for white Americans today, and white Christians in particular, is whether and how we are going to answer these questions: ‘Where is your brother?’ and ‘What have you done?’” (page 231).

Jones makes the case that our insistence on denial and deception disfigures the souls of White Christians in America. It may be that the myth of white supremacy has twisted our Christianity almost beyond recognition and into a cruel parody of the real thing. He quotes a James Baldwin op-ed column to drive home the point. White Christians have been formed by the lie of White Supremacy in such a way that “the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself” (page 233).

It is only through truth-telling that we can begin to heal from the trauma of perpetrating four centuries of inhumanity upon millions of other image-bearers. Truth telling is painful and terrifying. But there is no healing from trauma without testimony. As Jones suggests, if we White Christians would engage in confession and repair, reconciliation would take care of itself. And as long as we will not tell the truth and embody it in actions, reconciliation is just a word behind which to hide.

In a recent article for RNS, Jones applies his analysis to our theology. Truth-telling will of necessity make us White people uncomfortable. That is the nature of confession. If we had nothing to discomfort us, confession would not be necessary. “If we white Christians can muster the courage to walk in its company,” Jones concludes in that article, “discomfort with our racial history can be a sacred and saving gift.”

In the Wilderness Testing, we can find the resources for truth-telling if we want them. The Holy Spirit assures us in the words of Jesus that “One does not live by bread alone.” The Word of God, the word of Truth, is the source of our life. We need not live on the false nourishment of a failed perfectionism.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” we read in the First Letter of John. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). Truth-telling is the path to freedom, and we can trust God to hear our truth and make us clean.

The Holy Spirit assures us that we find our humanity when we worship the Lord our God and serve only God (and not self). Jones notes that White Supremacy has been the idolatrous focus of Dominant Christianity on this continent for four hundred years. It continues to deform and deface the Christian witness to such a degree that the best statistical predictor of virulent White racism in a person is that White person’s commitment to and involvement in a Christian church. The Diabolical One must regard that perversion as a crowning achievement.

The Holy Spirit reminds us that demanding a life of comfort and security as the proof of God’s faithfulness is not faith but rather idolatry. If we demand that nothing in our faith should ever discomfort us, then we are putting God to the test.

I think about one of James Baldwin’s most powerful and memorable quotes here. “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without become something monstrous yourselves, and furthermore you give me a terrifying advantage: you never have to look at me; I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Nothing can be changed until it is faced. These are good and important words for the first Sunday in Lent. In telling the truth about what needs changing in us, we open ourselves to the possibility of life beyond deception and death.

The right path is rarely an easy one. The best path is rarely the comfortable one. The good news should lead us to what Robert P. Jones calls “Holy Discomfort.” That’s a good summary of the essence of the Lenten journey.

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Five)

I’m writing this the day after Ash Wednesday worship services. “Remember that you are dust,” the worship leader intones, “and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday is the first day of our annual Lenten journey. It is a meeting with mortality, a festival of finitude, a date with death. It’s not quite the trumpets and lilies of Easter, bringing in the crowds and sending us forth happy. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of what is supposed to be a hard journey.

I am encountering the latest attempts to make Lent less, well, “Lent-y.” After all, this self-denial stuff is demoralizing and depressing. We (White, western, privileged) Christians have had quite enough of limits and losses over the last two years, thank you very much. This year let’s talk about fullness and resilience and bouncing back better than ever. That’s much more fun.

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I will show my age by noting how much this sounds like the popular acronym for Lent from Robert Schuller. You can still find Schuler’s 1996 study on Lent available for sale if you like. He declared that “LENT” should stand for “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking.” At the time, the study sold like hotcakes (a great thing after a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper), and Americans were happy to be done with the doom and gloom of traditional Lenten thinking and devotion.

The cultural context for Schuler’s work was, of course, quite different from our own. The Berlin Wall had fallen just a few years earlier. The “end of history” had been announced. Neoliberal capitalism and politics had won the day. Bill Clinton was well into his presidential run of promising that everyone could have everything if only they would like him enough. The case for eliminating negative thinking was empirically visible. We can forgive poor old Bobby Schuler for his irrational exuberance.

It’s one thing to be so deceived by success that contemplating failure seems to be a waste of time. It’s another thing to be so immersed in limits and loss that we just can’t stand one more minute of it. Just as we are suffering from economic inflation in some part due to two years of pent-up consumer demand, so I think we are suffering from emotional and spiritual inflation in some part due to two years of pent-up happiness demand.

In the face of this longing for Lenten positivity, I needed a spiritual and emotional palate cleanser. So, I am turned this morning once again to Kate Bowler’s great book, No Cure for Being Human. It didn’t occur to me the first time I read it, but a point is obvious to me now. That book title would be a great Lenten worship theme, and hers is a book that could deeply inform congregational study groups during our forty-day journey – especially at this moment. Too bad I didn’t think about that sooner. And I must point out that Bowler has co-written a Lenten devotional book called Good Enough (I like it).

Bowler is an academic historian who has looked deeply into the development and current life of the American “Prosperity Gospel.” Her first trade book was called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. It’s an excellent description, analysis, and critique of the American theology of prosperity, the “name and claim it” school most clearly represented by Joel Osteen. A paragraph from the preface of No Cure for Being Human offers a synopsis of her work in the previous book.

“American culture has popular theories about how to build a perfect life. You can have it all if you just learn how to conquer your limits. There is infinity lurking somewhere at the bottom of your inbox or in the stack of self-help books on the bedside table. It taunts you as you grip the steering wheel in traffic, attempting your new breathing practice, or in the predawn minutes when you could be working out” (p. xiv).

Bowler was moving along through life with relatively few troubles when she received a cancer diagnosis. At that point, the academic study of relentless American toxic positivity became an existential reality. She was forced to contemplate and confront her own mortality and a life that would at some point continue without her. Human existence is finite, and Bowler could not escape that reality.

“Nothing will add up to enough,” she wrote of her dawning awareness. “I wish someone had told me that the end of a life is a complex equation. Years dwindle into months, months into days, and you must begin to count them. All my dreams and ambitions, friendships and petty fights, vacations and bedtimes with a boy in dinosaur pajamas must be squeezed into hours, minutes, seconds. How should I spend them?” (p. xvi).

This is the reality of the Lenten journey. We begin by remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return. The first Sunday in Lent we come up against all the ways that this life tests our faith, hope, and love, and all the ways we (I) come up short. We will end this Lenten journey at the foot of the cross where all seems to be lost. There’s no amount of positive thinking, no amount of wishing for fullness, no theological alchemy that turns my dying dust into gold dust.

Once or twice, I’ve described Ash Wednesday as the Christian Feast of Full Disclosure. It’s no wonder most people avoid it like the plague.

“The trick to losing,” Bowler writes, “is to do it all at once” (page 39). I don’t know if that’s a trick or just the nature of Reality. Bowler’s husband helps her to think about this losing in terms of laying things down. He talks about a secret he learned from hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Novices always bring way too much crap to carry. After a while, the weight is more than the crap is worth.

“This will be a hard journey,” Bowler’s spouse says after she has gotten her diagnosis. “Is there anything you can set down?” (page 40).

That’s the Lenten question, as far as I’m concerned. Is there anything you can set down? And it’s a question that many of us have faced over and over in the last few years. I’m not sure, however, that we’re ready to answer it with action. Instead, I think we find ourselves, at least culturally (and in most churches) asking ourselves how much of the crap we laid down we can pick up again. We don’t want a new life. We want our old lives back.

Let me quote Bowler again. “We worship at the altar of plenty. Our heroes are corporate titans, fitness-empire builders, grinning televangelists, music legends, and decorated athletes whose gilded lifestyles and totalizing success hold out the promise of more. Twelve-car garages and infinity pools and walk-through closets and red-bottomed heels. Despite the boom and bust of the American economy over the last fifty years,” she continues, “we cling to stories of more-than-enoughness, believing the future is full to the brim for all of us.” (page 44).

Masking that desire for fullness with “spiritual language” doesn’t change the deep-down desire to claw back what we feel has been “taken” from us.

It strikes me that the Diabolical One tries to prey on a sense of entitlement in the Wilderness Testing. Since you’re the Son of God, Satan says, you should certainly have these pretty things. That’s part of the deal, after all, isn’t it? The Diabolical One never argues about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Instead, that identity is a given. The temptation comes in converting that identity into the assumption that Jesus is entitled to being full, powerful, and invulnerable. If that assumption is accurate, then there’s no limit to what Jesus ought to do in order to achieve fullness, power, and safety.

The really deceitful part of the Wilderness Testing is that the Diabolical One promises Jesus things that Jesus already has. Satan offers nothing to Jesus that is beyond what it means to be the Son of God. I laugh sometimes at those junk mail pieces that trumpet on the envelope, “You may have already won!” Who can resist that? That’s the test Satan gives to Jesus. You may have already won, but why take the chance that you haven’t? Name it, claim it, and have a nice sandwich while you fly around on your world-conquering throne.

That, unfortunately, is the problem, not the solution. “But no matter how carefully we schedule our days, master our emotions, and try to wring our best life now from our better selves,” Bowler writes, “we cannot solve the problem of finitude. We will always want more. We need more” (page 185). It’s terrifying to be empty enough to be filled with the Spirit. It’s horrifying to set down all our stuff and fill our hands with prayers. It’s nonsense to let go of our all our self-justification and fill our heads with good words from God.

And yet, that is the real Lenten task. It’s will be a hard journey. Is there anything I can set down? I can’t speak for you. But I can, with the Spirit’s help, set down my desperate needs for approval, belonging, and significance. Six decades and more of effort to wrestle these things from life have not been successful. Of course, when I stop for a moment, I know that these things are already mine in Christ.

If only I could stop for a moment more often…

References and Resources

Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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.

Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Four)

The Lukan author takes the Markan composer’s love for chiastic structures and puts it on steroids. Some scholars suggest that the entire body of Luke-Acts is structured as a geographic chiasm beginning with Rome (in the Lukan prologue), moving to Galilee, through Samaria and Judea and centering in Jerusalem. The text the moves in Acts, as we well know, from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, into the broader Gentile world, and then ending with Paul in Rome.

Craig Louden examines the Lukan account of the Wilderness Testing as a “chiasm by design” – in other words, a chiastic structure intended by the Lukan author rather than one attributed to that author by an over-eager interpreter (such as yours truly).

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The first step in this analysis is to extend our text to Luke 4:14a – “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee.” That half-verse creates a noticeable verbal inclusio with Luke 4:1 by mirroring the words “returned” and “Spirit.” This inclusio technique makes remembering the story easier for a storyteller and is often an encouragement to look for narrative structure inside the included verses.

While I enjoy solving literary puzzles (and most other puzzles, to be honest), that’s not enough reason to take your time for this discussion. The purpose of analyzing a narrative structure is to equip interpreters with more data and insight for accurate and interesting preaching and teaching. A chiasm centers what the writer considers to be the most important element of a piece of text. That’s the payoff for this analysis. What does the Lukan author see as the most important moment in the Wilderness Testing?

Louden’s article relies on the technical work of Craig Arnold Smith to make a strong case that the Lukan account in 4:1-14a is a “chiasm by design.” If you are interested in detailed structural and statistical data, I’d recommend the article for your reading. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I found it to be pretty wonky, even by my standards. So, I’ll try to hit the high spots and then reflect more on the conclusions.

Perhaps you have noticed that only two of the three Diabolical tests have the premise, “If you are the Son of God” – the bread test and the Temple test. The “kingdoms of the world” test doesn’t begin with that provocation. It’s fairly easy to see that the Lukan author has placed this test in the midst of the two others which balance each other.

So, the center of the chiasm is, according to Louden, Luke 4:5-8, which focuses on the “authority and glory of the kingdoms”. The other tests question Jesus’ divine sonship. Verses 2 and 13 refer to Jesus’ being tested by the Diabolical One and are, according to Louden, “statements about proceeding and preceding events”. Verses 1b and 14 both refer to “returning” and offer “geographical narration”. Verses 1a and 14a mention the Spirit.

Earlier I mentioned the apparent geographic chiasm that structures the whole of Luke-Acts. Louden argues that this geographic chiasm continues at a micro level in our text. The Wilderness Testing begins and ends in Galilee. The next set of geographic parallels is the wilderness as a place of trial and Jerusalem as a place of (literal) trial. Centered on the rhetorical map is “all the kingdoms of the world.”

In addition, Louden performs a variety of statistical tests developed by Smith for such analysis. Based on these tests, the chances are about four out of five that the Lukan author intended to use a chiasm to structure the Wilderness Testing account. Therefore, we can with some confidence use this structural analysis to inform our interpretation. So, what does this mean for us?

Louden seeks to demonstrate two things from his analysis – that the Lukan emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit is clear in our text “and that the central element of the pericope emphasizes the universality of Jesus’s ministry, enhancing the interpretive significance of the segment for the book and Luke-Acts as a whole” (page 149). I have addressed the first conclusion to some degree in previous posts. I want to focus more on the second conclusion here.

“The zenith of this chiasm emphasizes the universal scope of Jesus’s mission,” Louden argues. “In a moment of time, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. This universal scope,” he continues, “is a hallmark theme of Luke’s gospel” (page 151).

Louden’s argument is contrary to the case made by other commentators, such as Levine and Witherington. They argue that the order of the tests is consecutive rather than chiastic and builds to a climax in Jerusalem. “Luke’s order preserves the Gospel’s focus on Jerusalem, where the text began as it introduced Zechariah in the Temple,” they write. “The Third Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem,” they continue, “and it is in Jerusalem where Jesus will face his final temptation. The Gospel ends,” they conclude, “with Jesus’ followers ‘continually in the temple blessing God’ (24:53)” (page 104).

I’m not at all equipped to adjudicate these different conclusions. I think the Levine/Witherington argument (which represents at least a plurality of commentators) is a strong case as well. But I’m interested in the alternative that Louden presents as worthy of consideration and reflection. He notes that his argument does not entail a Lukan focus primarily on a Gentile audience. “Luke is not primarily directed toward the gentiles but sees in their conversion hope that the Jews might still come to claim Jesus as Lord” (page 152).

Therefore, Louden argues that this second test emphasizes the “universal validity of Jesus’s lordship.” The Diabolical One seeks to serve as Jesus’ patron and benefactor. So, in the Roman system, Jesus would then be obligated to the Diabolical One as his superior. Satan seeks to do business just the way Romans would expect to do business, by the mutual exchange of patronage and subservience. “This meeting follows the form of ancient benefaction,” Louden writes, “which was the primary means by which power was distributed in the Greco-Roman world, existing across the empire and even in Palestine” (page 152).

Jesus rejects the Diabolical One’s authority to give Jesus what is already his. He rejects the patron/client system as a way to do business at all. We see that rejection amplified, for example, in the words of the Sermon on the Plain that we read just a few weeks ago. “Rather than giving into the devil in order to accelerate the universal impact of his mission,” Louden writes, “Jesus once again fulfills the OT and seeks the reconstitution of Israel by whom the gentiles would be saved” (page 153).

Louden argues that by making the second test the center of the Wilderness Testing, the Lukan author highlights the prominence of this interpretation of salvation history and prepares us for the end of Luke-Acts where Paul has (at least rhetorically) invaded Rome itself. “By using a chiasm to emphasize this theme of universality,” he suggests, “the temptation in the wilderness looks ahead to a time when the reality of Jesus’s life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension will be verified in the response of the kingdoms to the Gospel” (page 153).

This is as far as Louden goes with his conclusions. But if he is correct in his analysis, I think I would go further. The second test contains a critique of all the kingdoms of this world. The only real kingdom worth mentioning in the first-century Mediterranean, of course, is the Roman Empire. Levine and Witherington note that the Lukan author portrays Augustus Caesar as in control of all the world (Luke 2:1). But, as they note, it seems that Satan is his superior. “This second temptation can therefore be read,” they suggest, “as a critique of any empire.” The Diabolical One points to the glory and authority of earthly kingdoms, “but glory and ultimate authority should, for Luke, belong to God, not the state” (page 109).

If Louden’s analysis is correct, then the Wilderness Testing is a timely text today. The “kingdoms of this world” are engaged in a highly visible and horrifically dangerous conflict over who is really in charge of this world. It would seem that the Russian “kingdom” is willing to transgress any number of “civilized” boundaries and norms in order to maintain and expand that power. It would also seem that many western countries are acting to inhibit that exercise in brute force.

The countries opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine appeal to “higher” standards of behavior and norms for political conflict. Those higher standards are appeals to mutual respect, common humanity, limitations on violence, and care for non-combatants. In truth, Vladimir Putin stands more securely in the tradition of statecraft since the days of Machiavelli – who believed there were no higher standards. Nations should seek to accumulate as much power as power by any means necessary.

The analysis of world politics offered by Luke 4 suggests that Machiavelli deserves the Satanic caricatures that have been applied to him over the centuries. Absolute power corrupts absolutely because such power seeks to claim Divine prerogatives for human gain. Jesus does not rule in that way. We shall follow him in Lent on his journey to the cross to remember the way in which he does rule.

It’s hard to keep politics out of the pulpit with texts like this.

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.

Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Three)

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.

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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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Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part Two)

“But Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and he was led, in the Spirit, in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by the Diabolical One.” (Luke 4:1, my translation).

Why was Jesus tested in the wilderness? I think the proper translation of “peirazo” here is “to test” rather than “to tempt.” That is the consensus of Biblical scholars. Both Hebrew and Greek have one word for tempting and testing. But as English speakers we need to make a choice because there are differences in emphasis between the two words.

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That translation choice doesn’t really help, however, to answer the question. Why was Jesus tested in the wilderness? This question raises all sorts of secondary questions. Was there a chance that Jesus could or would fail the test? On the one hand, that seems obvious. After all, it’s not a test if you can’t fail. I don’t think this is an Alice in Wonderland contest where everyone wins, and all shall have prizes. This is a real test or it’s a waste of parchment.

Yet, what does it mean to say that Jesus might fail? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews seems to rule out this possibility as that writer interprets Jesus’ various tests and trials. The writer connects the fullness of Incarnation with Jesus’ role as our merciful and faithful high priest. In order to make the properly atoning sacrifice for us, he had to become one of us (yet without sin), and that included testing. As a result of that testing by suffering, “he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18b, NRSV).

One answer from the Letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus is tested in order to become fully immersed in humanity and to embody and enact divine solidarity with all who are tested by suffering. That solidarity produces “help” for those who are being tested. This answer to the question is amplified in Hebrews 4:15 (NRSV) – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

This divine sympathy and solidarity are what make it possible for us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness” where we can “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, NRSV). The Letter to the Hebrews assesses the testing of Jesus from our perspective and for our benefit, and that’s a useful lens through which to read the Wilderness Testing in Luke 4.

But this perspective doesn’t really deal with the question. Why was Jesus tested? Didn’t God know how it would turn out? Was God uncertain of the limits of the Incarnational design tolerances? That seems unlikely. Did Jesus need some sort of physical and spiritual conditioning before launching into the rough and tumble of ministry? Was this some kind of Messianic boot camp? Was the testing really some time in the Christ-kiln to fire the glaze or harden the metal? Perhaps.

What did this mean for Jesus? Was he unaware of what would happen during his own wilderness wandering? Was he unsure of his own endurance and limits and needed to test those limits before going forward? That proposal, at least, seems plausible.

Or was this initially more of a symbolic or prophetic act for Jesus. Perhaps he wanted to experience personally or even complete the wilderness wanderings of Israel, where God’s people had been tested and often failed. Perhaps he wanted to retrace the path of the first Adam, whose own testing and failure led (at least symbolically) to the human predicament of life under the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Either or both of these intentions also seem to fit with Jesus’ prophetic self-understanding as portrayed in the Lukan account.

It’s worth noting at this point the differences between the Synoptic reports of the Wilderness Testing. The Markan composition is not only brief but almost terse. The Markan composer declares that the Spirit drove or cast Jesus into the wilderness, perhaps against his will. That violence is certainly missing from the Lukan account. The Lukan author portrays Jesus as being led into the wilderness “in the Spirit.” This is a pilgrimage rather than an abduction.

The Matthean account has Jesus being led into the wilderness. But the verb the Matthean author uses can also be used to describe how an offering is brought to the altar. Jesus is led into the wilderness by means of the Spirit. We read an aorist passive infinitive form of the verb “to test.” This indicates purpose or intent. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the Diabolical One.

The Lukan account has neither the violence of the Markan account or the purposeful verb construction of the Matthean account. Instead, the Lukan account seems to describe an outcome or result rather than a purpose. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. While he is there, he is tested by the Diabolical One.

The Holy Spirit is mentioned twice in Luke 4:1 in the space of fourteen words. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is a major theme in Luke-Acts, but the impact of the Spirit is heightened here even in Lukan terms. Could it be that being filled with the Holy Spirit simply leads to times of testing? I think that’s a consistent element of the Lukan account.

Soon, for example, Jesus heads off to the synagogue in Nazareth. There he reads a text that begins, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” It’s not long before he’s engaged in a theological debate and the local folks make plans to pitch him into a pit as a prelude to stoning a false prophet (when it comes to alliteration, I just can’t help myself). It would seem that being filled with the Spirit gets a person into what John Lewis called “good trouble.”

This Lukan emphasis prefigures how things work in the Book of Acts. The Church is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims Jesus as Lord and Messiah. It’s not long before apostles end up in jail. Stephen is full of grace and power (Acts 6:8) and speaks with an irresistible Spirit. He preaches a sermon that enrages his listeners. At the end of the sermon, Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55). The words are the same as in Luke 4:1.

As a result of his sermon, the crowd convicts him of blasphemy and stones him to death. As he dies, he recapitulates Jesus’ death as reported in Luke. He returns the gift of the Spirit to the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:59). He prays for his executioners to be forgiven (Acts 7:60). Being filled with the Spirit gets a person into real trouble, at least in the view of the writer of Luke-Acts. The examples could be multiplied, but the point is clear. Life in the Spirit leads disciples and the Church into testing as an expected outcome.

I know that these days many people seek deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. We live in the “Age of Authenticity” as Dwight Zscheile puts it and are leaving behind the “Age of Association” which created Protestant church life in America. I find that many folks seek these deeper encounters as ways to cope with the chaos and uncertainty of contemporary life. I think those folks often find precisely what they are seeking.

I’m often envious of such folks because that’s rarely how it works for me. I’m sure this more a matter of temperament than of theology. But I don’t find much peace and serenity in the encounters I have with the Holy Spirit. I think such peace and serenity is critical for both ongoing healing and discernment for disciples. I just don’t find as much of it as some people do. And when I do find it, I don’t find it very interesting.

More’s the pity for me, I suspect. Nonetheless, I think the Lukan author wants the community to know that following Jesus and being filled with the Spirit often results in good trouble. I think the Lukan author wants us to see that Jesus was tested in the wilderness, not to prove anything, but as a result of who he was and is. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness places of the world causes problems for those who think they are in charge of such places. That presence and power will inevitably provoke pushback (Have I mentioned how addicted I am to alliteration?).

Gregersen suggests that “Jesus is the crystallization point for the moving power of the Holy Spirit that both fills him and radiates from him to alter his surroundings” (page 236). I really like that description. If wilderness is the domain of the demonic, Jesus invades that space and irradiates it with the Holy Spirit. The powers who pretend to be in charge, concentrated in the Diabolical One, cannot tolerate such an incursion and respond with tempting and subtle attacks.

If the Lukan author is addressing disciples who are settling in and perhaps getting a bit too comfortable with their social status and material wealth, this is a challenging perspective. Power, position, privilege, and property are not bad in themselves (perhaps). But they are not in themselves signs of being filled with the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is present in fullness, there is likely to be good trouble. And that good trouble is likely to cost us our power, position, privilege, and property.

Perhaps during this Lenten season, then, we should expect to be troubled, disoriented, under duress, beset by the Diabolical One. That’s not the purpose of Lent, but it may be an inevitable result as we seek to get deeper into this Jesus-following business.

Perhaps during this Lenten season, then, we could reflect on our desire for our (White) churches to be “no discomfort zones.” If we’re about the Spirit’s business, that seems to be an unlikely outcome. Perhaps “discomfort zones” are what our churches are indeed called to be.

What are your thoughts?

References and Resources

Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.

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Text Study for Luke 4:1-13 (Part One)

1 Lent C, 2022

I think I will incorporate at least one film into my Lenten discipline. Bruce Almighty stars Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Anniston. The film is a comedic meditation on the purpose and use of power.

Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a wannabe TV anchor whose career aspirations seem to be blocked at every turn. Bruce complains to God about the sorry state of his life. Bruce declares that if he were in charge, life would be so much better.

Freeman, as God, accepts the challenge. He gives Bruce a measure of Divine Power. Bruce runs across water, raises women’s skirts with a breath, and gets even with a gang that attacked him the day before. I wish that scene did not depend on racist stereotypes for some of its force, and that has simply to be acknowledged here. Nonetheless, in just over three minutes the film summarizes every adolescent revenge fantasy most of us have had.

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Is that what power is for? In an instant, Bruce becomes no better than his tormentors. Do we have power simply to satisfy our selfish desires? Do we have power simply to rule over others and bask in that grab for glory? Do we have power simply to ensure our personal safety and survival? That is the case which the Diabolical One presents to Jesus in the Wilderness Testing.

We can certainly exercise power for self, sovereignty, and security. That exercise of power, Jesus declares, contradicts God’s intentions as witnessed in Book of Deuteronomy. The quotations from Deuteronomy come from another time of Wilderness Testing when Israel was faced with its own power problems.

I believe God does not wish for us to be powerless. God has not created us to be powerless. Even though the Christian faith has been used far too often by the powerful to valorize victimization, that is a perversion of the Divine purpose. God gives us great power, but its appropriate use is always for others and not merely for self (Yes, I’m thinking of Spiderman too).

I would argue that this understanding of power, power for others, is at the heart of authentic humanity and genuine human community. I don’t think that empathy, compassion, and altruism are essentially human emotional and/or social constructions. I believe that empathy, compassion, and altruism make us more fully human. And I believe that callousness, cruelty, and crass selfishness make us less human.

Current events present a case study in this regard. I’m thinking of the personal responses around the world to the actions of Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Put aside, for a moment, political perspectives and evaluations. Zelensky is using his power for the sake of others even if it means personal sacrifice. Putin is using his power for self-protection, self-aggrandizement, and self-deification. The world recognizes which set of behaviors is more fully human.

Bruce Nolan learns that the one thing power can’t get you is love. He has a real relationship with his girlfriend, Grace (played by Anniston). Her love for him is not connected to his power or position. It is unconditional and freely given – thus, Anniston’s character’s name. Bruce uses his power first to impress Grace, then to change her, and finally to control her. As a result, he nearly destroys their relationship and turns himself into a minor moral monster.

If you are the Son of God, what do you do with all that power? What’s it good for? This is one of the questions raised in the Wilderness Testing of Jesus. This could be the power to fulfill one’s every desire. This could be the power to rule the world. This could be the power to banish the fear of one’s own death. What’s not to like?

In fact, the Test is about taking the place of God. This is part of the genius, I think, of Bruce Almighty. Bruce takes God’s place, at God’s invitation. And it doesn’t go well. When Bruce says yes to every prayer request, the daily lottery payout drops to seventeen dollars per person. When Bruce changes the moon’s orbit to impress Grace, he unleashes wild weather events and sends astronomers into shock.

It’s hard to be God – especially if you want to be a selfish god.

Martin Luther sometimes reminds us that the First Commandment is the First Commandment because it is the First Commandment. He notes in the Large Catechism that all the other commandments refer to and rely on that First Commandment – “you shall have no other gods.” And a violation of any other commandment is a violation of the First Commandment.

In essence, the First Commandment declares that God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news! That’s the first lesson Bruce Nolan learns in his sojourn as a divinity. When Bruce has made a complete mess of things, he kneels down and surrenders his will to God. It would be a modern recasting of the Evangelical “sinner’s prayer” except for one thing.

Bruce kneels down in the middle of a highway and in front of an oncoming truck.

In the next scene, Bruce finds himself in “heaven.” He asks how this could happen, just when he had seen the light. Seeing the light doesn’t work so well when it’s a pair of headlights bearing down on you. “You can’t kneel down in the middle of a highway,” God observes, “and expect to survive.”

Bruce wonders what God wants. God wants Bruce to pray. The first prayer is a generic wish list that could double as a Miss America speech. God asks Bruce what he really wants. What Bruce really wants is Grace. But this time, he wants what is best for Grace, what makes her happy, no matter how it affects him.

“Now that’s a prayer,” God responds.

It’s a movie. It’s a comedy. A happy ending is required. God sends Bruce back to life with this new understanding of the purpose of power. Bruce gets Grace, and she gets him. He uses his position and platform to lift up the needs of others rather than to satisfy himself. Everyone lives happily ever after.

If only it worked out that way in real life.

Using our power for the sake of others usually costs us something – sometimes everything. That’s how we know we’re using our power for others, when it doesn’t benefit us. Volodymyr Zelensky may well lose his life as the war in Ukraine unfolds. His family members may be captured, wounded, or killed. Hundreds are dying and thousand are being displaced. Zelensky may lose his official power and position. Ukraine may suffer military defeat.

The war in Ukraine isn’t a movie.

I am certain, however, that Zelensky will not lose his humanity. We can discuss the impact of doing violence on human beings, and that’s a problem here. But Zelensky is not using violence for himself. In fact, I think he is using his power for love. The world has watched him become more fully and deeply human in the process. Some of this is thanks to the advent of the “Tik-tok War” as he enacts his leadership on that social media platform. But what we see is more than performance. We’re watching a human being grow more and more into the image and likeness of God.

I know and celebrate that Volodymyr Zelensky is a Jew. I don’t intend that the previous paragraph should hijack him for Christian apologetic purposes or should turn him into an “unconscious” or “anonymous” Christian. I don’t believe that Jesus comes to make us “Christian.” I don’t believe that Jesus comes to increase the roster of his favorite religious “team.” Jesus comes to restore us to the full image and likeness of God in which we are created. Theological labels do not define or delimit that image and likeness.

I am also certain that Putin and all who support him and his purposes are descending deeper into their selfish, sub-human existence. We need only point to the most obvious manifestation here. Using the threat of a nuclear response as a way to stabilize his deteriorating position is a sign of his continuing descent into profound inhumanity. The fact that a certain part of the Christian community supports this descent is a horrific commentary on what happens when power trumps love.

“If you, then, will worship me,” the Diabolical One says, “it will all be yours.”

This is the promise of power used for self, of power over rather than for and with. This is the false promise the Diabolical One offers Jesus and which Jesus rejects as the deceit it truly is. Anyone or anything that promises rewards for worship of self is the crassest form of idolatry and the deepest rejection of the divine image and likeness within us.

The Good News, from our Christian perspective, is that Jesus comes as God’s power for the life of the world. This power cannot be exercised over others, because it then becomes a perversion of itself. This power can only be exercised for others, with others, and through others. This power can only be exercised through self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Thus, we begin our journey to and through the cross with this meditation on the nature of authentic power.

As we hear this Good News, we can then reflect on our own power, position, privilege, and property. Will we, for example, use our White privilege to further enrich ourselves and thus plunge more deeply into the inhumanity of White Supremacy? Or will we use that power, position, privilege, and property to work as allies and advocates in the cause of racial justice?

That’s just one example for reflection. There are no powerless Christians, since we are all filled with the Holy Spirit in our baptisms. The important question, always, is what are called to do with what we have been given?

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