Temptation and Power

Temptation and Power

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  This seems to be universally true—except it’s not. Because in the story we just heard, one person, Jesus, managed to resist the temptation that absolute power brings. The story begins with Jesus, pushed by the Spirit, heading out into the howling desert. There he will spend 40 days and nights fasting and praying, alone, likely sheltering in a cave—perhaps a foreshadow of the cave that will be his tomb. Of course as Luke tells it, Jesus was not alone the whole time. The devil, the tempter, all that is contrary to the kingdom of God waits until Jesus is weak, then makes a move. Luke does not describe what Jesus saw when the Tempter shows up. Luke doesn’t even say if Jesus knew exactly what he was going toe-to-toe with—perhaps the Tempter maintained a clever disguise, even showed up as something that looked familiar to Jesus. But whatever it is that Jesus, sees, hears, or knows, the story that follows is a battle of cosmic proportions.

In his book “Manna and Mercy,” Daniel Erlander imagines the confrontation as one where the tempter is a leadership guru dressed in an Italian suit and leading a Messiah success seminar. The Tempter uses a snappy PowerPoint presentation to commend to Jesus the virtues of Plan A over Plan B. Plan A is an evidence-based approach: to use force, offer impressive displays, promise rewards, engage in political maneuvering, and pull all the levers of power to accomplish God’s ends. Plan B boils down to living faithfully, loving vulnerably, suffering hopefully, and then getting killed: trusting in God to make it right. “If you want to succeed as Messiah,” the tempter says, “follow Plan A.” Three times, Jesus chooses Plan B.

The first round starts when Jesus is seriously hungry and tired—a sitting duck. Hey, the tempter says, you know what you need, Jesus? A little self care. There is no reason that the Son of God should have to suffer like this. You really should have a feast, but at least have some bread. I mean, God has done this whole making bread in the wilderness thing before, so why not now? You deserve it, Jesus. You’re hungry! Of course, this whole encounter is about a lot more than a meal—it is about the question of how Jesus will use the unique power given to him as Son of God. Will he use it for himself?  Will he use it to keep from having to suffer as so many other human beings do? The Tempter wants Jesus to believe that he is special, not subject to the limits of being human, which include being hungry, suffering. Since you are special, the Tempter says…And the truth is the Tempter says this not just to Jesus, but to you and to me. Since you have worked so hard, since you have straight A’s, since you are in an unhappy marriage…the rules don’t apply to you. You can cut corners and do what you need to for yourself.

The second part of this temptation is to see if Jesus can be lured into meeting every human need as it arises—busily changing every stone into bread so there are no hungry people any more. Which sounds like a good thing, and is why it is so tempting, but the problem is that humans need more than simply food for the body. We need food for the soul. We need God. If you will remember, back in Genesis things went off the rails when the humans ate the apple. Here in Luke, things get back on track when Jesus refuses to eat.  Jesus will not use his power for himself, and he will not limit that power to the merely material. “The human,” he says, quoting Scripture, “The human, (of which I am one as well), does not live by bread alone.” Score one for plan B.

Round 2 begins on the top of the mountain, with the Tempter showing Jesus all he could rule, if he just calls the tempter his Abba. The tempter offers Jesus the power of glory and authority: and all it would take for Jesus to have such power is to bow down to him, follow his methods, choose plan A. Perhaps the tempter even whispers to Jesus that if Jesus had such coercive power over the kingdoms of this world, he would really be able to feed the hungry, help the hurting, and share the message of the Gospel: whispers that the good ends would justify the diabolical means. It’s a temptation that Jesus’ people have often succumbed to: the crusades, the inquisition, massive palaces for Bishops, the enslavement of black and brown people, and a lot of moral manipulation all demonstrate this. It seems we humans often replace love with power—it is easier to control people than to love them. Easier to play at being God than to love God.  But love is itself a form of power: perhaps the one power that really is power. And Jesus chooses this power of love over the love of so-called power—refusing to build the Kingdom of God with the devil’s tools. He knows who his Abba is. “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.”  Plan B

The last temptation—the “hurl yourself from the top of the Temple” one is the hardest to figure out. Is it about Jesus dazzling the religious establishment so that they worship him? Is it some sort of a wild dare—go on, do something crazy? Or is it the temptation to turn God into a personal bodyguard—and nothing more? What if the temptation here is for Jesus to take his life into his own hands—to act in a way that forces God to respond rather than living a life that is a response to God? The temptation to actively seek proof of God’s promise rather than accept it, to use God, rather than to trust God.  “Since you are God . . . defy the laws of gravity and save me.” What makes this so insidious, beyond the Tempter’s use of a Scripture quotation, is that God so often does call for leaps of faith into the unknown: and yet, as Jeremy Troxler writes, this particular jump wouldn’t be so much a leap of faith as a drop of doubt—an act that arises not out of belief, but unbelief: from that insecurity that longs to turn faith into “fact.” In the end, Jesus will accomplish God’s work not by provoking a miraculous divine rescue, but through his suffering and passion: less by what he does than by what he allows to be done to him in submission to God’s will. He will not seek the cup of suffering, but when it is presented to him, he will drink it. He will not seek death by cross, but when it is laid upon him, he will carry it.

And what about us? While we are not in a cave in the middle of the howling desert, where do we hear the voice of the tempter? Our caves might be our cubicles. A meeting room might be our mountaintops. The tip of the temple might be the pinnacle of our professions. And when the tempter comes to us in those places, it will most likely not be in a dramatic moment of decision, or from an obviously bad person. It may happen (in an email) or sitting alone at the computer, over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with someone we really like or admire. We will be tempted to use the power of our position for our own comfort. Tempted to protect ourselves rather than the weak and the vulnerable. Tempted to trust in the love of power rather than the power of love.

Power brings temptation. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But thank God there was one who, though tempted in every way as we are, was without sin. There was one who was trustworthy enough to be entrusted with the power of God: who had the power to faithfully use power. For, though being in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself. He lived by more than bread alone. He bowed before God and served only God. He did not put his Lord God to the test. Instead, entitled to wear the purple of a king, he took the form of a slave, and became obedient unto death: even death on a cross. On that cross, the tempter’s voice would speak again, this time through a sneering crowd: “You saved others, now save yourself. Since you are the Son of God, leap down from the cross: jump.” But he doesn’t come down. Instead he bears and forgives. Only then, from that grotesque pinnacle, will he make the ultimate leap of faith down into the valley of the shadow of death, trusting that he will not dash his foot against a stone: “Abba into your hands, I commend my Spirit.”  Plan B.

Three days later, the real power of Plan B is perfectly revealed as Jesus emerges from the cave having passed through the wilderness of temptation, and the wilderness of death. Thanks be to God.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter’s Church.

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