Our greatest temptations

Mar 27, 2014 by

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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. — Matt. 4:1-11

To enter wholeheartedly into the season costs more than tag-along admiration from the margins of a multitude. A call and a choice are put pointblank: take up your cross and follow. — Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Seasons of Faith & Conscience

History bears witness that in generation after generation there has been a highly respected social class (that of priests) whose task is to make Christianity the very opposite of what it really is. — Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity

On March 9 50 years ago, citing an 1868 treaty which empowered Native American peoples to claim surplus federal land, five Sioux activists occupied and took possession of Alcatraz Island. It was less than one year after the notorious federal prison closed down after decades of complaints over high costs and the flushing of sewage into San Francisco Bay. These indigenous prophets envisioned a transformation of the island into a cultural center and university. They were apprehended and removed after only four hours, mostly dismissed by empire dwellers as typically “crazy Indians.”

But after centuries of abuse from the government and then apathy from the American people, shouldn’t the Original Americans have claim to this land? And, with history as reminder, shouldn’t white suburban settlers (like us) be ripe for repentance, a turning away from land grabs and a turning towards gifting back what was and is rightfully theirs? On this anniversary, the lectionary shimmers with an episode that prophetically calls followers of Jesus to consider what it originally meant to be God’s children.

After Jesus is baptized into the heavenly movement (“the kingdom of heaven”) and inaugurated as its undisputed leader (a voice from heaven declaring him “the Beloved Son”), he embraces the spiritual discipline of fasting — for 40 days and 40 nights (an echo of Noah’s journey of global purification?) in the wilderness (an echo of Israel’s exodus journey?). His confrontation with Satan reveals a series of three illusions about what it means to be a people committing to be salt and light for the world (Matthew 5). Notice the contest over biblical interpretation: “it is written.” As it turns out, everyone wants to quote Scripture to justify their own agenda, whether it is rooted in the American Dream or the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Satanic agenda is as follows:

  1. Commanding stones to become loaves of bread (economic hoarding)
  2. Jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem (religious stunts)
  3. Controlling and colonizing the globe (political patriotism)

This agenda is contrasted with the simple prayer that Jesus will soon teach his disciples (Matthew 6):

  1. Give us this day our daily bread (living simply so that all can simply live)
  2. May God’s kingdom come (not a shoo-in for my soul to get to Heaven but a shoe on the soles of all feet)
  3. May God’s name alone be holy (for America to bless God and not the other way around)

Forty years after the death and resurrection of their leader, Matthew’s wilderness temptation story summoned a network of communities pledging allegiance to the Jesus-inspired Heavenly Movement to reject, resist and repent of the fully ingrained principles and practices of empire. The Gospel reached back into the Hebrew Bible to offer a challenging choice: Exodus or Egypt. It called them out of empire and back to the wilderness where they unlearned the road of hoarding and hurry and learned the way of manna and mercy. As Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves writes, these disciples participated in a counter culture:

The early Christian community was … an underground counter culture. The reason it was so ruthlessly persecuted was because the dominant powers perceived it as a basically dysfunctional and subversive social reality. The values it wanted to realize and live out implied in the long run the abolition of the very foundations of the Roman Empire.

Today, all over the United States, small clusters of citizens of the Heavenly Movement continue to be prodded into a lifestyle that confronts the political, economic and religious illusions of the American Dream. Like Martin Luther King’s well-known dream for the U.S., Jesus’ dream for human liberation threatened those for whom society privileged. The status quo dies hard and both of these men were murdered as a consequence.

Today, the American Empire spends billions on farm subsidies, providing the entire globe with cheap corn for all the processed food we are becoming addicted to. Today, millions of Americans flock to churches that cater messages about an all-sovereign God who guarantees heaven and provides for luxuries on Earth. Today, our hearts and heads are filled with patriotic symbols — from the flag to the F-15 flyover to the first pitch after the National Anthem — that beckon us all to pledge ultimate allegiance to country. These three messianic mechanisms motivate the masses. Jesus rejected all three. So should we.

Tom Airey teaches economics and world history at Capistrano Valley High School. He and his wife, Lindsay, graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary and are experimenting with Anabaptist intentional community in Orange County, Calif.


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  • berryfriesen

    Thank you for this post, Tom, especially your point that the Bible calls us out of empire. You should be more careful, though, in what you say about corn in a Mennonite publication. I hadn’t seen the Ellul quote before; he supports your core point very well.