Bible: Temptations of kings — and Jesus

Jan 27, 2020 by

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The connection between the passages from 1 Kings in our previous lesson and Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness might not be obvious. But what if we reflect on the meaning of the title used of Jesus in Matt. 4:1-11 — “Son of God”?

Ted Grimsrud

Grimsrud

In the Old Testament, “Son of God” is used of Israel’s king, particularly Solomon’s father, King David (for example, 1 Sam. 7:14). Let’s think of Jesus’ temptation as being about his role as the leader of the kingdom of God — a latter-day David or Solomon.

When John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Matt. 3:16-17), we may see the event as a kind of anointing for Jesus as he begins his ministry. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus, who then is identified as God’s Son, and right away the Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness.

After his 40-day fast, Jesus confronts Satan, whose main question is not wheth­er Jesus is God’s Son. What is at issue is what kind of God’s Son Jesus will be. Or, we could accurately say: What kind of king will Jesus be?

At this point a comparison of Jesus with the Solomon of 1 Kings 1-11 becomes fascinating. This comparison tells us a great deal about Jesus’ agenda. How might we think of Jesus’ temptations if we think of them as challenges concerning how he will exercise his power and his kingly commission?

The story of Solomon tells of a powerful king who one by one violates the stated expectations of kings in Israel stated in Deuter­onomy 17: He gathers horses and chariots, marries multitudes of foreign wives and makes himself extraordinarily wealthy.

Solo­mon exercises his kingly power in ways that put his own desires and ambitions at the center and pushes God’s will as expressed in Torah to the margins.

Isn’t that precisely what Satan tempted Jesus with? You are indeed the Son of God, Satan affirms — the new king. Show the world how great you are in these various ways. Gain acclamation and enormous power, show yourself to be God’s anointed who unites the temple and the empire in the same way that Solomon did.

Jesus, of course, turned Satan away, uninterested in that kind of kingship. But does that mean that he refused the title “Son of God”? Did he refuse to be king? Was his ministry utterly non- political? Or did he, rather, redefine kingship and politics and power? Did he show the world a way to be kingly, political and powerful that placed love and compassion and God’s will at the center?

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount follows closely after he returns from the wilderness. It may be understood as a kind of kingly manifesto that spells out his political agenda.

Right at the beginning of Matthew 6 we encounter a key word that, properly understood, speaks of Jesus’ way of being king. One translation, the New Revised Standard Version, tells us we should not “practice piety” in order to be rewarded by humans.

However, this word “piety” is the same word that in Matthew 5 (and elsewhere in the New Testament) is usually translated as “justice” or “righteousness.”

What Jesus seems to say is that as we seek to bring social healing to our world we should not do so in ways that lift us up and heighten our power and acclaim. Rather, we should do so in ways that are quietly effective and genuinely serve the well-being of those we seek to help.

Note, again, the contrast with Solomon — who, for example, in 1 Kings 8 offers a lengthy, politically self-serving prayer (like in Matt. 6:7?) at the dedication of the temple — and then proceeds to exercise his kingly power in ways that violated Torah’s instructions.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.


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