I’ve been reading Luke-Acts this year as part of Bishop Ken Carter’s invitation to all United Methodists to read the two books one chapter per week in 2014.
This week, I am reading Luke 4.
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” (Luke 4:1-3, CEB)
One of my translations notes that the word “tempted” also can be translated “tested.” That word “tested” has different connotations to my ear. I could almost hear it as a commission given the devil, as in the Job story. Did Jesus require testing before he could begin his public ministry? Was Satan less a destructive demon trying to undermine Jesus before he go started and more a celestial bureaucrat making sure Jesus passed his bar exam before he went out into the field?
I know that is a somewhat heretical question, but the difference between the words “tempted” and “tested” — and an entirely anachronistic one at that — do stir these thoughts.
And so I wonder what the tone of voice was in the suggestion about the stones and bread. I often find myself wondering this when reading the Bible. The words themselves often give us only the most basic outline of what was happening and rarely let us know what people were thinking or feeling. We have actions, and we have words. The rest we fill in with our own reading.
How we read can change the meaning. Was the devil here taunting and sneering as he suggested Jesus turn stones into bread? Or was he playing the compassionate friend. “Look, you are hungry. Use your power. Just a little bread. It won’t hurt anything. You need your strength, after all.”
The more insidious testing and temptations, I find, are the ones that come wrapped in compassion and gentleness. They are the ones that come with good arguments for how they will make things better or even how it is only prudent for me to follow them. They are sly and cunning, and often, if I am not watchful, I help them along with my own rationalizations.
Which is why the next verse, it seems to me is so instructive.
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” (NRSV)
I get the whole “the Bible is not a rule book” argument. But sometimes it is a means of grace in the way it sets boundaries for us. We can rationalize our way into just about anything. Friends and family often help us along the way out of compassion. But there does come a time and place when we do have to bow in humility and learn the lesson taught Israel in the desert.
He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:3, NIV)
Which brings me back full circle to the test. The wilderness, the starvation and isolation, was a test from the Father for the Son. The devil played his part, but as in the story of Job, it was a delegated part. He administered a test of faithfulness and humility. I cannot imagine that it was one that Jesus could have failed, but then again, maybe we are invited to contemplate that. Jesus could have waved his hand and gobbled up bread in the desert. He could have made his own manna. But he restrained his own hand in obedience, so he might fulfill his mission.
Long before the cross, he was suffering for us.