By Revd Canon Dr Alan Billings
One way of understanding the temptations of Jesus is this.
He goes into the wilderness on the brink of beginning his main life’s work. His days of working in the carpenter’s shop with Joseph, his father, are now behind him. He is about to become a public figure, teaching and preaching in the towns and villages of the Galilee. It’s a leadership role, and Jesus has spent time thinking hard about what sort of leader he is being called by God to be.
The gospel for today externalises what I think has been going on in the heart and mind of Jesus.
Each of the temptations is about different ways of being a leader, different ways in which you can attract and keep a following. And he’s been struggling with that: what are the wrong paths down which he must not go. So the temptations clarify for him the nature of his leadership, his mission.
Give people bread. They follow someone who meets their material needs. Jesus has to resist that because, as he says, people do not live by bread alone. He will feed the hungry; but that is not the heart of the mission which is to satisfy something that is not material but spiritual.
Give people marvels, miracles. They will follow someone who dazzles and amazes. Jesus has to resist that too because whatever divine help he can call upon, it must not be used to boost his own popularity.
And finally, forge your people into an Irresistible force who will conquer the world. Don’t be afraid of using the weapons of evil – the sword - to bring the world under your rule.
This temptation has to be resisted again at the end of his public ministry when Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the final time. The crowd want to make him just such a leader, waving their branches of palm and shouting hosanna. So he deliberately enters the city, meek and on a donkey to make the point to himself and to them: I am not that sort of leader.
So the temptations are about a struggle to understand what his leadership must be. Paths down which Jesus must not go.
And we should not suppose that they are unrealistic paths. Jesus was clearly a charismatic figure whose teaching and preaching could move people. These were all possible leadership roles which Jesus could either take or find himself in, unless they were firmly resisted.
Jesus has to reject them. People must follow him freely, out of love and devotion, or not at all. They must freely choose his way – to show kindness and gentleness and generosity and love.
I say people must follow Jesus freely. That is important. Each of the leadership roles I have outlined sooner or later are about forms of control or coercion. The leader who promises bread creates a people dependent on him. The leader who dazzles similarly creates a people who need more wonders and can never be satisfied. The conqueror will require an unquestioning obedience. Controlling and coercive leadership. How often we have seen it down the years and across the nations.
Christ’s followers must follow him freely, out of love and devotion, or not at all.
If that is what the temptations are about for Jesus, what about us? Do they say anything to us now and the way we live our lives?
I think they do.
We may not be called upon to be leaders in any big way, but we all forge relationships with others. And the temptations to be controlling or coercive are no less for us. Lent is our time in the wilderness, our chance to look at those relationships and ask ourselves a few questions. Am I controlling? Am I coercive? With my partner, my family, my friends, those with whom I work? Do I show to them the generosity, the kindness, the love that Jesus in his life showed to those around him?
One last thought on this particular Sunday in this particular year.
Listen again to the third temptation.
The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them and said to him, ‘All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’
Among those Christians who may hear this gospel today could be the President of Russia. Will any of this cause him to change his behaviour?
Will any of it cause us to change ours?