An Anabaptist Renewal of Lent

Luke 4.1-13 is a difficult passage for me to read.  I have a history of being a slacker.  Sometimes I take pride in laziness, especially when I am rewarded for it.  One of my favorite stories to tell about this is from my Junior year of high school French.  The teacher absolutely loved me since I was a personable guy, and I took full advantage of this by indulging in a loophole in his grading system.  Anytime someone raised their hand to speak in French, he gave them 1 point of extra credit which was not calculated into the final grade until the end of the semester.  Needless to say, I spoke a lot of French that year.

As the semester began to end, I was teetering on the verge of a B with a 91%.  I procrastinated to the extreme on two projects that were due just before the end of the semester.  I had a workbook which I was supposed to be working all year and a large, fairly simple translation.  I stayed up very late the night before they were due, but I did not finish.  I handed in my workbook two-thirds complete and my translation three-quarters complete.  Combined, they were worth over a third of my final grade.  I felt defeated, lousy, and fearful.  I was going to get a B (maybe even a C) in one of the easiest classes I had ever taken, and my parents were not going to be happy.  A knot was in my stomach as I waited to see my grade the next week.  I knew I needed to tell my parents about it before they got the report card so I checked the grade posted outside the French room the day grades were up.  Lo and behold, I had not dropped from an A to a B.  I jumped from a 91% to a 103%!  My teacher factored in all my speaking during class as extra credit, and this propelled me from the grade I actually deserved to an A+.

Sadly, I later learned many of my friends in the class earned lower grades since they were unable to speak during class due to my outspokenness.  Also, I did not learn what I needed to learn because I rushed on my projects and left them incomplete.  This is what we encounter in Luke 4.  The devil is tempting Jesus to speak up in class so he does not have to do his homework.

In Luke chapter 3, Jesus receives baptism from his cousin John (v. 21), and afterward, the Holy Spirit comes upon him (v. 22).  Luke 4 picks up at this point after being interrupted by Jesus’ genealogy.  Luke presents the setting: Jesus is being led around in the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (v. 1).  One of the most important parts of Luke is that it possesses the most dense and intricate uses of the LXX by any of the 4 gospels.  Immediately, the heritage of Israel should be conjured in our minds.  40 days in the wilderness aligns Jesus with Israel’s 40 years in the desert (Deut. 1.34-40), Moses’ 40 day fast on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24.18), and Elijah’s 40 day flight to Mt. Horeb (1 Kgs. 19.8).  Many want, at this point, to pit the devil against the Holy Spirit here, but nothing in the text suggests this.  If anything, the two are in collusion with each other.  The word used for tempt in v. 2 means more or less “challenge”, and it is always directed at G-d or Jesus in the gospels.  It connotes a proving of oneself (if one passes the test).

In v. 2, the 40 days end and Jesus is starving.  The devil comes and offers a simple proposition.  This portion of the narrative should not be confused with Matthew’s version.  In Matthew, the devil asks Jesus to turn stones into loaves (4.3).  The plurality connotes manna.  The devil, in Matthew, tempts Jesus to take on the role of a welfare king feeding all of Israel.  In Luke, the temptation is simpler: “If you are the Son of G-d, feed yourself.”  We hear echoes of this later in the chapter in v. 23 when Jesus says to the people of Nazareth, “Doubtless, you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself’,” and it comes up again when Jesus is on the cross while priests, soldiers, and the man dying next to him scoff, demanding that he save himself (23.35b, 36-37, 39).  Jesus did not come to feed, cure, or save himself.  He came to show us the Way into G-d’s Kingdom, and stone into bread is insufficient.  An act of self-salvation is not a part of this Kingdom.  Jesus tells the devil, bread is not enough.

The next temptation is another we must not confuse with Matthew, for in Matthew, this is the 3rd temptation.  Looking at Matthew can really help us here.  Most people are used to thinking that the devil tells Jesus that the authority and glory of the kingdoms of the world belong to him, the devil.  However, only Luke mentions this.  Luke must be trying to indicate something by this addition.  Most read this with Constantinian eyes, assuming that G-d gave the devil the authority and glory of the nations.  This is unmerited.  Luke 2.1, which reads, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered,” says who has authority over “all the kingdoms of the world” (4.5).  Caesar does!  Who gave the devil this authority?  Caesar did.  This becomes quite obvious when we read Psalm 2.7-8.  G-d says, “You are my son” and “I will give you the nations”.  Since Jesus is G-d’s Son, logically he expects to receive authority over the nations.  Bowing to the devil is not how Jesus is to earn this power.  Jesus cannot be the king of the world if he bows to the power of Caesar.  Thus, he refuses.  Instead, he so rattles the cages of the emperor that he is killed, and by the power of G-d, rises again, victorious.  This is the lengths to which Jesus’ faithfulness takes him.

We saw a temptation to abuse Jesus’ status to save himself, we saw a political temptation to expediently achieve the goal of bringing G-d’s Kingdom, and finally, we see a religious temptation.  The Gospel According to Luke is always pointed toward Jerusalem.  It begins and ends there; starting at 9.51 Jesus sets out on a long ten chapter journey toward the Holy City.  We find a foreshadow of this journey here as the devil leads Jesus to Jerusalem.  Of the three, this is the most somber temptation.  Luke’s all Christians of all times know that when Jesus gets to Jerusalem at the end of his journey, the highest part of the Temple, the priests, will, in fact, cast him down, but there will be no angels to protect him.  What we see clearly here is the devil suggesting that Jesus could avoid the crucifixion if he merely tests G-d’s protection.  Jesus refuses to do this.  Instead, his choice is to trust that his death will result in his resurrection, whereupon G-d’s Kingdom will be in its full glory.

Alas, the devil, not “defeated” but “finished”, leaves until another opportune time.

What do we take away from this today on the first Sunday of Lent?  Though I have not been Anabaptist since birth, I was raised in the broader tradition of the radical reformation.  We, the radical reformers, have, for centuries, steered clear of the Church calendar, but gradually, we are making our way back toward it.  I believe this is a great thing.  It provides us more common ground with our liturgically-minded brothers and sisters.  In turn, this allows us to challenge their long outdated views on war, the Church’s relationship to government, Baptism, etc.  What I think we have is a responsibility to put a prophetic critique on the dominant view surrounding the Lenten season.  Lent has become a time in which Christians give up a “vice” which is superfluous or mildly damaging to their well-being.  They do so in order to commiserate with Jesus’ suffering.  If we approach Lent with such an attitude, we commit several major flaws.

First, we fail to recognize that only in a culture of extreme excess is it possible to sacrifice what is superfluous to ourselves.  Most people in this world do not have the luxury of indulging in what might be damaging or useless.  Second, we approach Lent existentially.  We do not give up our vices for the sake of others; we give them up for the sake of ourselves.  Finally, we look at Lent as temporal rather than permanent.

Jesus’ temptation story addresses these problems head on.  First, Jesus’ story begins in a place of scarcity and depletion.  Lent is therefore not a time of sacrificing a small piece of excess for a moment in time.  It is a season in which we thrust ourselves into scarcity so that our faithfulness might be tested.  Are we willing to quit earning easy extra credit and start doing our homework.

Second, Jesus is given the opportunity to make himself powerful, but he refuses.  The temptations Jesus rejects are rejected not for his sake but for others’.  During Lent, we should not rededicate ourselves to the Kingdom of G-d for the sake of our own salvation.  We should do it for the sake of others’ well-being.  What is detracting you from loving your neighbor.  Perhaps, it is the temptation to indulge in the power and glory of the kingdoms of the world.  Perhaps, you fear the cross of caring for the vulnerable.  Refusing the devil’s enticing offer is hard.  Lent is a time when we work extra hard to do this.

Third, Jesus is tempted 40 days in the wilderness, but it is the final 3 temptations that define his ministry.  After refusing them, he does not return to them.  That is, he does not worship the devil after rising from the dead.  Similarly, what we sacrifice for Lent should not be something we want to return on Easter Sunday.  Jesus resurrected; our bad habits should not follow suit.

Finally, Jesus gave up many things that appeared good: bread, authority, and rescue from suffering.  In short, he refused to speak in order to avoid his homework.  Are we willing to give up that which might be good to us?  Can we even identify the parts of life that appear good, but are in fact compromised by the devil’s tempting.  When we accomplish this task and we rigorously work, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, to rid ourselves of these “good” things, we naturally look not at Lent, but we maintain our attention on the coming day of resurrection, Easter Sunday.  When those temptations are refused, we celebrate our own new life as we celebrate our Lord’s!  No longer afflicted by the scourge of what appears good but is in fact a deceptive shortcut, we live in the glorious light of the resurrection with the hope and assurance that Jesus is King!  I pray we do so with courage and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Peace!

-ben adam


About ben adam

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we might miss Armageddon because we're too busy watching MTV and CNN. Please, read a book, throw a ball, bake some bread, and for goodness sake, turn the TV off.
This entry was posted in Hermeneutics, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Lent, Luke, Sermon, Temptation, the devil. Bookmark the permalink.

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