The story of Jesus’ temptation narrative may not seem like the most obvious text for an MA Graduation ceremony. But it does relay the political manifesto of arguably the most influential figure from the mists of history. Jesus is right there on the brink of his own career: He’s completed his apprenticeship as a builder; - and he’s just gone through his baptism which is best described as a messianic graduation ceremony. And now – it’s all gone a bit quiet, he’s out there in the desert. Having a vision – or quite possible since he’s apparently not eaten for 40 days, a hallucination. In which the devil appears, and tries to get Jesus to do loads of stuff – Jesus, it says, is subjected to every temptation. The obsessive compulsive literalism of western Christian tradition takes this to mean that whilst in the Galilean desert, Jesus faced every temptation every human has ever faced. Presumably including such hell-worthy temptations as cyber-trolling, fiddling his tax returns, and parking in a disabled bay.
No – the temptations are better understood as tests – the devil tests Jesus like a warrior tests his weapons to see if they are worth using. And the devil is testing what kind of a messiah Jesus will be.
the real dynamic of this passage concerns what kind of a Messiah Jesus will be – in what ways, is he going to bring liberation to a people living under an oppressive empire? What kind of an effect will this newly graduated Messiah have upon the world? The phrase Son of God that is repeated throughout this passage could mean one of only two things to a first century Galilean Jew: In Roman culture, the son of God refers to the Roman Emperor himself. Caesar is the Son of God. Or, in Jewish history, it is the Jewish people as a whole who are referred to as the Son of God, so the whole of Jewish identity becomes focused upon this sole figure, Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God is essentially a King, the Messiah, is the one anointed to be King. What kind of a King – what kind of a political leader will this Jesus be. He is presented with 3 options.
Turning stone into bread? To respond to hunger with food by providing food seems fairly straightforwards. But Jesus seems less interested with instinctive, knee-jerk, cause-and-effect, problem-solution mentality. I’m reminded of that quotation by the liberation theologian, Dom Carrera: “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why the poor were poor, they called me a communist.” On that reading, Jesus would be a communist.
The second temptation is to win glory from all the nations of the world! The language used here is quite clearly, a military solution to the oppression of the people at the hands of the Roman empire. An armed revolutionary Messiah – military solutions to political problems. There were plenty of would be Messiahs who tried to use violence to win justice – and according to Jesus, the process of getting justice by violent means, leaves you with a twisted notion of Justice.
The third temptation is to jump from the top of the temple, on the basis that it’s God’s job to protect the Son of God. It is the sentiment perfectly expressed by a young female student when she heard the news of the 9-11 bombings. It was the 10th September 2001, and clearly shocked by what she had seen, this girl said, “They can’t do that to America! We’re a superpower. What is that?” Jesus rejects the often unspoken belief that Might is Right.
At the outset of his campaign, Jesus refuses to allow dominant ideologies and expectations to shape who he will become.
By using Jesus as an example in this setting, I am by no means implying that Cambridge MA graduates have a Messiah complex. Words like Messiah, Son of God, and Christ – all represent a deeply human way of being human – regardless of what a Christian history of interpretation has done to those ideals. No – Jesus offers an example of what it means to be human – what it means to withstand any dehumanising ideology that would shape his identity.
The temptation story is really an act of political defiance and resistance… The question of what kind of human being he will be remains wide open before him: his preparation complete – his graduation a success, and here he stands on the brink of his own future. He will not be squeezed into someone else’s mould… regardless of how tempting it might be.