How Jesus Was Tempted as We Are

field1Mark tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted, or tested, by Satan.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us nothing else about the testing so we do not get a set of three drawn-out temptations to analyze. We are left with the bare fact of testing. What night the testing have consisted of in addition to, or underlying, the longer accounts?

René Girard has given us a new and profound way to understand “Satan” in scripture by noting that the word skandalon (the Satan) literally means a stumbling block. Girard has demonstrated the ways humans become stumbling blocks to one another when they become conflicted. (Satan is well known to be a sower of discord.) In this model, it takes at least two to have a stumbling block, so how could Jesus, alone in the wilderness, have dealt with conflict unless he was fighting a supernatural creature? I, for one, know that when I am alone, many other people are still with me, particularly anybody with whom I happen to have a conflictual relationship. In fact, being alone during a time of conflict is a great way to become obsessed with a rival—OR—to let go and listen to a deeper voice free of scandal, such as Jesus’ heavenly Abba.

As soon as Jesus began his public ministry, it was immediately clear that he knew scripture and the tradition of his people very deeply. Many biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recapitulates the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Surely Jesus would have been deeply mindful of that journey: his people’s gratitude for the escape from slavery, their hopes for the future, but also their violent social conflicts and rebellions. These events in the journey would have given him much to reflect on as to how humans make themselves stumbling blocks to others.

Jesus also demonstrated from the start an acute awareness of what many of the Jewish leaders were like, surely enough to give him strong premonitions of how they might react to the religious vision inspired by the heavenly voice at his baptism and strengthened in the silence of the wilderness. He was most likely tempted to rehearse his arguments with the elders and think of ways to get the better of them. To overcome this challenge, he would need to find a way to interact with these leaders in a non-rivalrous way so as to embody the non-rivalrous character of his heavenly Abba. More important, he would have to begin facing possible outcomes of his ministry in the face of the Jewish and Roman leadership in Palestine. Since all of us have to deal with the small and great conflicts that tempt us to become stumbling blocks to others, Jesus was himself, as the author of Hebrews said, tempted in every way as we are. The uncanny way Jesus managed to deflect conflicts with the Jewish leaders away from escalations and, at the end, his willingness to die rather than use violence to save himself, show us that the Spirit, after driving Jesus into the wilderness, had indeed strengthened him to absorb the nonviolent ways of his heavenly Abba for the sake of our salvation.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Sacrificing the Aztecs

Teotihuacan9The sacrificial rites of the Aztecs at the time of their conquest give a rich example of the institutionalizing of sacrifice. The horrific quantity of children sacrificed to bring on rain with their tears, and the men whose hearts were cut out to keep the sun alive leads us to dismiss them as civilized human beings. But they were highly civilized. In the book Sacrifice and Modern thought, two stimulating articles help us understand Aztec sacrifice. Both Laura Rival and David Brown help us sympathize with the Aztecs as human beings. Rival points out that human sacrifice was modeled on the deities who threw themselves into the primordial fire to create the fifth sun and set it in motion. This myth points to a noble disposition behind the sacrifice. It is not hard, however, to see this as a typical myth that hides the collective violence that laid the foundations of their culture.

David Brown summarizes clearly the “flower wars” that were part of the sacrificial system. These wars had become as highly ritualized as the sacrifices performed on the top of the pyramids. The whole purpose of these wars was to capture sacrificial victims in fair fights. The initial chaos leading to the myths and sacrificial rites had led to a complex, highly restrained structure of warfare.

Brown quotes a moving statement by an Aztec leader who says that the Spaniards did not understand “how vital it is for us to give blood to the gods.” As selfless as the sacrifices were, and the Aztecs believed they were rewarded in the afterlife, they were convinced that if they failed to continue these sacrifices, the gods would become angry and turn away from them. Here we have it: as with so many other early cultures, the Aztecs were caught in a sacrificial system that allowed no escape. If the gods are subject to anger and capriciousness, one does not dare turn away from the only rites that had a chance of deflecting the divine wrath.

The structure and restraint of the Aztecs is a dramatic contrast to the chaotic overrunning of their country on the part of the Spanish Conquistadors. Cortes justified these measures out of repulsion at the sacrifices carried out by the conquered people, but in a cruel irony, the Spanish made a cruel holocaust of the sacrificers. A comparison with the lynching of blacks in the United States shows us the same chaotic mob violence. (See Selling Postcards of the Cross.) In The One by Whom Scandal Comes, René Girard contrasts the fundamental way Satan works in archaic cultures and in modern cultures where some awareness of the Gospel has occurred. Among the Aztecs, as with so many other peoples, Satan was the transcendent principal of order. But with Satan cast out of the sky during the ministry of the Hebrew prophet Jesus, Satan acts imminently within human cultures as a disrupter.

In my last post, I noted how killing twins became part of a package of maintaining a satanic social order. (See Twin Killings.) All twins can be thankful that this order has been dismantled. Likewise, we can be grateful that we don’t have pyramids where people’s hearts are torn out. We are free of the satanic order, but we are not free of the chaotic violence that has been unleashed on to the world unless we actively seek the freedom we gain from being grounded in the God of Love who has gathered all Aztec victims into the divine fire that fills us all with eternal life.

Stumbling blocks in the Desert: the Temptations of Jesus

freshBread1When Jesus went out into the desert after his baptism, he became aware of the fundamental temptations he would have to fight throughout his life. James Alison helps us understand the social nature of these temptations by pointing out that “devil” (diabolous) means “divisive obstacle.” Such an obstacle requires two or more people to stumble over it. That is temptations are unavoidably social.

The social implications of the first temptation are spelled out in John 6 where Jesus feeds the multitude in the desert. The feeding is a sign of God’s willing of abundance (see Divinely Created Abundance) but bread, like any material good, exists in a social context.  The temptation presented here is to align bread with economic and political power. The people who have been fed fall into this temptation and try to seize Jesus and make him king (the glory of all the kingdoms of the word–see Ignominous Glory). Jesus had to resist the temptation, go off alone, and then return to preach about bread from heaven, bread that is a gift from God.

In the temptations, the devil taunts Jesus as being the “son of god.” Likewise, when Jesus casts demons out of people possessed by them, the demons call Jesus “the son of god.” Thinking back to the attempt to seize Jesus and make him king, Jesus’ ordering those he has healed to tell nobody makes a lot of sense. Jesus was focused on healing those who had need. The demons tried to politicize the healings to make them part of a thrust for social power. This dimension is particularly apparent in the name of the demon possessing the man of Gadara: Legion.

When Jesus predicts his imminent suffering and death, Peter is called a “satan” when he tries to dissuade Jesus from following that course. As with “devil,” the word “satan” means a stumbling block. Lacking support from his closest followers could only have multiplied Jesus’ difficulty in holding the course laid out by his heavenly father. How much better would it be to fling himself off the roof of the temple and force his heavenly father’s hand? The devil was right to quote the verses from Psalm 92. God would bear up the son of man, but not until the son of man had truly and deeply put himself into the unforced hands of the heavenly father by allowing himself to be handed over into the hands of angry sinful humans.

Like Jesus, we must be alert to where the stumbling blocks are in our relationships with other people and with God. Like Jesus, we must learn that the stumbling blocks are too heavy for human hands to lift and toss away. Like Jesus, we must turn to our heavenly father who is always waiting for us to ask him to toss the stumbling blocks away.