I have pondered, from time to time, the oddity of Christ’s “last” temptation. The first temptation was that of turning stones into bread, the second, that of throwing Himself down from the Temple. The third and last temptation, however, was to be given “all the kingdoms of this world.” I understand hunger. Fasting for 40 days easily explains that the first temptation surrounds food. I have less comprehension regarding casting oneself down from the Temple, other than comparing it to my own self-doubt. But I do not imagine myself able to psychologize or compare my inner thoughts to those of the Incarnate God. As the years unfold, however, I am seeing far more clearly the nature of the third and last temptation – I think it is far more widespread than we imagine.
“The Kingdoms of this world” is not a temptation to fantastic wealth (really great palaces, and amazing chariots like no one ever imagined!). I believe it is similar to the idylls we whisper to ourselves when Powerball starts edging up on half-a-billion (many whisper at even lower numbers). Give me a million dollars and I imagine a better retirement. Give me ten million and I begin to think of charities. Give me 500 million and I become a force for good in this world – nothing less.
The whisper asks, “What manner of good could you do if you had all the power in the world?” I do not think of Christ being tempted with anything that smacked of self-aggrandizement. He doesn’t need to be the richest guy in the world. Strangely, the temptation lies in doing good – and doing good in a powerful way.
No time in human history has enjoyed the near omniscience and omnipotence of our present age. Live cams allow us to watch scenes in distant cities at a single click. News and information are nearly instantaneous. We are exploring the mysteries of the genome and playing with sub-atomic particles. The prowess of our technology gives rise to our imaginings of power. We contemplate the end of hunger, the end of racism, a new day in which people can be anything they imagine and be protected for imagining it.
Of course, in the midst of what feels like such promise, suffering continues. Regardless of miraculous works of science, everybody dies. And, in a world where we seek to remove all suffering, some choose to die sooner rather than later so that their deaths might be suffering-free. We speak and think like people who have won the lottery, with the problematic handicap that everybody else in the world has won it at the same time. Thus, we argue about what to do with all this power.
A difficult point in our power discussion (and this brings us to the Temptation of Christ) is the problem of suffering. We understand suffering to be evil and, therefore, something that should be opposed and eradicated. To argue in any other manner sounds callous and “un-Christian.” We are trapped in our own goodness.
When we contemplate the so-called problem of evil, the conundrum always lies in the juxtaposition of power and suffering. If God is all-powerful, we ask, why does He allow suffering? (And we always phrase this in terms of the suffering of innocent children). If God has won the ultimate Powerball lottery, why doesn’t He do more with His winnings? Why does God say no to all the Kingdoms of this world?
That, it seems to me, is the nature of the temptation placed before Christ. What if you had the power to fix everything? We reason within ourselves that, surely, God always has the power to fix all things. Obviously, there is a disconnect in our reasoning, a flaw that makes it fail. For some, the failure in our thought is enough to convince that there is no God. I agree, in part. There is no God of the sort they imagine. What we know of God – all that we know of God – is that which is made known to us in the God/Man Christ Jesus. “No one knows the Father except the Son.” What we know of God through Christ is that the Cross is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). The God who created all that is and sustains everything in its existence is only revealed to us through the Crucified Jesus. There is no other God.
The last temptation put before Christ is to be someone who He is not: to be a different God. To this He replies: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). There will be no getting around the Cross. There will be no world in which suffering is healed without suffering. Jesus refuses the lottery ticket.
This reminds me of Ivan Karamazov, who, famously, “refused the ticket” of a world in which the goodness of God is manifest somehow in suffering, including the suffering of innocent children. It was Ivan as well who posed the story of the Grand Inquisitor. In that story, Jesus returns to earth in the midst of the Inquisition. There he heals someone (and is arrested). The Grand Inquistor knows who He is but tells Him to go away. The “Church” (as an agency of human power) has learned what people need for happiness (mostly bread and stuff) and are doing fine without Him. He is told that it is too late for Him to change the rules of the game.
That passage is Dostoevsky’s slap at the Catholic Church of the 19th century, one that was committed to the use of political power for the Church’s goals (the Vatican is, to this day, a city-state, the last remnant of the kingdoms in Italy that were once under papal rule). To the mind of Dostoevsky, this marriage of the gospel to state power (human power) is an acceptance of and acquiescence to the last temptation. It says yes to power in the name of good – and, in so doing, becomes the instrument of evil. This is evil understood as “that which denies the Cross.”
Christ did not (and does not) ignore suffering. The gospels move from one story of healing to another. But every story of healing holds within it the mystery of the Cross. Every life He touches is drawn into the suffering life of the gospel itself. He will lead them out of Jerusalem to a lonely corner of a quarry where He will show them the fullness of His power and the embrace of His suffering love. Many of those witnesses will, in time, join Him on the crosses of their own martyrdoms. Some will become human torches lighting Nero’s humorless games. They will love as none have ever loved apart from the Cross and whisper their mysterious secret to the weak and foolish who seem to be the most likely to understand.
It is our penchant for misdefining evil and distorting the true nature of power that yields the upside-down reasoning of modernity. No matter how fine the bricks or how tall the building, the Tower of Babel is never more than a symbol of human arrogance and demonic suggestion.
Which brings me to the present temptation that seems to permeate our world. Whatever it is that we understand to be evil in our world (and there is no lack of examples) must be understood primarily in terms of their detachment from the Cross of Christ.
I attended an academic meeting at the Jesuit School in Chicago during my seminary days (late ’70’s). I was seated next to a Jesuit priest. Dinner conversation somehow turned to the person of Mother Theresa who had captured the imagination of many in the world as a paragon of selfless love. The Jesuit begged to differ. He noted that he had served for a time in Calcutta, and knew Mother Theresa. His complaint (and it was bitter, indeed) was that she refused to use the immense power she had gained through her media-attention as political power. He rambled on about what such power could do to change the life of the poor in that struggling city. I lost my appetite. Somehow, my instinct said that I was seated next to the Grand Inquisitor, where the actions of a Hollywood star would rank higher than those of a monastic who had personally tended to tens of thousands of the poorest of the poor. I wondered how many times she had refused such a ticket.
For lesser sorts, such as you and I, the temptation comes in other forms. I think of it particularly in the various guises of political power. We live in a time of political extremes. Those who care the most speak mostly from our fantasies of power. It is believed that we must act, lest terrible things happen (usually to children). Somehow missing from our anxieties and the compulsions of our time is the Cross.
We will not eliminate suffering. Such a power has not been given to us. We can indeed do many things, though the truly great will be those who did them in union with the Cross rather than in union with the power of the world. The true battle is being waged in the human heart. The Cross always appears to be weakness and foolishness – and thus its followers must be willing to become weak fools.
Out across the world, there are weak fools who have given themselves to prayer, suffering deprivation for the life of the world. God has united Himself to them and, through them, sustains the universe in its very existence. The tempter, on the other hand, is handing out tickets to his fantasy powerball lottery. They are purchased daily by the wise and wonderful who have married themselves to their imaginations. With every death they swear, “Never again!” rushing out to buy yet another ticket.
The first martyrs of the incarnation were innocent children. Herod imagined he was doing good, or so he told himself as he pondered his winning lottery ticket.