Issue 37: The Temptations of Jesus – Part Two: The Temptation of Riches

 

Matthew 4:1-11 (as well as Luke 4:1-14) includes a description of the temptation of Jesus, by the devil in the wilderness – an interaction that occurred after he had fasted for forty days and nights. In The Temptations of Jesus – Part One we addressed the issue of the temptation for power. Not that power in itself is a problem, but the means by which it is acquired and used. Jesus calls us to use a servant-leadership rather than coercive lordship approach to leadership. In the third temptation the focus changes from power to the acquisition of material riches, honour and glory. The third temptation reminds us that a key point of weakness lies with hankering after riches. However, the possession of power and riches themselves is not the problem – it is the price we pay to gain them and the attitudes we develop in possessing them that matters.

What was at stake in this temptation was possession of all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor or glory: riches “laid on” and honour far surpassing even Alexander the Great, as well as the Persian and Roman Emperors. The price was to leave God and bow down and worship the devil. The “if” moved from whether or not Jesus was the Son of God, to whether or not He could resist the lure of all the riches, kingdoms and glory of this world. We need to note that we have moved beyond simple needs for survival in a material world. Jesus response to the provision of simple needs is that we survive on something greater: the Word of God. However, God does provide for those needs when we make His kingdom and righteousness first in our lives and hearts (Mat 6). This temptation, however, deals with the movement to the possession of luxury at its grandest level. At this point we get into sticky ground. We agree that the right response is “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’.” However, what about riches and glory themselves? Can we have them or not?

Is it wrong to be rich? Is it wrong to receive honour and glory for the things that we do? If we receive acclaim for achievements in this world have we become prideful? One answer is to reject all these things and do nothing that would either gain us riches or honour. We withdraw then into our own religious enclave and leave the world to run or perish by itself. This perception treats riches and glory as evil in themselves. Just like money! Well money itself is not evil; rather it is the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). Jesus also indicates that honour itself is not evil when he defends the woman who washed his feet with her tears and then anointed them with the richest of perfume (Mat 26:6-12). One of my leaders asked whether it was wrong to expect appreciation for what you do. The answer, on the one hand, is yes. If you do what you do to be appreciated, then your heart seeks the praise of men and women, which robs you of honour from Father God (Mat 7:1-18). However, on the other hand, it is wrong for us not to appreciate what others do for us in Kingdom business. Not only do we need to appreciate them, but to publically do so.

What about riches? Jesus notes that “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. It is not the riches of this material world that is the problem but our heart attitude to God, His Kingdom and righteousness. The meek man, woman or child has yielded his or her rights to God and are sold out to His Cause and Purpose. Jesus notes that this type of people will have the things of this world to do the work of the Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed that we should store up treasure in heaven rather than earth (Mat 6:19-21). However, he nails the issue clearly when he adds for where your treasure is that is where your heart will be also. We need to turn our hearts away from a love of this world—its riches and glory—and turn our hearts wholly to God. We are to use, rather than love, the things of this world for Kingdom business and to see the purposes and cause of God come to fruition. Neither riches nor glory give satisfaction in this life, but only fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives from the beginning of time.

Both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke’s (4:1-14) Gospels include a description of the temptation of Jesus, by the devil in the wilderness – an interaction that occurred after he had fasted for forty days and nights. The story is familiar to us, yet holds different levels of understanding, some plain and straight forward, others more complex. This story probably holds one of the most complex theological issues we have in the Gospels – the meaning of the temptations for Jesus Himself. Before exploring the more complex issues involved in the temptations (in the third of these articles), we are going to look at some of the significant truths touched on by the temptations themselves.

The temptations remind us that our points of weakness lay, on the one hand, around the desire for power, and on the other hand, with the hankering after riches. However, the possession of power and riches themselves is not the problem – it involves, rather, the price we pay to gain them and the attitudes we develop in possessing them. The first two temptations revolve around Jesus’ power, and challenge Him to prove Himself – “if you really are the Son of God…” Is not that the sum of our lives? I do not mean that we are the Son of God, but that we spend our lives trying to prove ourselves. How often do we exert ourselves to impress people, whom we perceive to be important, and have them simply tolerate us at the best? Whilst at the same time we totally ignore the incredible love of those closest to us – our husbands or wives, parents or children. How often have we returned home from work, college or school, rebuffed by those we try to impress there, only to vent our anger and take it out on our family and friends?

However, power does not only relate to positions that we hold that have certain responsibilities, and which, because of that come with certain levels of authority. The real problem is the means of gaining that power, whether positional or not, and then how we use it. Jesus instructs His disciples to seek true greatness through servanthood not rulership and lordship. He uses his own ministry as the example of one who serves. His issue is with the use of power that lords it over others, because of its coercive dynamics. Coercive power is always abusive power, whether it is overt and brutal, or covert and subtly manipulative. Jesus moves the focus of the disciples from the using of others for their own purposes, which denies their humanity and belittles their dignity, to loving them through servant leadership, which heightens their humanity and uplifts their dignity. Jesus does not direct us away from coercive power just because of its abusive nature, but because it is an ineffective use of power and leadership. We must be wary of assuming here that Jesus denies the use of power itself. Rather, he warns of a particular use of power in leadership dynamics. True use of power will see others grow through its outworking. As a result, they will be more likely to become healthier, wiser, freer and more autonomous than they would under a more coercive form of leadership.

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