Jesus and his disciples lived as peripatetic mendicants – wandering beggars – walking from town to town for the sake of the gospel, without money, food, extra clothing or a place to lay their heads. To announce the gospel to the poor, they lived in poverty, depending on the hospitality of sometimes hostile strangers. Humbling themselves to reveal the depths of God’s mercy and compassion, hunger would be their real and constant companion. Jesus and the first disciples not only had to endure deprivation to complete their mission, they also had to resist the temptation to turn away from God’s chosen path in order to please their benefactors. One cannot overestimate the power of hunger, or the lure of comfort and security. When the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s chosen path with an easy abundance of bread, Jesus turned him away with the power of God’s word.
Jesus’ life of vulnerability would ultimately lead him to be crucified for our sake. How could this be? The devil quoted Psalm 91 to Jesus. “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” The Psalmist envisions a God who protects his own and delivers them from death. As Jesus looks forward to walking the way of the cross, he must wrestle with the promise of Psalm 91. Can a God who makes the promises of Psalm 91 allow his chosen one to suffer and die? Can such a God be trusted? Is God’s word in Psalm 91 true, and if so, how can it true be true in the shadow of the cross? “If you are the Son of God, why won’t God protect you?” When the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s chosen path by planting the seeds of distrust, Jesus again turned him away with the power of God’s word.
Jesus came announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God and calling people to repentance. The kingdom’s coming would ultimately depend on Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience, his vulnerable life and sacrificial death. Couldn’t there be an easier way to establish God’s eternal kingdom? “Do you want a kingdom?” the devil asked. “I’ve got lots of them to give you.” The tempter promised Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world”, if Jesus would only worship him. Notably, the devil claims only to offer Jesus the kingdoms of this world; only the Father can promise the kingdom of God. Perhaps the devil expected Jesus literally to bow down and worship at his feet, but Jesus saw the devil in much more subtle temptations. When Peter, for example, suggested that Jesus need not suffer death on a cross, Jesus heard Satan’s voice tempting him to compromise his vocation. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus replied. To achieve a measure of justice among the kingdoms of this world – and to make the best of an impossibly bad situation – it sometimes seems like it is necessary to make a bargain with the devil. The kings of this age rule by the power of the sword, not by the power of the cross. There is no purely just way to achieve a purely just end. The kingdom of God, however, could never come in its perfect fullness and holiness through compromises with evil. Fortunately for us, Jesus eschewed penultimate success for final victory. There was only one route to the kind of triumph Jesus came to achieve. When the devil tempted Jesus to turn away from God’s chosen path by offering him a different route to kingly rule, Jesus one last time turned him away with the power of God’s word.