In the third temptation of Jesus the tempter takes Jesus in a vision onto a high mountain. He shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor and offers him kingship over the world. Is not that precisely the mission of the Messiah? Isn’t he supposed to be the King of the world who unifies the whole earth into one Kingdom of peace and well-being? The temptation to turn stones into bread has two remarkable counterparts later on in Jesus’ life: the multiplication of the loaves and the Last Supper. The same thing is true here.
For Matthew the climax of the temptation narrative is on the mountain, for his Gospel narration has a specific emphasis on the theme of ‘mountain’ (cf. Mt 5, 1 before the Sermon on the Mount; Mt 8, 1 before set of Miracles; Mt 15, 29 before another set of Miracles and multiplication of loaves; Mt 17, 1 before Transfiguration; Mt 18, 16 to give final Mission mandate). Here he constantly alludes to Mount Sinai. Whereas, for Luke, the climax is on the Temple, for his Gospel narration has a specific emphasis on the theme of ‘Temple.’ For both Matthew and Luke as well as for Mark the Temptations of Jesus give the gist of the Gospel.
Here we take Matthews narration for understanding the Third Temptation of Jesus. The risen Lord gathers his followers “on the mountain” (cf. Mt 28, 16). And on this mountain he does indeed say “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28, 18). Two details here are new and different. Jesus has power in heaven and on earth. And only someone who has this fullness of authority has the real, saving power. Without heaven, earthly power is always ambiguous and fragile. Only when power submits to the measure and the judgment of heaven – of God, in other words – can it become power for good. And only when power stands under God’s blessing can it be trusted.
This is where the second element comes in: Jesus has this power in virtue of his Resurrection. This means that it presupposes the Cross, Jesus’ death. It presupposes that other mountain – Golgotha, where Jesus hangs on the Cross and dies, mocked by men and forsaken by his disciples. The Kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of the earth and their splendour, which the tempter parades before Jesus.
This splendour, as the Greek word doxa indicates, is an illusory appearance that disintegrates. This is not the sort of splendor that belongs to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ Kingdom grows through the humility of the proclamation in those who agree to become his disciples, who are baptized in the name of the Triune God, who keep his commandments (cf. Mt 28, 19ff).
The third temptation’s true content becomes apparent when we realize that throughout history it is constantly taking on new form. The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use the faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of God was now expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendour. The powerlessness of faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. This temptation to use power to secure the faith has risen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power, even to this day. For the fusion of faith and power always comes at price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria. As now a day’s happening in various religious Congregations which become more of power centred institutions than of witness of the virtues of Christ.
The alternative that is at stake here appears in a dramatic form in the narrative of the Lord’s Passion. At the culmination of Jesus’ trial, Pilate presents the people with a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. One of the two will be released. Before commenting future we should know who Barabbas was?
It is usually the words of John’s Gospel that come to mind here: “Barabbas was a robber” (Jn 18, 40). The Greek word for ‘robber’ had acquired a specific meaning in the political situation that obtained at the time in Palestine. It had become a synonym for “resistance fighter.” Barabbas had taken part in an uprising (cf. Mk 15, 7), and furthermore – in the context – had been accused of murder (cf. Lk 23, 19. 25). When Matthew remarks that Barabbas was “a notorious prisoner” (Mt 27, 16), this is evident that he was one of the prominent ‘resistance fighter,’ in fact probably the actual leader of that particular uprising.
More clearly, Barabbas was a messianic fighter. The choice of Jesus versus Barabbas is not accidental. Here two messiah figures, two forms of messianic belief stand in opposition. This becomes even clearer when we consider that the name “Bar-Abbas” means “son of the father.” This is typically messianic appellation, the cultic name of a prominent leader of the messianic movement (The last great Jewish messianic war was fought in the year 132 by Bar-Kokhba meaning “son of the star.” The form of the name is the same, and it stands for the same intention).
Origen, one of the Fathers of the Church, provides us with another interesting detail. Up until the third century, many manuscripts of the Gospel referred to the man in question here as “Jesus Barabbas” – “Jesus son of the father.” Barabbas figures here as a sort of alter ego of Jesus, who makes the same claim but understands it in a completely different way.
So the choice is between a Messiah who leads an armed struggle, promises freedom and a kingdom of one’s own, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that losing oneself is the way to life.
If we had to choose today, would Jesus of Nazareth have a chance? Do we really know Jesus of whom we always speak about? Do we understand Jesus? Do we not perhaps have to make an effort, today as always, to get to know Jesus all over again?
In all these situations the tempter is not so crude as to suggest us directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes.
Jesus’ third temptation proves, then, to be fundamental one. Because it concerns the question as to what sort of action is expected of a Saviour of the world. It pervades the entire life of Jesus. It manifests itself openly again at a decisive turning point along his path.
Peter, speaking in the name of the disciple, has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah-Christ, the Son of the Living God. In doing so, he has expressed in words the faith that builds up the Church and inaugurates the new community of faith based on Christ. At this crucial moment, where distinctive and decisive knowledge of Jesus separates his followers from public opinion and begins to constitute them as his new family, the tempter appears – threatening to turn everything into its opposite. Jesus immediately declares that the concept of the Messiah has to be understood in terms of the entirety of the message of the Prophets. It means not worldly power, but the Cross, and the radically different community that comes into being through the Cross.
But this is not what Peter has understood: “Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Mt 16, 22). Only when we read these words against the backdrop of the temptation narrative – as its recurrence at the decisive moment – do we understand Jesus’ unbelievably hard answer: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16, 23).
In our times, the interpretation of Christianity as a recipe for progress and the proclamation of universal prosperity as the real goal of all religions, including Christianity – could be considered as the modern form of the same temptation. It appears in the guise of a question: “what did Jesus bring, then, if he didn’t usher in a better world? How can that not be the content of messianic hope?”
In the Old Testament, two strands of that hope are still intertwined without distinction. The first one is the expectation of a worldly paradise in which the wolf lies down with the lamb (cf. Is 11, 6), the peoples of the world make their way to Mount Zion, the prophecy “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” comes true (Is 2, 4; Mic 4, 1-3). Alongside this expectation, however, is the prospect of the suffering servant of Yhwh, of a Messiah who brings salvation through contempt and suffering.
Throughout his public ministry, and again in his discourses after his Resurrection, Jesus had to show his disciples that Moses and the Prophets were speaking of him, the seemingly powerless one, who suffered, was crucified, and rose again. Jesus had to show that in this way, and no other, the promises were fulfilled (cf. Lk 24, 25).
Jesus, however, repeats to us what he said in reply to the tempter, what he said to Peter, and what he explained to the disciples on the way to Emmaus: No kingdom of this world is the Kingdom of God, the total condition of humankind’s salvation.
Now this understanding could lead us to a far greater question: What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?
The answer is very simple, but very difficult to understand and be convinced in our personal lives: God. He has brought God. He has brought God who formally unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the wisdom Literature – the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honoured among the Pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom Jesus has brought to the world.
He has brought God, and now we know Him and call upon Him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Indeed we have to acknowledge that God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power.
Jesus has emerged victorious from his battle with the tempter. To the tempter’s lying divinization of power and prosperity, to his lying promise of a future that offers all things to all people through power and through wealth – Jesus responds with the fact that God is God, that God is human being’s true Good.
To the invitation to worship power, Jesus answers with a passage from Deuteronomy, the same Book the tempter himself had cited: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mt 4, 10; cf. Deut 6, 13). The fundamental commandment of Israel is also fundamental commandment for Christians: God alone is to be worshiped. When we come to consider the Sermon on the Mount, we will see that precisely this unconditional Yes to the first tablet of the Ten Commandments also includes the Yes to the second tablet – reverence for man, love of neighbours.
Matthew, like Mark, concludes the narrative of the temptations with the statement that “angels came and ministered to him” (Mt 4, 11; Mk 1, 13). Psalm 91, 11 now comes to fulfillment: The angels serve him; he has proven himself to be the Son, and heaven therefore stands open above him, the new Jacob, the Patriarch of the universalized Israel (cf. Jn 1, 51; Gen 28, 12).