Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Luke 4

Chapter 4 of Luke turns the attention fully to Jesus, and within this chapter’s 44 verses we learn of Jesus’ early temptations, rejection, and healings. As I mentioned in the introduction to this project, my goal is to highlight things that I haven’t noticed in the past or feel have been overlooked. This means that there will be sections I look at closely and others that I gloss over. In no way am I suggesting those passages are less important; in many cases it will be the opposite: the section is vitally important and therefore has been dissected deeply with little left out.

Without further ado, we join Jesus in the desert, where he was tempted for 40 days and did not eat or drink. In what could be considered a severe understatement, we are told that “at the end of them [the 40 days] he was hungry” (2). Naturally, the first temptation Luke tells us about (although Luke says in verse two that he was tempted throughout the 40 days, so it likely was not the first temptation) is about food to satisfy Jesus’ hunger.

However, it’s the second temptation I want to focus on. Here’s verses 5-7:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.”

There’s a much larger theological discussion about just how much authority the devil has on earth (and an even larger one about the exact character and identity of the devil at all), but I think this passage provides a keen insight into one of the most dominant Christian teachings in America today. Particularly with Donald Trump, Christians often point to Paul’s teachings (in Romans 13:1, but also elsewhere): “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Now, we already see a tremendous inconsistency in how many Christians apply these words. They take them far more seriously (and literally) with Donald Trump than they did when Barack Obama was president, but it’s also interesting in light of current events to see how this verse commands us to respect the president, but we should also protest against governors who have implemented stay-at-home orders we don’t like. If we’re going to apply this command, we must do it consistently – either submit to all authority and see it as from God or stop appealing to this command.

But back to the temptation: the words of the tempter seem to undermine Paul’s claim. While the natural response is to say, “the devil is dishonest, and we can’t trust what he says,” Jesus would know the character and authority of the devil far more than we can and do. So if what the devil was saying was untrue, it would have been very easy for Jesus to scoff at him and say, “we both know you don’t have that sort of authority.” In fact, the devil would not even consider suggesting he does, because it wouldn’t be a tempting statement since both would know it is untrue.

Jesus does not call him dishonest. Instead, he makes it clear that his mission and ministry is not about earthly power. Instead, he quotes the scripture he grew up with, saying only one entity deserves our worship: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (8).

This passage completely undermines the current quest for political power among Christians in America. While some Trump supporters wholeheartedly approve of everything about him (which leads to a more serious concern with idolatry and the exact command Jesus quoted), the most common refrain is something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t like everything he says and does, but he’s helping protect religious liberty and nominating judges that are good for Christians.” It is a trade: integrity for political power.

Jesus had that exact opportunity in the desert, with far more political power offered than merely what Trump is offering Christians. His response shows just how much the idea of political power and authority did not align with his mission. If we are to profess to be his followers, our priorities must align with his.

Following the temptation in the desert, Jesus’ ministry began in earnest. Verse 15 tells us that “he taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him,” and a couple verses later he quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah and tells those in attendance that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (21). First, we should briefly take note of the key points in the passage from Isaiah that Jesus said he was fulfilling: good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind (healing), release for the oppressed (18-19).

This ties into the message John preached in the previous chapter, but again, it’s fascinating to see what Jesus spoke of as the priorities (and what would be the result) of his ministry and compare it to the most prevalent “Christian” political stances in today’s America. Jesus offered four key points, all of which deeply contrast the political stances of the majority of “Christians” in America: minimizing the social safety net while passing tax cuts that greatly benefit the wealthy, an extremely hardline stance on crime that leads to disproportionate incarceration figures compared to the rest of the world, opposition to universal health care in favor of a system that charges exorbitant prices to people who can’t afford it and gives the wealthiest the opportunity to buy better services, and rejection of refugees and harsh treatment of minorities.

Jesus told those in the synagogue, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (21). Well, today, Christians support the opposite of the fulfillment of that scripture.

The story shifts, as Jesus is rejected in his hometown. His neighbors have heard stories of what he’s said and done for neighboring communities, and they demanded he follow their orders. However, Jesus instead recalls a pair of stories when the prophets Elijah and Elisha assisted non-Israelites rather than Israelites because their own people had rejected them (24-27).

This is not simply Jesus throwing a hissy fit. Instead, he is recognizing that the community from which he came, the people who should know him best, want to manipulate and use him to satisfy their desires rather than see the glory of God unfold. And he responds the same way Elijah and Elisha did, by telling them that instead they will be rejected and others will receive the assistance they’ve rejected.

Naturally, the community response to this is not good: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff” (28-20). Quite a sudden shift the people who should have known Jesus best made as soon as he didn’t serve their distorted desires. Again, this seems highly applicable to our current time, when we see “Christians,” the people who should know Jesus’ message and priorities best, openly espousing policies and attitudes that conflict entirely with everything he said and did. Since he is not a physical person here on earth right now, we don’t need to take him to the edge of a cliff and throw him off; we merely have to ignore his actual words and promote a message in his name that he would never stand for.

What was Jesus’ response to this treatment by his neighbors? “He walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (30). While Luke doesn’t explain exactly how he escaped the mob, the point is that Jesus essentially shrugged his shoulders when those who knew him best rejected him and chose to instead go find others who might be more receptive to his message and love. And we see that in the rest of the chapter, as he drives out an evil spirt, heals many, and preaches all throughout the region.

While the people in his hometown wanted to kill him, others don’t want to see him leave. But he tells them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (43). This idea of good news and a Godly kingdom again echoes the words of John, yet we have to look at them in the context of the rest of his teachings. According to Jesus, the good news and the kingdom of God revolve around the four pillars of his quote from Isaiah: once again, they are good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind (healing), release for the oppressed (18-19).

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry already gives us a strong glimpse into what matters most to him and the kingdom of God. Looking forward, we will soon start to see the type of people his message appeals to; I’m excited to see how that appeal will compare to what we consider today’s “Christian” message to be. Thanks for joining me on this closer look at Luke, and please comment with your thoughts on Chapter 4.

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