Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


This is the second part of Dr Conlon's talk.
Lively discussion
The Power and the Glory

In the second temptation Jesus is conveyed to the pinnacle of the Temple. This most magnificent of many buildings that arose under the governance of Herod the Great, stood on a plateau. There was a corner at which the portico of Solomon met the Royal Gate and from there was a sheer drop of 450 feet into the Kedron valley. This might well have been the location for the spectacular stunt suggested by Satan. Quoting psalm 91, which was intimately connected with the Temple as a place where protection is assured to the believer, Jesus is to demonstrate the veracity of that prayer in an obvious and unmistakable manner.  He responds by a biblical dispute with the Devil. Pope Benedict, in his scholarly way sees a contemporary resonance in this outcome. The interpretation of scripture is ultimately one about the image of God that it demonstrates. And that image is formed by how Christ is interpreted. What kind of Messiah is he? We apparently have so many from which to choose. But only one is genuine; the one that recognises his complete identification with the will of his heavenly Father on the one hand, and the other, the trusting abandonment of his bodily survival to the extremes of physical destruction.

For Benedict, the issue at stake in the second temptation is one of “bread and circuses” that after the first has been provided a spectacle must follow. This is the replacement of religious awe with glamourous and exciting substitutes. How does Jesus deal with it? The reply to the tempter quoted by him (from Dt. 6:16) alludes to an event described in Ex. 17:7, in the wandering history of the Israelites when they rebelled against God and Moses complaining of thirst. “They put the Lord to the proof by saying, is the Lord among us or not”. The issue then is that God has to submit to experiment. He is “tested”, as products are tested. He must submit to the conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty. The devil challenged God to answer then and there the prayer expressed in psalm 91. It is a challenge repeated many times in our contemporary religious debate. Laboratory conditions are imposed on the quest or discussion of God as though he could be subject in any way to that kind of confirmation. The God for whom Jesus stands and in whom he is present at all times, evokes a higher and altogether more dignified response from humanity. It is one that exalts our nature above the experimental and empirical and invites us to seek and know by an intellect moved and inspired by love and interior listening. The humility that opens the door to the highest form of mysticism as that echoed in the phrase from Mother Julian of Norwich, “By love he may be gotten and holden, by thought never. “

Jesus did eventually, in a sense, jump into an abyss. But it was one that subjected him to the abandonment of himself into the hands of his Father, on the Cross: the death he had to undergo to achieve true victory and glory for fallen humanity. Instead of the reckless defiance of God suggested by Satan he submits to the obedience which could only led to the cross. The spectacle of personal and public humiliation by which alone the victory of human nature could be won; which brings us to the third temptation. From the top of a high mountain, Jesus is shown in spirit an empire of wealth, glory and dominion. We must consider this more in terms of a vision than of a physical reality. The temptation is to reach out and grab earthly power, just there for the taking. To achieve rapidly by physical control a universal dominion utterly opposed to service, which could only be won by a long and laborious and risky strategy of conversion, dependent on the unpredictable and the uncontrollable forces ranged against it. This is the temptation to use undiluted power to secure the faith so that our religion is identified exclusively with political control. Pope Benedict’s commentary on this temptation observes that the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria. The temptation to succumb to such an experiment has been a constant in the history of Christianity. In its latest form it sought to identify the faith as a radical force for social and political change with selective interpretations from scripture to support it.  He proposes a clear example of Jesus representing just the opposite in his trial before Pontius Pilate. The governor offers a choice between two prisoners, Barabbas and Jesus. John’s Gospel describing Barabbas is translated as “a robber”. But the original Greek word is more precise. At that time it had come to be synonymous with “freedom fighter”. He is likely to have been the ringleader of an uprising. In that sense, he was a messianic figure, whose name Barabbas, son of the father, makes the irony of the choice even more acute. The crowds were faced with a choice between a messianic leader of an armed struggle, promising an earthly kingdom of freedom, and this mysterious Jesus who proclaims that the way to life is letting go of all pretensions to earthly power, claiming as justification the virtues of truth, justice and the fulfilment of the divine will.

Relating further this epic instance of temptation to the contemporary situation, Benedict writes that today the devil would not be so crude as to propose that we should worship him. He would rather suggest 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. In this scenario, Antichrist does not appear as an apocalyptic foe but as one whose message is the worship of well-being and rational planning. The interpretation of Christianity as a recipe for progress and the proclamation of universal prosperity as the real goal of all religions is a modern temptation. So often it takes the form of a religious populism, demanding that the Church steps into line with current thinking on human welfare and accepted variants of human identity and behaviour instead of risking failure and rejection by defending outdated Judaeo- Christian morality. The prophetic character of our religion is such that it must always stand in opposition to the temptation to yield to pressure or succumb to the lies of contemporary movements  that promote a vision of humanity that is purely mechanised and material. This is a world where all that matters is that physical and emotional needs of every kind are met and provided regardless of the moral or material cost to society. Everything is justifiable that is possible, scientifically, medically and socially.

We can all so easily be swept along on this tide of progress towards a utopia of human fulfilment utterly distant from any reliance or reverence for divine revelation or its moral imperatives. In a haste to procure a better world the slow-moving tempo of divine intervention becomes a bore and a nuisance. God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again the death throes of our religion have been predicted. Yet over and over again it has endured and saved. The earthly kingdoms shown by Satan to Jesus have all past away. Their glory held generations in thrall for a time. They have not been without their benefits to civilization but they could not answer or offer hope for anything beyond what is tangible, physical or destructible. Jesus bequeathed a legacy and a spiritual kingdom of genuine freedom and ultimate security that effectively releases mankind from subjection to worldly dependence and inescapable mortality. To the invitation to worship power, the Lord answers with the ancient text of Dt 6:23; “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”. The command to Israel is the same as that for Christians: God alone is to be worshipped. In the midst of so many temptations to sideline this religious absolute we must steel ourselves to stand our ground and like our divine Master, be ready and willing to accept humiliation for a time and send the tempter packing.