Text: Luke 4:1-13
Sixty-six books. One thousand, one hundred eighty-nine chapters. Thirty-one thousand, one hundred and two verses. There’s so much here that a person can argue for just about anything based on their choice of biblical verse. Anti-abortion Christians use a verse in the Psalms to argue that life begins at conception. Pro-abortion advocates point out that the book of Numbers mandates abortion in the case of unfaithfulness. Slavery advocates used the Bible to argue that God condones—or even mandates!—slavery. People have used the Bible against women and LGBTQ folks to invalidate their ministries or curtail their lives. Christians have used the Bible to argue for both using up Earth’s resources, and for careful stewardship of the Earth.
We should probably stop being surprised at the reckless use of biblical proof-texts for various positions, because the Bible itself tells us the devil quoted Scripture at Jesus. I mean, I think the devil quoting Scripture should probably be a huge, blinking, neon light for all of us: merely quoting the Bible doesn’t prove you’re on the side of the angels.
If you look back at the text, you’ll notice a couple of things. First, why is Jesus even out here in the desert? The reason has to do with Moses: when Moses first received the tablets of the covenant from God, he prayed and fasted for 40 days on Mt. Sinai. So Jesus, who is very much in Moses’ mold, tests himself and focuses his ministry with a time of fasting and prayer. Of course, in Moses’ case, God sends him back down the mountain after giving him the tablets, because the people of Israel were in trouble. They were so freaked out by Moses being gone so long that they pooled their gold and made a golden calf. That’s right: the people God had just delivered from slavery in Egypt betrayed God by creating an idol. Poor Moses was so mad he threw the tablets to the ground! And in Jesus’ story, he too comes face to face with the temptation to betray God’s plan. (Spoiler alert: it turns out somewhat better, and nobody ends up smashing anything.)
The second thing to take note of here is that Jesus is quoting a lot more Scripture than the devil, which is a sign of how Jesus has immersed himself in everything that is of God. He knows Scripture so well that it informs his every thought and action. Proverbs 3 admonishes all who seek wisdom to bind God’s commandments around their necks, and write them on the tablets of their hearts. The apostle Paul echoes this when he describes the Holy Spirit writing Christ’s truth on the tablets of human hearts. And this story is making very clear that Jesus has the Scripture written on the tablet of his heart.
Third, there is a very important distinction between Jesus’ quotations and the devil’s: whereas the devil quotes a Psalm, Jesus refers only to Torah, God’s instruction contained in the first five books of the Bible, then and now the central Scripture for faithful Jews. Specifically, Jesus quotes only from Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Torah. Deuteronomy is the book that sums up the entire story of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, the wilderness wanderings, and the commandments that God gives the people to ensure that they live well and abundantly on the land of promise. It’s sort of like the renewing of covenantal vows between God and the people just before they enter into the promised land.
Deuteronomy is all about living well. That’s what God’s commandments to Israel all aim at: choosing life over death, abundance and interconnectedness rather than treasure and power over others. Moses sums up Torah like this: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
]The way of Life, in Torah, is loving God and neighbor and keeping God’s commandments. Death is choosing the ways of idols. And idols, according to the biblical prophets, are those who encourage the fleecing of poor people, the murder of innocent people, the bribing of judges to rule in favor of the rich, anything that enriches one person at the expense of many. A few years ago I preached here on the story of Naboth’s vineyard. In that passage, King Ahab wants to buy a vineyard, but Naboth won’t sell, because it is his ancestral inheritance. In the Bible, the ancestral inheritance is a family’s portion of the promised land, and it is sacred. Even if you did sell your land, out of dire need, God commanded that every 49 years, it would be returned to you. Your ancestral land is a sign of God’s provision for the people in the land of promise: it is part of the Torah’s way of Life. Anyway, Ahab is very downcast over not getting this beautiful vineyard, so his wife, Jezebel, a worshiper of Baal, frames Naboth so that he would be put to death. After Naboth was safely out of the way, Ahab could take the dead man’s vineyard.
That story is important because it highlights the difference between Israel’s God and Baal. Baal doesn’t have a Torah. He didn’t give a bunch of commandments about caring for the widow, orphan, and refugee. That’s not Baal’s style. God, on the other hand, says that if we don’t care for the widow, orphan, or refugee, we should give up any expectation of blessing. God says that nothing is worse than oppressing the vulnerable or perverting the course of justice. This was a radical idea for the ancient world, and it’s why this collection of texts is so incredibly compelling and relevant, even though it’s couched in words and images that date to the Iron Age.
The Torah’s way of Life is sharing, what the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “neighborliness”: making sure everyone in the community has enough and no one has too much. The Torah’s way of Life is feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and giving justice in the courts. Life is recognizing that we are all interconnected, and that we are not free until every one of us is free. Death, which Baal and other idols represent, is about the illusion that we can be self-sufficient. It is, ultimately, about power over others. And power always seeks to justify itself, that it deserves everything while others do not: that the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich. That Jesus, for instance, deserves instant gratification and public adulation—strong temptations to anyone, to be sure—at the expense of keeping God’s covenant. Power always scoffs at God, and all God’s commandments intended to order society so as to minimize suffering, and protect life. Power and life are utterly opposed.
The devil desperately wants Jesus to choose power. If the devil can tempt the Son of God to choose death over life, then all of the Torah is meaningless. All resistance to evil is meaningless. Power and greed will have won. Jesus prevails, of course, but those temptations are ones we all have to face; maybe not on the scale Jesus did, but every day we have choices between asserting power over those around us, or sharing life with them. Choose power, and you choose the devil. You choose an idol. You choose death. That’s what it comes down to.
When I said earlier that you can pick and choose Bible verses to support anything, that was really only part of the truth, and this scene illustrates why. The overwhelming arc of the Bible is toward liberation, justice, and love. It is life-oriented. Those are the values of Deuteronomy and the Torah in general. Those are the values of the Prophets. Those are the values that Jesus is steeped in, that his identity springs from. You can find plenty of verses in Scripture that are counter to the Bible’s liberating arc. You can pull out verses that (seem to) support injustice, or represent hate. But you can’t actually make a coherent argument that the Bible supports oppression, injustice, or hate. You can’t use it to justify power over others when the whole thrust of the Bible is that authority belongs to God alone, and that every human being bears the image of God at their core.
Ultimately, this is what Lent is about for each of us. It is not a time to deny our selves, but to deny the powers of death within us. To deny the habits that keep us choosing an idol over the abundant Life around us. It is a call to deeper and more loving intimacy with God, to a greater commitment to justice. It is an opportunity to dedicate our lives more fully to God’s call for shalom: to choose life rather than death. It is the call of Deuteronomy, of the ancient covenant: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, set the prisoner free—that is what shalom looks like. Sometimes we are the prisoner… and sometimes we are the jailer. But no matter which, we all need to be set free. Shalom, God’s wholeness, can only come when we recognize how finite we are, how interdependent. This Lent, may each of us find new ways to choose Life, and may it be written on the tablets of our hearts.