“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” (Lk. 4:5).
There are three temptations in our Gospel today: the account of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness, which we hear every year at the beginning of Lent. In the first temptation, as St. Luke narrates it, the devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread, to use his own power to provide food in the desert instead of relying on the power of God. In the third temptation, Jesus is tempted to manipulate the power of God, by flinging himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, in the expectation that God will save him. These two temptations are variations on the theme of power, and how we ought to rely on God.
But it is in the second of these three temptations that power emerges most clearly. “Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you then will worship me it will all be yours'” (Lk. 4:5-7).
In this temptation, Jesus engages most closely with what we would now call “political power.” When the devil talks about “the kingdoms of the world” (Lk. 4:5), he’s not talking about geography, but about political jurisdictions and their ruling authorities. Think about an old-fashioned atlas, where one map gives you an illustration of continents and oceans, “the world” in one sense; while another gives you an outline of the different countries in different colors. The “world” and the “kingdoms” of this temptation come from the political world, the map of different colored countries, the contexts where political power itself is exercised.
In other words, the temptation here is political. At the end of forty days, Jesus is tempted to worship the devil, and to receive from him power and the authority to exercise it. There’s an explicit assertion here, on the devil’s part, that political power itself is demonic. It is the devil’s own power, which he gives to whomever he will. If Jesus will worship him, all this power can be his.
There’s the test. As providence would have it, this “political” temptation is placed squarely before our attention today at a politically charged time. For most of us, temptations to exercise the kind of power that Jesus is tempted with in our Gospel reading are going to seem rather farfetched; a temptation easily avoided! The devil isn’t likely to offer any of us sovereignty over the political world.
Nevertheless, there are political temptations for modest citizens like ourselves, dwelling in our own quiet corner of the world. We, too, can be tempted to see our political institutions as corrupt, and our fellow citizens as allies of the devil. All of this political ill-will is magnified by social media. We can be tempted to believe the devil when he tells us that political authority itself is demonic, and the devil’s own gift.
We can be tempted to see the work of government and politics, not as a means towards human flourishing, which is what our own governing documents in this country suggest (“the pursuit of happiness”), but as a form of simple domination. One group gets the advantage over another, rather than all of us working together, through exercising our vote, to govern ourselves. This is a form of political temptation that is alive and well and stalking the land.
The last ten days in Ukraine, of course, have given us a terrible example of the temptation represented by “the kingdoms of the world” (Lk. 4:5). Here, politics comes as close as it can to the demonic, through the invasion and occupation of a people’s homeland. If the ordinary work of politics and government is to keep people safe, then surely this form of aggression is the exact opposite. “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Lk. 4:7), as the devil says to Jesus. The nature of this temptation can’t get much clearer than this.
It’s in the face of this sort of manipulation, aggression, and destruction, that we re-discover our trust in God. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Lk. 4:8), as Jesus says in our Gospel today. We re-discover our own power as political actors, as we own the ultimate authority of God in Christ for each one of us. We are bold to resist the claims of the devil to “the kingdoms of the world” (Lk. 4:5), because we believe that these kingdoms are to become the dwelling place of God. In the slightly different formulation of St. John’s Revelation, in his vision of the end time, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev. 11:15).
These are perilous times; times of temptation of all sorts. We should pray for peace and justice. We should be bold in resisting the devil. We should also have trust in God, who alone is worthy of worship, and who holds all times and situations in his hand. It may be a time of testing, but we have confidence in Jesus Christ, who was able to meet the test. He rose victorious from the dead, and sent the devil packing; and he will raise us up with him.