You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In today’s Gospel passage, here is Jesus wrestling with this issue. He has just discovered that he can wield absolute power. How does he handle this so as to remain uncorrupted?
As any good Jew would, he finds himself arguing Torah with a worthy opponent. It is the devil himself who argues against him — or perhaps the part of Jesus that is devilish.
I’m sure what we have recorded in Matthew’s passage is just a very boiled down version of what was actually said between Jesus and this more ego-oriented other. It probably took the entire 40 days in the wilderness for Jesus to work through the totality of the argument to this final set of simple statements. And did that discussion remain finished from that point on? Knowing that Jesus is a Jew steeped in the rabbinic tradition, how could we ever believe it would? Arguing is a holy act, the only way for a person to really discover who they uniquely are.
In this story Matthew gives us the bare bones of a revelation about power. Again and again, we must turn away from the temptation to use power for our own ends. Even when the cause is the most worthy of all causes — wouldn’t we love to see Jesus in charge of all the empires of the world, for instance — we have to let it go.
Worshiping and serving God is the only choice we can make to avoid that pesky corruption that power inevitably brings. Why else would the devil say that being in charge of the kingdoms of the world goes hand in hand with worshiping the devil? It always does, no matter how noble we are. We start out thinking we’re serving God, creating a God-fearing kingdom, and, next thing we know we find ourselves doing outrageous things so that we can keep hold of our vision. People are wounded or killed in the name of peace. The ideology we promulgate becomes a club that destroys freedom. And so forth.
Paying attention to the words that fall from the lips of God, refusing to tempt the Lord, and worshiping God only, serving God alone, are good rules to follow when we have power. (And relative to the rest of the world most of us U.S. citizens have great power.) So Jesus, again and again, relinquishes his power in the service of God.
But following these simple rules will only sustain us for so long. Which words of the Bible come from the mouth of God? What is actually meant by serving God? If we leave our understanding of scripture at the level of what we were taught as kids, we will not really know God well enough to serve God. Reading the scriptures as adults, we are sure to come up against plenty of things with which we will want to argue.
Our Christian communities are meant to be places where these arguments can unfold, teaching us not only who God is but who we are. Each of us is called to a comprehension of the Holy that is unique to us. And we are constantly invited to challenge and expand this view. Get involved. Study scripture. Argue with worthy opponents who at the end of the day will appreciate your arguments.
May we find in the wilderness the holy discussions that lead us to new insight. And then may we act in the service of Christ and of God.
Image by Ivan Kramskoi – Google Cultural Center, Public Domain
Laurie Gudim is a writer, religious iconographer and spiritual director living in Fort Collins, Colorado. To learn more about her, go here. And here’s her church home. Come visit when you are in town.