Nothing reveals the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom quite as much as Jesus’ response to the devil’s temptations (see Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).
Satan offered Jesus a range of right-side-up options, straight out of the world’s political and religious lexicon. And Jesus passed on them all.
In doing so, he left us a model to follow as we seek to be good citizens of his upside-down kingdom.
Jesus was offered political power, provided that he exercised it in the way every other “tin-pot dictator” did. He was offered religious power – the chance to run an elaborate temple empire that kept people in thrall to a cycle of guilt and laws.
And he was offered the opportunity to be a welfare messiah. Turn stones to bread, said the devil. What could be better than meeting the needs of the world’s poor by working a miracle of provision?
Yet Jesus declined all three offers, opting for a rougher, harder, more costly way that involved subverting the empires of the world from below. Nowhere is this more needed than in the economic realm.
I have been and continue to be a big supporter of the local food bank in my town. I think it is a simple, practical way to stand with people who are struggling to make ends meet.
Yet I am also furious because I do not think that hunger should be a matter for charity.
This, after all, was the heart of this temptation to Jesus that he be a welfare messiah – doling out charity bread to the poor to gain their support but leaving the system unchallenged that makes and keeps them poor.
This temptation is about the daily provision that we trust God to provide. Jesus lived in hungry times and the devil’s question suggested he take the struggle out of the provision of bread and be hailed as messiah.
We, too, live in hungry times. Some 500,000 people in the United Kingdom depend on food banks to provide some meals each month. That’s more than the population of the borough of Bromley where I live. This is a political issue, not just an invitation to be charitable to people in need.
The society in which Jesus lived was hideously unequal, with a few fabulously wealthy people living in the lap of luxury while the overwhelming majority of the population struggled to make ends meet.
The devil wanted it to stay that way, but Jesus refused to play this game because he was listening to God, which helps us understand his response.
What does quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 have to do with this temptation? It means that there are words aplenty in Scripture that relate to how society should be ordered so that there are no poor who need us to dump charity on them.
Deuteronomy 15:7-11 is a good place to start, with its laws on gleaning, the Sabbath laws and the Year of Jubilee.
All of these practices point to a society where people do not become helplessly poor. That’s what Jesus meant by people living by the word of God.
He took up these ideas in his teaching on the Kingdom in Luke 12:12-13, for example.
And the early church took what he said seriously as we see in Acts 2:42-48 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, especially verses 13-15, which speak about equality.
With this insight, Jesus’ temptation to feed the crowds begins to look like something that has implications for us.
All too often our stock response to things going wrong in the world is “Someone should do something.”
Jesus’ response suggests that I have it in my power to do something that will make a difference because the citizens of his Kingdom are people who live by different rules.
What does being a citizen of this upside-down kingdom entail?
In relation to the inequitable distribution of bread, it means that we support food banks by giving generously so that those in need can receive the help they desperately need.
But we do this not as an act of charity, but as a pointer to the equality that we want to see in the world around us.
This will result in more awareness that so many people depend on food banks to acquire sufficient food in our society and will cause us to begin to dream about other ways that we can help.
We will begin to wonder how we can use the resources we have to create more imaginative and long-lasting solutions that enable people to provide for themselves and others rather than depend on charity.
In that way, we will show ourselves to be caught up in the upside-kingdom, pointing to God’s brighter day.
Simon Jones is the pastor of Bromley Baptist Church in Bromley, a London suburb, in the United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, A Sideways Glance, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @bromleyminister.
A writer and Baptist minister, Jones is about to step down from his role as Vice Principal of Spurgeon’s College in London to concentrate on working with Peaceful Borders, offering support to displaced people in Calais and London.