The temptation narrative of the Gospels, particularly in Luke 4:1-13, raises questions about the nature of temptation and what it means to be tempted.
In 1988 an enormous controversy arose surrounding the release of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Martin Scorsese’s screen adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1951 novel by the same title. Protesters marched in front of theaters, causing the film not to be shown in some cities. When it was released on video the next year, some video rental stores did not carry it because of threatened boycotts. Many Christian groups denounced the film.
What was it that bothered people so terribly in a movie about Jesus?
It may have been that much of the movie did not come from the Bible, but the writer of the book and the director of the movie never claimed otherwise. Perhaps the assumption of most readers of the Gospel is that Jesus was only tempted during the brief narratives that appear in Matthew 4, Mark 1 and Luke 4. In the film, the temptation depicted occurs while Jesus is on the cross.
Probably the element of the film that upset people most was that the temptation of Jesus had a sexual component, but why would people accept that Jesus had some kinds of temptations but not others?
In fact, the primary temptation of Jesus in the film was to use his power to come down from the cross and live out a normal life, including being married and having children. Much of the movie is a dream/vision he has, while hanging on the cross, of this life he might have lived. This normal life the Jesus character imagines could hardly be considered sinful, so why is it called a “temptation?”
The temptation narrative of the Gospels, particularly in Luke 4:1-13, may raise similar questions about the nature of temptation and what it means to be tempted.
The Gospel of Luke presents us with a very different portrait of Jesus than the other Gospels, which is the value of having multiple Gospels, of course. Luke’s Jesus is not in a hurry, like Mark’s, nor does he run around the world dodging the wrath of petty tyrants, like Matthew’s.
The word for tempted used by the narrator in Luke 4:2 could just as easily be translated as “tested.” This is the same Greek word used by the Septuagint at Genesis 22:1, when God “tempts” Abraham with the command to sacrifice Isaac, in Exodus 15:25 and 16:4 when God tests the Israelites in the wilderness, and in Exodus 17:17 when the Israelites test God. A slightly different form of the word is used in Deuteronomy 6:16 and quoted in Luke 4:12 about putting God “to the test.”
The exploration of the nature of temptation in Luke 4:1-13, which points to inappropriate claims on the power and promises of God, denial of our identity as children of God, and the use of unsuitable means to achieve our goals, reveals that temptation awaits us at every turn.
Luke was probably the third of the New Testament Gospels to be written, and it acknowledges, more clearly than Mark or Matthew, that Jesus’ temptation will continue. Only the Gospel of John was written after Luke, and it goes one step further, eliminating the well-known temptation narrative, and placing more overt temptations within the ongoing ministry of Jesus.
Luke, like the other Gospels in the New Testament, is a narrative in which many kinds of conflict persist. Among these is the conflict within Jesus to be faithful to his identity and to allow his goals and achievements to flow out of that fidelity.
Perhaps our greatest struggle with the temptation narrative is that it does not match our own experience of temptation. Most of us probably think that if we knew we were looking at the devil face-to-face, being enticed to do something we knew for sure was wrong, then it would be easy to say no.
Our temptations come in different ways, though. Given a choice between two behaviors, it is not always clear that one is better than the other, or that one is clearly damaging to us or others. The ambiguity of some of our temptations raises questions about how we understand evil in the world.
Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. He teaches introductory and advanced courses in Old Testament, as well as Hebrew language courses.
This column is excerpted from a Bible commentary for “The Agenda: 8 Lessons from Luke 4,” a free, online study to help prepare churches for next year’s New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta. The faculty of the School of Religion at Belmont University partnered with the Baptist Center Ethics to write the commentaries. The commentary, lessons and other resources are available here.