Ted Grimsrud—April 12, 2021
One way to read the history of Christianity is as a constant, and consistent, effort to evade the actual message of Jesus with formal theology and with alliances with kings and emperors. Yet time after time, the gospel struggles forth, and people are reminded, yes, he calls us to love our neighbors, he calls us to resist domination, and he calls us to care for our children—and all other children.
A common way that Christians have answered the question, why do we pay attention to Jesus, is with a kind of slogan: “He’s the Son of God.” In this post, I want to take that slogan very seriously. Yes, he is the Son of God. But what does that mean, to say Jesus is the Son of God?
Let’s read parts of several biblical passages that directly or indirectly speak to this question:
The kings of the earth set themselves…against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” [This king says,] “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” (Psalm 2:1-9)
Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God; I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isa 42:1-9)
I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll. Then one of the elders said to me, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb standing as if it had been slain. He went and took the scroll. “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you freed for God saints of every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:1-10)
Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority. If you will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13)
In light of these texts, what are some words or phrases that come to mind to say what you think of when you think of Jesus as “Son of God”?
The risks of seeking to dominate
One issue we may consider is what would constitute a “Son of God” in our mind—someone who completely dominates or, more, someone who empowers others? It’s kind of like a choice Kathleen and I faced back in the 1980s when we were new homeowners. Of course, we wanted to do it right. When I learned of a free inspection from a bug extermination company, I thought the only responsible thing to do was to give them a call. We certainly didn’t want our new house to be destroyed by pests.
So, the guy from “Killers” came by. And, sure enough, he found a carpenter ant—at least that’s what he said it was. He then outlined the treatment. Basically, close the house up and poison everything (they were Killers, after all). We thought, whoa, that sounds a bit drastic. But we were leaning toward saying yes. Then he turned on the pressure; I’m giving you a great deal, but you literally have the next ten minutes to sign the contract. We sent him outside and in agony tried to decide. We resented the pressure, and with deep misgivings, told him no, we couldn’t make this kind of decision so quickly.
He left, and we continued our lives with a troubled conscience. Our house didn’t collapse, but I still worried. Some months later, I saw a small add for a company called “Integrated Pest Management.” That name sounded a little better than Killers. So, I had the guy came by. Of course, he didn’t find any pests. But he did explain what he would do if we did have an infestation. It didn’t involve poisoning the entire house, but instead tracking down the ants’ nest and dealing with the problem there. He also said the healthiest way to deal with pests was to raise one’s tolerance for their presence; seek to “manage” the problem rather than obliterate it.
I see a lesson there. In our quest to dominate our problems, we may end up causing more problems in the long run. I hate to imagine what living with the residue of the Killers’ poison would have meant for our long-term health. So, we seek to live with our imperfections, to manage our weaknesses so that we can continue on, to seek harmony with our environment more than domination over it.
Our big question concerning Jesus
What kind of Son of God are we looking for? A “killer” or one who helps us “manage” in an integrated way? This is a good question—because we do want deliverance, personal, relational, political. But how might we gain it? This is why the actual story of Jesus is important. Not so we can find a blueprint, a rigid set of standards or principles that we must follow rotely or be dashed on the rocks of apostasy. But because the power everyone sees in Jesus needs to be understood at its origin. The story itself is our avenue into Jesus’ powerful life.
My approach is to take very seriously the story told in the gospels (I’m focusing on Luke). I hope to find clues there that help answer both the question of why we pay attention to Jesus but also the question, how might we live today in ways that genuinely do serve life and thereby serve God?
In Luke three, we come to a key moment. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. Why does this happen? What is going on when Jesus is baptized? It seems that Jesus’ baptism is kind of a commissioning service. We could say that it’s somewhat analogous to when our congregation sends someone forth with our blessing for a particular task—service with Mennonite Central Committee, for example.
So, Jesus is being commissioned for his particular task: to serve as God’s beloved Son. And what kind of Son is that to be? The rest of the gospel tells us what Jesus’s vocation is, beginning with the second section of Luke 4, where Jesus preaches his first sermon—the good news of release to captives and liberty for the oppressed.
But first, we clarify what Jesus’s task as “Son of God” is not. We note that “Son of God” is a political (more than doctrinal) title. Jesus is God’s agent as a societal leader. We see the political nature of this title in all of the above texts, but especially Psalm 2. Israel’s king is called “Son of God.” The message in Psalm 2 is a message of Son of God as a conquering king—who brings things to rights with the kings of the earth and the nations through wielding his rod of iron. Then, Isaiah 42 adds a whole new dimension. We have a similar outcome, the nations brought to rights—but here the central figure is a servant who brings “justice” through self-giving love. Which will it be? A Son of God who conquers with weapons of war? Or a Son of God who conquers with persevering love? That seems to be the basic issue Jesus faces.
Revelation 5 comes at the end of the story. It clarifies the outcome, making clear what kind of Son of God Jesus was—though Christians, again, have taken pains to evade this. Christians tend to read Revelation as a message of violence and judgment. But that’s because they don’t take Revelation 5 seriously as the key to the entire book.
In Revelation 5, the conquering king and the loving servant are one, and it is only as both king and servant that the Lamb can take the scroll. What is crucial, though, is that the servant metaphor redefines the king metaphor. That Lamb is king precisely because of his self-giving love. The nature of kingly power in the kingdom of God is the power of service. This is how the ministry of Jesus ends—the servant king conquers, with love not with coercive force.
Jesus and the devil: What’s at stake?
Back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, this basic question—What kind of Son of God? What kind of king? What kind of savior?—stands at the center when Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness. God makes it quite clear at Jesus’ baptism: Jesus is “Son of God” (Jesus is king/Jesus is messiah/Jesus is Christ). But what kind? This remains our question. Sure, we pay attention to Jesus. But what are we looking for?
When I first became a Christian as a teenager, I was looking for a Jesus who helped me make sense of life, a Jesus who helped me know why I was here and how my life could have meaning. I think I was on the right track. But shortly after my initial move, I learned to know Christians and got involved in church and began to learn about theology. Kind of risky! I’d say now that I soon was sidetracked.
I was taught that the Jesus I should be looking for was a Jesus who would rapture me away from this world, a Jesus who would condemn and punish those who didn’t accept him as their personal savior, and a Jesus who fully supported the American war on Vietnam. It took me awhile to refocus my quest.
Many Christians are quick to read Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as an encounter with pure evil—and when Jesus turned Satan away, the temptations ended. However, I think it is more accurate to say that Jesus’s encounter with Satan in these temptations is basically a kind of metaphor for the issues Jesus struggled with throughout his ministry—and the issues all who would pay attention to Jesus continue to struggle with. Ministry, salvation, politics, social ethics, personal ethics—in light of the quest for control, the quest for power over others, the quest for security; or in light of the quest for persevering love, the quest for healing even of enemies, the quest for compassion amidst the struggles of real life?
Let’s take the temptations one by one. First, after a 40-day fast, Jesus, understandably, “was famished” (4:2). The devil challenges Jesus, “if you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread” (4:3). Interpreters disagree on if this temptation is focused on Jesus’ immediate hunger or if it has a bigger meaning. I think with the use of this political title, “Son of God,” and in light of what happens when Jesus gives bread to the multitudes—they seek to make him king—more is going on than simply Jesus feeding himself.
The key point, though, is Jesus’ response: “One does not live by bread alone.” He quotes Deuteronomy, a verse that goes on, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3). This “every word” clearly refers to Torah, the commandments. What do they say about not living by bread alone? Well, at the heart of Torah, Leviticus 19, grain is referred to in this way: Farmers are commanded not to harvest their fields to every corner, but to leave grain for gleaning, so that “the poor and the alien” may find food to eat. Think about how far modern capitalism has moved from this teaching—the name of the game is efficiency. “Economy” means wringing out every last ounce of profit, not seeking the welfare of all the people in the community.
So, what’s Jesus’ point? I think the temptation is this: Use your power as Son of God to take care of yourself first, to exercise power over others, to exploit the needs people have for food to further your own interests. A “Son of God” who focuses on an economics of things rather than an economics of relationships. But Jesus affirms, listen to God and serve genuine justice.
In the second temptation, Satan offers Jesus power over “all the kingdoms of the world.” But to receive this power, Jesus must worship Satan. Jesus responds, we must worship and serve God alone. Satan tempts Jesus with political power, the chance literally to establish himself as a Son of God after the image of Psalm 2, one who breaks the nations with his rod of iron and rules over them through brute force.
To understand this temptation correctly, I think, we need to recognize that “serving God” in the sense Jesus speaks of here is not, remove yourself from politics and “serve God” through spiritual purity separated from actual social relationships. Jesus’ entire life—and his identity as Son of God—was thoroughly political. It centered on human social relationships. The alternative to accepting Satan’s offer was not withdrawal, but the practice of a different kind of politics in this same world and among the same kingdoms that Satan offers Jesus power over. As Revelation points out, Jesus does become “ruler of the kings of the earth,” but through his persevering love. Jesus rules with the power of love and compassion, not the power of the rod of iron.
With the third temptation, Jesus turns down the opportunity that later organized Christianity embraced. Go to Jerusalem, go to the heart of the nation where political and religious power unite in exercising dominion, and play their game. Show through a miraculous act in plain sight of everyone that you are the Messiah, that you are the Son of God. Then the people in power will flock to your side, and you can minister to the world from a position of strength.
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus responds (4:12). This quote in Deuteronomy follows strong exhortations to the children of Israel against idolatry, against following false gods. What could be more idolatrous than religious practices and religious institutions that, in the name of the God of the Bible, endorse wars, persecute dissenters even to the death, and embrace nationalism and material wealth?
So, Jesus turns Satan away. He finds clarity about his vocation. He will return from the wilderness and preach and enact the upside-down kingdom. He will empower the disenfranchised, welcome the excluded, and show compassion to the vulnerable.
The perpetual temptations of Jesus and his followers
However, the temptations do not end. We should take very seriously Luke 4:13. After Jesus refuses Satan’s various offers, Satan leaves “until an opportune time.” Satan goes away—for now. But he will be back; indeed, he will be back. This statement about Satan leaving until an opportune time gives us a reading strategy for the rest of the story. How is that that Jesus continues to be tested? What is it that he must resist in his work? What is it that Son of God is not?
The issue is always power and domination. Make things turn out right. Sacrifice the means of treating each person with love for the ends of gaining power and controlling outcomes. Compromise on the call to compassion. Avoid suffering, avoid finding yourself without worldly power. Temptations abound.
Big questions remain at the center for Jesus (and for us): What kind of justice? What kind of liberation? What kind of community? What kind of politics? Do we seek perfection? Do we seek the total elimination of doubt and flaws and questions? To use the imagery of Leonard Cohen, can we accept the call to, “Ring the bells that still can ring; Forget your perfect offering; There is a crack, a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.” [see below for link to song]
Speaking of rock and roll, let me recommend a fascinating documentary about the pioneer British punk rocker, Joe Strummer, the front man for the Clash. Strummer was a highly flawed person who treated many people unkindly. But he also sought for genuine justice. His passionate music remains moving and inspiring. The film tells of his finding fame and then hitting bottom and then finding a way to put things back together, including reconciling with several of those he had hurt.
Then, tragically, just as he’s starting to move and inspire with his music again, he is struck with a heart attack and dies at the age of fifty. But the documentary, whose title is a quote from Strummer, “The Future is Unwritten,” indeed carries a message of hope. We can write the future in terms of wholeness. This is a world filled with light, even amidst the brokenness and injustices. Every story of someone who, as Bruce Cockburn writes, “kicks at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” is a story to inspire us to seek to do the same.
So, we see one main reason to pay attention to Jesus. He is the Son of God who shows power through weakness, the Son of God who doesn’t obliterate the darkness but who lights a candle—and shows us how to do the same. Jesus is not a Son of God who does salvation for us, helping us escape this damaged world, but a Son of God who shows us how to live here and now as liberated people.