We're part way through a series exploring God's Kingdom under the title a brighter day (taken from a Gungor track), We're using Donald Kraybill's classic book The Upside Kingdom as a our launch pad, so the first three sermons were based on the three temptations of Jesus. So here's my piece from this month's magazine reflecting on the Devil's suggestion that Jesus turn stones to bread.
Nothing reveals the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom quite as much as Jesus’ response to the devil’s temptations. 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? Jesus declined then all, opting for a rougher, harder, more costly way that involved subverting the empires of the world from below.
Nowhere is this more needed in the economic realm. I have been and continue to be a big supporter of our foodbank. I think it is a simple, practical way for us to stand with people who are struggling to make ends meet. I am also furious that we have to be involved in it. I do not think that hunger should be a matter for charity.
And this is the heart of this temptation to Jesus that he be a welfare messiah, doling out charity bread to the poor but leaving the system that makes and keeps them poor unchallenged. So, I’ve been reflecting a little on this with the help of a book called The Stop: how the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. It tells the story of a Canadian project that started as a foodbank but grew like Topsy.
The temptation to turn stones into bread is about the daily provision that we trust God to provide. Jesus told us to pray, ‘give us today our daily bread’. His 40-day fast echoed the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness during which time God provided bread every day. Jesus lived in hungry times and the devil’s question suggested he take the struggle out of the provision of bread, so being hailed as messiah.
We too live in hungry times. Some 500,000 people in the UK depend on foodbanks to provide some meals each month; that’s more than the population of the borough of Bromley. This is a political issue and not just an invitation to be charitable to people in need. The society that Jesus lived in 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. And the devil wanted it to stay that way, hence suggesting that Jesus conjures bread for the poor but does nothing to change the order of things – rulers remain in place, the rich hang on to bank balances.
Jesus refuses to play this game because he’s listening to God. That’s what his answer means. What does quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 have to do with this temptation? Simply 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; the laws on gleaning, the Sabbath laws and the jubilee – all 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).
This temptation 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. The citizens of his Kingdom are people who live by different rules.
It’s interesting that when Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8, a text that was used to show how God deals equitably with everyone, he applies it to us, saying that we should use our resources (all that God has given us) to bring about equality. It is a deeply worrying suggestion but one that we need to take seriously if we are going to be a people who live by every word that comes from the mouth of God (including this one).
So what does being a citizen of this upside-down kingdom entail? In relation to the inequitable distribution of bread, it means that first, we support our foodbank, giving generously so that those in need can receive the help they desperately need. But we do this, secondly, not as an act of charity but as a pointer to the equality that we want to see in the world around us. So, thirdly, we kick up a stink that so many people depend on handouts of food in our society in 2013. And finally, we begin to dream, like the good folk at the Stop in Canada began to dream: What else could we do? How could we 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. The great thing about this series so far is that people are having conversations along these lines. Long may it continue ...