Last week I recognized a parallel between the twenty-two students who received Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County and the way of Jesus. I need to be circumspect. The students are from various religious backgrounds and many were likely not involved in peacebuilding as part of a commitment to following the way of Jesus. What I’m saying is much more modest. I see a parallel between the student peacebuilding efforts and Jesus’ response to the social and spiritual needs of ordinary people.
Those of us engaged in peacebuilding soon learn how excruciatingly difficult it can be. That difficulty encompasses our personal spiritual journey. We need to be able to see the vision of just and peaceable communities then, in our effort to live into that vision, we run headlong into our fears, desires, and ambitions that easily trip us up. We experience the resistance of significant others, often including peers and family members.
We can see this struggle being played out in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11). His powerful spiritual vision of being a much-loved child of God was immediately followed by an excruciatingly difficult time of testing in the desert similar to the vision quest of other spiritual-social pioneers in human history. It was most likely an actual fast but the biblical language is a metaphorical account of being tested alone in the desert beyond the ordinary reality provided by culture and human interchange.
This trial is aptly expressed in the American folksong “Lonesome Valley:”
Jesus walked this lonesome valley,
he had to walk it by himself.
Oh, nobody else can walk it for him,
he had to walk it by himself.
The version sung by Woody Guthrie includes this verse, which ties the experience of Jesus to our spiritual journey:
There’s a road that’ll take you to glory,
through a valley not far away.
Nobody here can go there for you;
they can only point the way.
The story of Jesus being tempted by Satan can trip us up. The biblical meaning of Satan is “adversary.” Medieval images of a gruesome devil with a forked tail and a pitchfork are misleading. The way we’re temped is through our personal desires, fears, and ambitions.
Biblical scholar Laurel Cobb writes, “Satan appears in the role of adversary, forcing Jesus to face terribly tough questions and make life-and-death decisions. Jesus could be asking himself what God is asking of him, as God’s beloved son. In the face of Roman terror and oppression, what will it mean to follow in the footsteps of Isaiah [the ancient Hebrew prophet of peace]? (Mark & Empire, 45-46).
These same temptations would reappear at different times during Jesus’ public ministry. The temptation to turn stones into bread goes beyond Jesus’ own hunger. It’s about being a messiah who feeds the hungry masses who then crown him as king. This is exactly what the people tried to do after he fed the multitudes (John 6:15).
The temptation to throw himself from the temple is more ambiguous. It most likely is that of being a religious miracle worker to prove that he is the son of God. Again, Jesus was often asked to prove he was the messiah through giving a miraculous sign. He always refused (Mark 8:11-13).
Finally, Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down and worship him. This is clearly a sociopolitical temptation, “Be a warrior king like all the other great kings in history and lead an armed rebellion against the hated Roman occupiers.” This temptation followed Jesus right to the cross. It was at the heart of his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42).
By overcoming these tests Jesus blazed a new way of being a child of God. There are clear precedents of this way in Israel’s history be we see it most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. This is the “way” if we would trust God, live as children of God, and follow Jesus. It may seem so heroic and beyond our reach but it’s not. It’s actually easier for ordinary people.
Jesus’ first disciples called themselves “followers of the way.” The saw the vision of Jesus, they trusted God, and they began to put this way into practice in their personal lives and in their communities of faith springing up in the Mediterranean world. What an adventure!