The Seduction of Worldly Political Power

Alan Storkey, in his very interesting book, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, reads Jesus’ temptation through a political lens. It’s a fascinating study and a very interesting take on the historical Jesus.

The following passage regarding Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation helpfully exposes why Christians ought to be wary of the seductions of earthly political power.

The third temptation is even more centrally political. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this will I give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matt. 4:8-9). This is . . . the ultimate political temptation of world rule. . .

The temptation requires a total ambition of the kind only present with Alexander the great, the Caesars, and a few others. It also requires the kind of arrogance that believes, “I am good for the world. If I ruled the world . . .” Among candidates for benevolent dictatorship, Jesus would of course, rank top. But his response to the devil shows that all of this is misconception. Jesus insists: “Worship the Lord God, and serve him only” (4:10; Deut. 6:13). This is the crucial political lesson. Many politicians assume that their getting to power is the answer: then they can do good. Jesus understands that getting to power is not the answer; instead, unqualified submission to God is required to do anything good. The beginning, middle, and end of politics is obedience to God.

Moreover, what the devil offers is worldly power – control plus splendor – the kind of flaunted dominion present within the Egyptian, Macedonian, and Roman empires. The premise is that power is possessed, in this case handed over by the devil to Jesus, if he agrees. Along with the possession of power goes self-glorification and splendor – palaces, rich clothes, servants and slaves, gold, hanging gardens, and women. This is the idiom of possessing power and its rewards, found throughout history from Babylon to Peking. Jesus rejects it all in favor of the unconditional worship and service of God. This is not an apolitical principle, but one that changes the inner meaning of political rule. Since the time of Moses the servant of God, a service rather than the possession of power has been an alternative way of approaching office. Because of our Christian heritage, this perspective has become stronger in democratic politics. The fulcrum on which the whole change of conception turns is found here in this temptation. Jesus turns his back on the possession of worldly power and unreservedly toward the service of God. Of course, the “possession” of such power is a chimera, our vain self-construction, but it persists in much political activity and philosophy, East and West (pp. 77-78).

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