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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Pressure—Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 (Jan Rippentrop)

Deuteronomy 26 and Luke 4 both involve the navigating or enduring of pressures. The pressure of God’s liberating inbreaking overcomes and escapes those pressures that would exert themselves against it.

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.


Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9 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, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Pressure is dialled up in the texts for the first Sunday in Lent. Deuteronomy’s historical context exerts pressure on the authors, original hearers, and current interpreters. Deuteronomy was written and/or revised within the historical framework of the 598-7 BCE Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the 587 BCE destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Israelite people were under pressure to maintain faithfulness and political autonomy in the face of growing Babylonian and Assyrian threats.

In Deuteronomy 26, the people are aware of this unsettled and frightful present. At the same time, they call on a long, collective memory of the power of God’s presence in the lives of their ancestors. This text brings the reader into the context of worship, where the people remind one another of being refugees in Egypt. They recall God’s saving works in order to proclaim that God will again save. “When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” They practice into gratitude in the midst of the pressures of huge life changes. Theologian David Kelsey in his book Imagining Redemption wrote that “redemption from old situations is remembered so that redemption from current situations can be anticipated.”[1] Under the pressure of social upheaval, they turn to historic covenants, shape prayers, and remember God’s previous saving acts in order to anticipate God’s future saving acts. The people of Deuteronomy experienced the pressure of living under competing ruling parties.

In the gospel text this week, Luke’s Jesus also experiences pressure. For Jesus in Luke 4, it is the pressure of temptations. Luke had already identified Jesus as the Son of God; still, Luke does not offer any pretense of sparing Jesus from the realities of resistance and pressure. Luke will not allow the reader to put Jesus’ ministry in a frame of fanciful ease. Luke’s Jesus will not hover above the complexities of the world, untouched by realities of suffering. Luke’s Jesus is far too real. He is perfectly incarnate with all the suffering, hunger, and pressure that comes with the territory. His ministry is embedded in systems that resist Jesus’ words. His ministry involves characters who pressure him to abandon his commitments.

Politics of pressure are present in so many ways, throughout the Bible and into our daily lives. The Israelites in Deuteronomy navigate among pressures from neighboring powers. Luke’s Jesus endures pressures from detractors, followers, and, in this passage, from the devil. Yet, there is an interesting reversal at play. No pressure that these two texts could name is greater than the pressure exerted by the force of God’s coming. The incarnation exerted the pressure of God’s coming by breaking into the world clothed in human flesh. The crucifixion-resurrection dialectic exerts the pressure of God’s coming by claiming new life from contexts of death. Daily manifestations of the divine—that is, ways God manifests Godself within the world—exert the pressure of God’s coming. The pressure of God’s coming is a pressure of freedom—liberation—salvation. Freedom includes not only what one is freed from, but always, also, what one is freed for. One is freed from death-dealing temptations; one is freed for praise of God’s glory and service to those whom Christ serves. Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness make clear how very political being freed to serve can be.

In the case of Luke 4, Jesus is challenged by the devil, who tests Jesus throughout a harrowing 40-day period. The reader overhears three temptations, which the text specifies are neither the first nor will they be the last. In the first of these, “The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’” Jesus refused to count ability to provide for oneself as the measure of freedom. Instead, “Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’” Jesus argues a political point that dependence on God designates more true freedom than providing for himself.

Secondly, the devil shows and offers Jesus all the nations, if only Jesus will worship the devil. Jesus refuses, saying, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus’ refusal to acquire all the nations is again a political statement. In his action, he denies personal sovereignty as the measure of freedom. Instead, he indicates that freedom comes much more truly from God’s sovereignty.

Thirdly, when tempted to act in such a way that would make the angels respond in order to spare him, Jesus refused to count the ability to control others as freedom. Jesus’ sense of freedom does not seek to challenge God. For Jesus, freedom from pressures came through freedom for others—specifically freedom to love God and serve the communal good. The radical politics of pressure that characterizes the life-giving force of God’s coming undermines the pressures of other rulers, dominions, and powers.

It was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness where he experienced adversarial pressure. Following the Spirit’s lead may well put one under pressure because the Spirit leads one to see the trajectory of God’s movement in the world. The trajectory of God’s inbreaking in the world exerts its own liberating pressure. The pressure of God’s coming compels one toward ministry among the poor and vulnerable, which is in line with Jesus’ action throughout the remainder of his Lukan ministry.

[1] David H. Kelsey, Imagining Redemption, 1st edition. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 95.

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