Imagine that you have just discovered that you have huge powers. You can heal or destroy with the touch of your finger. Imagine further that you have come to understand that you are called to proclaim an important understanding of God and God’s relationship with humanity. You call it the kingdom of heaven.
You are in the wilderness, and you are discerning how you will proceed. One of the central issues that comes up is how you will use power. You have just realized that you have a lot of it. You can use it in all sorts of ways: changing stones to bread or jumping off of tall buildings and descending to the ground unharmed, for instance. And you have the power to conquer. You could gather an army and march against all the tyrants who are destroying the helpless. You could conquer them, one by one. You could crush the yoke of the oppressors and create kingdoms of gentleness and peace. People would be good to one another in your realms. You would force them to be.
The story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness is one all us ought to ponder often, and especially now when a powerful tyrant is attacking and taking what doesn’t belong to him by force.
In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in an instant, and then says, “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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus, living in a country oppressed by a powerful outside government, must have been sorely tempted. Why shouldn’t you, if you have the means, eliminate the oppressors. Surely any kingdom Jesus set up would be good and righteous, wouldn’t it? Surely he could rule without worshiping the devil?
The answer is no. As soon as I start forcing people to do things, I am no longer worshiping God. God influences through love, waiting and listening for openings to the heart. Forcing somebody to do something – there just isn’t any kingdom of heaven in that path. The kingdom of heaven is a revelation, and it requires a change of consciousness, a change of heart. That can’t be forced.
I’m not saying that one ought not work for just government, systems in which all people have equal rights and freedoms. I pray daily for those in authority. I pray that they have the humility to observe the checks on their power that keep them humane.
Jesus made his choice. And so, as he tells Pilate later, his is not an earthly realm. If it were, he wouldn’t be standing there waiting to be tortured and killed. The kingdom of heaven does not come on earth through pieces of land being claimed for the good or tyrants being overthrown. It comes in the hearts of each person God loves as that person recognizes that they are more precious in God’s sight than words can tell.
In this frightening time, may we remember that the kingdom to which we belong transcends pain and death. No matter what happens, it cannot be taken away. It cannot be subverted.
Image: Christ in the Wilderness, by Ivan Kramskoy, via Google Cultural Institute.