The God Hustle
Jesus is starving, ribs protruding from both sides, face gaunt and hollowed out, shivering in the desert heat, robe dwarfing his wasted-away frame, muscles depleted from the absence of food, his body cannibalizing itself after forty days in the Judean wilderness. When he finally staggers back into civilization, convinced God is asking him to take off the carpenter’s apron and pick up the cross of Christ, Jesus heads for the nearest hummus stand.
Before he can order everything on the menu, his nose seizes at the stench of sulfur, the overwhelming odor of burnt matches clouding the air. Jesus doesn’t need to turn around; he knows who is standing behind him. The devil’s wearing a tailored suit and a pressed tie, accessorized with a diamond-encrusted watch. His blond hair is greased back and perfect. “Let’s take a ride,” the Tempter says, “in my brand-new Cadillac Eldorado.”
The first stop is a field of Limestone boulders. “Sprinkle a little heavenly dust on one of these stones,” the Devil instructs, “and devour a warm loaf of Challah bread.” Next, they drive to a roadside overlook. “See the totalitarian lights of government blinking below,” the devil continues, “with their seats of absolute power. Bow down, and I’ll sign the rights over to you alone.” Finally, they pull up to the Holy City. The devil jerks Jesus out of the backseat and places him on top of the temple steeple. “With everyone watching,” he urges, “jump! Let them see your angelic bodyguards come to the rescue.”
While we know Jesus ultimately follows God’s will, we also know he is fully human. Taking his humanity seriously, the cravings that leave him vulnerable to his primal desires and emotional insecurities, what’s the devil’s most tempting temptation in today’s text?
Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tested by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, 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 answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil led him to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
For Jesus to deny his true identity.
To bypass the wilderness, misconstruing faith as a protectant against struggle.
Believing the test only has to be passed once.
Posted on the wrought iron gate outside the sprawling compound is a sign saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”1 Inside live four corrupt ministers, each with a gaudy mansion bigger than the Word of God. The patriarch of the HBO series The Righteous Gemstones is Dr. Eli Gemstone, “America’s Jesus Daddy,” a megachurch pastor who built his empire as a bible-touting southern gangster wearing a pinky ring. Along with his three adult children, the show follows the Gemstones’ next scheme to get rich selling salvation: a monster truck rally for Jesus, marriage counseling for $500 in a box, and auto-draft tithing. Now in its third season, this dark comedy has provoked fierce reactions. Interviewed about the controversy, John Goodman, who plays Eli, said, “Unfortunately, all my televangelist friends stopped calling me. But for real, my family is very religious. My aunt is a priest. I have many friends who go to church. We work very hard [on the show] not to make the joke about religion but on the people who exploit it.”2
Exploiting his Messiahship is precisely what the devil’s pushing as Jesus tries to ignore his ravenous hunger pangs. “The china is set at the table of fine dining,” the devil entices, “gorge yourself, beginning with a pile of miracle bread.” Then, from the mountain top, “Imagine you’re the strongman of every nation, dominating the world with unchecked ambition and unquestioned authority.” Finally, above the temple, “The crowds want to see gravity defied. After you fall safely from the sky, they’ll line up for selfies and autographs.”
In his book, The Selfless Way of Christ, Henri Nouwen, a clergyman who struggled with the seduction of celebrity and its comforts, writes that the most tempting temptation is the “lure of upward mobility.”3 That God is a hustle to build your resume and increase your social standing, a shiny badge granting access to the paraphernalia of privilege, a relationship to leverage for selfish gain.
After rebuking the devil, Jesus likely continues, “My teenage mother, while she carried me in the womb, sang a lullaby about God ‘scattering the proud and sending the rich away empty.’4 In the fullness of time, I was born homeless in a feeding trough, the scandal of Nazareth. As an adult, my ministry will be among the despised and discarded, a calling that ends with being mocked and crucified. Yes, your glittery offerings tantalize, but Christianity isn’t a strategy for advancement. It’s rather a devotion to downward mobility.”
Just as Jesus assigned himself to the back of the line, he calls his disciples to do the same. To get off the ladder, pass on the promotion, stand stage left of the spotlight, lower our status, and carry our crosses to the very bottom. That’s why Haywood Street is participating in the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, a nationwide effort to mobilize around the 44 million Americans who are food insecure today, the 580,000 neighbors who will sleep under the overpass tonight, and the one in six children subsisting in poverty.4
Church, the situation is too dire for distraction. When the devil appears at the next opportune time, to tangle us up in the very human urge for vainglory, let us repeat together the prayer our Lord, the one who died a disgraced criminal, taught us, saying:
“… And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
forever and ever.
1. Mattew 5:3, The Beatitudes
2. Schiff, Einav. « We work very hard not to make the joke about religion: The Righteous Gemstones return for third season.” Ynet, https://www.ynetnews.com/culture/article/sk974uuo3. June 28, 2023.
3. Henri Nouwen. The Selfless Way of Christ (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2007) p.45.
5. 1662 Book of Common Prayer