Bread, Circuses, and Violence


Bread, Circuses, and Violence
Brian Zahnd

On Sunday the Gospel reading was the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–11). After church someone asked me if I thought the temptation of Jesus was literal. The questioner was struggling with what seemed to be a cartoonish contest between Jesus and the devil. This person was particularly perplexed by the idea that Jesus would actually be tempted to worship Satan.

So when asked if I thought the temptation account was “literal,” what did I say? I said, yes and no. I certainly believe Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness and was tempted. But I don’t think the devil showed up in a red suit sporting a tail and a pitchfork saying, “Hello, I’m Lucifer, and I’m here to put you through your paces. Alright, shall we get started? First off, how about turning that rock into lunch? No? Okay. What about showing off with a leap from the temple? No again? Well, how about you just fall down and worship me and I make you king of the world and we’ll call it a day?”

No, I don’t think it was quite like that. It wasn’t cartoonish. It was far more subtle and insidious than that. I suspect the satan came to Jesus the same way he comes to you and me: disguised as our own thoughts. Just like the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. I’ve never met a talking snake, but I’ve sure had some serpentine thoughts crawl through my head! So let’s treat the temptation of Jesus seriously.

What was Jesus doing in the wilderness? Fasting, praying, preparing to begin his ministry. What was on his mind? We might assume he was contemplating how to go about his work. That’s when subtle and satanic thoughts entered the mind of the Son of God.

I could base my ministry entirely on social justice.

Meet the physical needs of people. A chicken in every pot. Put the masses on the bread dole. It was working for Rome. Sort of. It worked for the Communists…until it didn’t work any more. But Jesus said, No! It is written, people cannot live by bread alone. As good and necessary as it is to meet the needs of the poor, people need more than a steady supply of bread. People cannot live, truly live, without the word of God to nourish their impoverished souls. To be human is to have a soul. And to have a soul is to require more than the Purina Cat Chow I give to my cat. Prosperity with spiritual emptiness is a kind of death. It’s now endemic in the industrialized western world.

I could overawe people with spectacle and miracle.

Not bread alone, but bread and circuses. Again, it was working for Rome. People love a good show. The sensational always draws a crowd. “Prove” God. Satisfy their curiosity with endless signs and wonders. Give people what they want — easy answers and a circus of the sensational. Pop apologetics and TV miracle workers. But Jesus said, no! Yielding to the second temptation turns God into an equation forever proving itself. It turns God into a circus animal doing tricks to entertain the crowd. God is to be worshiped; not tested, not made to prove himself, not made to satisfy our craving for the sensational.

I could conquer the world like Caesar.

That’s it! If I would just seize the ring (reign) of power by a violent overthrow of the powers that be, I could use violent power to do good. Yes, if I but wrest the ring of power from Caesar, then the world can be set right! One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them; One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. But, no! This is the temptation to worship the devil! “Get behind me, Satan!” Or as Gandalf said, “Don’t tempt me! I dare not take it. I would use this ring from a desire to do good. But through me it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.” It was in the third temptation that Jesus realized that there is no such thing as “good” violence and “bad” violence, there is only violence…and it all comes from the devil. To use violence for the sake of good is to bow down before Satan. Jesus would not worship Satan — even to do good. Jesus would worship God alone. Even if it meant dying on a Roman cross.

Bread, Circuses, and Violence.

These are the three temptations that Jesus overcame in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Yes, Jesus would feed the hungry, but not at the expense of impoverished souls. Yes, Jesus would perform miracles, but not to “prove” God or entertain the masses. Yes, Jesus would become the world’s rightful king, but he would do so by the cross and not by the sword.

Bread, Circuses, and Violence.

These are the three temptations of the church. Sadly, the church has not fared as well as Jesus. We constantly face the temptations to reduce the gospel to a social justice program, to entertain the masses with spectacle, and to endorse the use of violence for the sake of doing good. These are satanic temptations.

If we turn the gospel into a social justice program alone, we reduce human beings to mere animals.

If we try to empirically prove or sensationally market the gospel, we reduce God to an equation or a circus lion.

If we sanction the use of violence in the name of doing good we unwittingly worship the devil and help keep the world subjugated to Satan.

Instead, let us faithfully follow Jesus in the Jesus way of healing our world.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


(The artwork is an original painting given to me by a Russian friend.)