One of my favorite stories from the Bible is that of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. After his baptism by John, he went out into the desert and spent forty days in fasting and prayer. In one of the biggest understatements ever, the Bible says that “he was hungry.” It’s at this point, when Jesus is at his lowest physically and spiritually, that the Devil makes an appearance, seeking to tempt Jesus to betray his God-given mission.
There are several temptations – religious authority, imperial power, and just simple materialism. Jesus answers each temptation with a quote from the Torah. One of the most memorable lines of the Bible (at least for me) is when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, saying that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
This passage comes from another desert time, a time when God led Israel through wilderness tracks for forty years, until the Hebrew people had been entirely purified and ready to enter the promised land. Deuteronomy reminds us that God humbled the Hebrews by letting them hunger. He fed Israel with manna from the sky – a strange substance they had never seen before. This was in order to help them understand that there are needs that run deeper than even food. God provides everything that we require when we hear and obey his word in our hearts. But the hearing and obeying must come first.
This runs entirely counter to a humanistic interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which would indicate that a basic physiological need – like eating – would supercede any higher-order needs like faithfulness to God’s will. Maslow’s model makes perfect rational sense. What good does it do to worry about the realm of meaning if the basics like food and shelter haven’t been addressed?
Yet Jesus affirms the Torah’s claim that faithful relationship with God precedes all other priorities. We find our deepest meaning first, and then God provides what we need – even if sometimes it comes in a really bizarre form, like manna.
This understanding of God’s economy fits very well with the “upside-down kingdom” that Jesus speaks of throughout his ministry. He tells us that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This great turning of the tables seems to apply to every kind of hierarchy that we experience – whether they be the social hierarchies that human beings set up amongst ourselves, or the hierarchy of needs that seems so basic to the human condition. In the kingdom of God – God’s economy – God will have the primacy in all things. Jesus will be both the starting place and the ending point.
For those of us who are seeking the reign of God, what does it mean to put this amazing relationship first – even before the needs that we consider most basic? What does it mean to abandon all and follow Jesus, as he repeatedly commands us to do?
The details probably vary for each person, but the underlying spiritual posture seems clear enough: God comes first. Not your house, job, family, or even food to eat. We are called to seek faithfulness to the Holy Spirit first, even if it threatens to cost us everything. Only then can we fully enter into the living presence of Jesus – the kingdom of God. Only then can we discover the manna that comes from heaven, the daily bread that Jesus promises to each of us if we will follow in his way.
This is a huge challenge – the greatest ever issued. How are you called to respond?