The story of the Temptation of Jesus comes from Q (the source common to Matthew and Luke, but not Mark). According to Burton Mack (The Lost Gospel: The Story of Q), the Temptation story enters into Q in its final revision, as the Q people loose their public bearings after the Jewish Wars, and the group turns inward moral reflection. Having imagined Jesus as a child of Wisdom, they now imagine Jesus as Son of God.
This is a bold step, and begs the question, “What does it mean to be son of God?” For the Q group, even more importantly, the question must be answered, “What does it mean to have the Son of God as our founder?” The temptation story expresses what that does not mean. While it might be tempting to think have the son of god as group founder means having one’s daily bread provided miraculously, that doesn’t happen. We must still pray for (and beg or provide) daily bread. It doesn’t mean that we are going to rule the world (at least not know — perhaps at the end of time we will occupy the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel). And it does not mean that God will protect us from all harm.
As Luke takes over the Temptation from Q, he puts it to work answering questions specific to his own situation. The Temple is now gone, and while his Gospel begins and ends at the Temple, the second volume of his work ends in Rome. But his characters can be no more certain of freedom from persecution in Rome than Jesus was willing to cast himself off the Temple. Don’t put God to the test. Don’t go looking for martyrdom. Luke’s christians can not make faustian deals with the kingdoms of the world to spread their message. And they have to look to themselves for sustenance, taking care of one another, distributing bread to the widows and poor from their own resources.
Temptation lies at the beginning of a clear ministry. It answers the question of what we will not do. Choosing the passage from Deuteronomy concerning the offering of the first fruits reinforces the point of reliance on God for our ministry, but not counting on magic. Bring the first fruits and then share them with the Levite and the resident alien. This is how God will care for the landless.
The power we exercise is the power of God, but it doesn’t turn stone to bread, or bring the kingdoms of the earth to their knees, or protect us from harm. It is the power of feeding one another through offering, of changing the hearts of power, and suffering with one another in trial. Whenever the church tries to get cozy with the world’s power, a distortion of our ministry is inevitable. Luke shows us through Jesus how to avoid that.