Book excerpt: Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

Pope Benedict XVI (now emeritus) published Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration in 2007. It was the first of a three-part examination of the life of Jesus.

The Pope (now emeritus) states plainly that the books are not part of his official teaching as Pope, but rather a personal investigation and explication.

Here are three paragraphs from Chapter Two, on the temptations of Jesus following his baptism by John the Baptist:

Matthew and Luke [that is, the Gospels written by St. Matthew and St. Luke] recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly matters in human life. At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation; refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion — that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.

Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil — no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: What’s real is what is right there in front of us — power and bread. By comparison, the things of God fade into unreality, into a secondary world that no one really needs.

God is the issue: Is he real, reality itself, or isn’t he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence. What must the Savior of the world do or not do? That is the question the temptations of Jesus are about. The three tempations are identical in [the Gospels of] Matthew and Luke, but the sequence is different. We will follow Matthew’s sequence, because his arrangement reflects the logic that intensifies from temptation to temptation.

It is my understanding that Pope Benedict XVI writes in German. Indeed, the title page of this book states that it was translated from the German by Adrian J. Walker. The Pope’s German must be a paragon of clarity and tempts me to learn enough German to enjoy his writing in its original language. His translator has done a marvelous job. I am greatly tickled by the characterization of God as “secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying!” That’s a dash of cold water in place of expected lukewarm bathwater!

I selected these paragraphs to excerpt because present-day events are overstuffed with temptations, politics, and moral posturing that reveal that most Americans live day-to-day treating the existence of God as irrelevant to what needs doing. Jesus is a warm and fuzzy blanket, God the Father a kindly and indulgent parent, and the Holy Spirit is mostly forgotten — even by self-proclaimed Catholics.