The Gendered Temptation of Jesus by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

As Luke’s Gospel tells it, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the devil comes to him in the wilderness and tempts him.[1] First, the devil latches onto Jesus’ hunger after forty days of fasting: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”[2]  Then, he shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world.” He says, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.If you worship me, it will all be yours.”[3] 

I’ve been thinking about this second temptation: all the authority and splendor of the kingdoms of the world. All can be yours. You just have to worship me. Did Jesus find this appealing? Personally, I find it a little hard to relate to. I have zero interest in ruling the kingdoms of the world, however splendid they might be. The whole proposition sounds like too much limelight and far too much stress. Thank you, devil, but I’m good.

When I think of this temptation, I think of people who want power for power’s sake, or fame for fame’s sake. I think of powerful people who have no intention of wielding their power for the common good. I think of wealthy people who keep accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor. I think of rulers who are not content with the territory they already control, but instead exert violence to acquire more.

When Jesus replied to the devil with a simple “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only,’”[4] he rejected this type of exploitative power. He actively and intentionally refused the devil’s bargain—the implication being, perhaps, that those who are tempted in a similar way can follow suit.

I wonder, though: Who exactly is tempted to rule on the devil’s terms? It strikes me as a highly masculine temptation—at least in the way dominant U.S. culture constructs masculinity. I’m not saying there aren’t women who would be—and are—tempted by it. I am saying, though, that the way masculinity is constructed is all about ruling, all about dominion and domination, all about power and possession. There’s a toxic kind of masculinity that sees places, people, cities, and lands, and wants to control them, rather than wanting them to have the best leadership possible—usually a collaborative, cooperative leadership shared among many diverse people. It aspires to rugged individualism rather than seeing oneself as an interconnected part of an ecosystem that needs all its members to flourish. It’s about attaining the kind of celebrity status—the kind of splendor—where everyone’s looking at you, rather than looking to the collective needs of a community.

All of these traits, desires, and ambitions are culturally coded as masculine. And all of the converse traits—interconnectedness, attention to relationships and community, collaborative decision-making, humility, care for others’ flourishing—are coded as feminine.

I wonder, would the devil have tempted Jesus differently, had Jesus been a woman? What kinds of temptations are whispered in the ears of those who have been socialized not to rule but to defer, not to initiate but to demur, not to make waves but to get along with others at all costs? For many women, perhaps we are not shown the kingdoms of the world, but, instead, the endless responsibilities and expectations placed on us. I think of Martha and Mary, the two sisters whose home Jesus visited.[5] Martha was frantically cooking and cleaning and getting everything ready and being the amazing Martha Stewart-esque hostess society expected her to be, while Mary simply sat at Jesus’ feet to learn from him. Jesus said, “Mary has chosen what is better.”[6] What if the devil sometimes tempts women not with the authority of the world but with the busyness of the world—with the lie that we are not enough and we are not doing enough? What if he nudges us to squeeze ourselves into gender straightjackets[7] and shames us when we do not conform?

I wonder if the devil often tempts women—as well as others who have been kept from power in the kingdoms of our world—not with outsized authority but with outsized subservience. Maybe he doesn’t whisper rule all this so much as don’t rule at all, or your ambition is too much, or don’t upset the powers that be. Maybe he doesn’t say be more than you’re meant to be, but, instead, be less.

Perhaps temptation comes to different people in different ways, and some of these ways are gendered. I imagine God incarnate as a woman, raised to expect that she would not be ruling any sort of kingdom—except perhaps, if she were of a certain class, a limited household domain once she got married. I imagine the devil coming to this woman-Christ in the wilderness and asking, Don’t you think this Messiah business is a bit of a delusion of grandeur? Aren’t you making too much of yourself? Think of your family and what you’ll put them through. Don’t you love them? Why are you drawing all this attention to yourself by going around teaching and healing people? Why don’t you settle down into a reasonable, responsible, respectable home life like all the other women around you? What are you doing, dreaming of more?

The male Jesus refused to conform to toxic masculinity’s violent, power-obsessed drive to rule and dominate; perhaps the woman-Christ would refuse to conform to a subservient, submissive, passive notion of femininity. The male Jesus refused to claim authority not rightfully his; perhaps the woman-Christ would step up to claim authority rightfully hers—the authority her society tried to deny her.

As a Christian and a woman, my hope is that the same God who empowered Jesus to say “no thank you” to ruling on the devil’s terms continues today to empower those who are similarly tempted—and that those who are tempted oppositely are empowered to embrace our God-given authority and agency. In this way, a more equitable world may be born.


[1] This story can be found in Luke 4:1-13.

[2] Luke 4:3 (NIV)

[3] Luke 4:5-7 (NIV)

[4] Luke 4:8 (NIV)

[5] See Luke 10:38-42.

[6] Luke 10:42 (NIV)

[7] Brené Brown uses this language in I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think?’ to ‘I Am Enough’” (Avery, 2007), p. 24, 278.

BIO: Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).



Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Gender and Power, General

Tags: , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Thank you for bringing this idea of Jesus’ “gendered temptation” to our attention. In 1960, Valerie Saiving (1921-1992) published an article titled, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in “The Journal of Religion.” Her point seems similar to the one you make. Mainstream theologians, for the most part, ignored her work.

    From Wikepedia: “Fundamentally, Saiving’s essay proposes a radical re-definition of ‘sin’; one that correctly addresses the female experience. Christianity’s view of salvation as a result of selflessness is seen as potentially proscriptive of women who need, in Saiving’s opinion, to be encouraged rather than discouraged from asserting themselves as individuals.”

    Like you, I never understood how that 2nd temptation was even a temptation for Jesus! Looking at it all through the lens of gender makes a whole lot of sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent essay – I gravitate towards essays like this one because they make me think!

    “I am saying, though, that the way masculinity is constructed is all about ruling, all about dominion and domination, all about power and possession. There’s a toxic kind of masculinity that sees places, people, cities, and lands, and wants to control them…” your words put responsibility for the way men are encouraged to behave on the culture as a whole; individual man blaming is absent – I like that.

    I also like what you have to say about enculturation and women… Choosing to be less rather than more.

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  3. What a wonderful essay. Certainly we are seeing the temptations to rule and overpower at work in the world today, and you examine the possible enactments of that so well. And the other — the temptation to demure, as you put it, is equally toxic, if for no other reason than allowing those who would dominate do so without challenge or rebellion. I loved your invitation to embrace our authority and agency. Beautiful essay. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Just watch or listen to or read the news for a few days and see what our elected and appointed officials are doing, and we can easily see that what you write is largely true: sooooo many people (both men and women) want to rule and be in charge of everything. Thanks for this post. Bright blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow, what a great essay! You really got me thinking about it. Yes, we women are told by society that our role is to be a supportive spouse, keep our homes clean and cook for our husbands and children. We’re supposed to be able to do everything for everyone and still have a job outside the home. Oh yes, and defer to men – ick! I never thought about this in connection with the devil tempting Jesus, though. I think you are right about how the devil would tempt a woman. A female Jesus would have been killed before she got very far, I would imagine. She’d probably have a hard time getting anyone to listen to her and follow her, too.

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    • Thank you, Linda! Yes, when workplaces opened up more to women, expectations of all the other kinds of responsibilities didn’t necessarily decrease… and yes, I totally agree about the female Jesus! Sometimes Christians make a big deal of how God came to earth as a man and what that might mean about gender roles, but I suspect it was just because God knew how much harder the Messiah role would have been for a woman, due to sexism…

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  6. This is a temptation that I know will and which I have succumbed. In recovering myself, I continue to remind myself to not be less of me as one who is called to lead, to speak, to be the voice in many situations.

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  7. Hey, Liz! Great article. I was thinking as I read through that if the male temptation was basically “people will obey you and give you stuff,” maybe the female temptation would be “people will praise and like you.” I really like the idea of spiritual temptation to do evil lining up with societal pressure to conform. Yes, that is how Odium keeps his troops in line. . . .

    I have a question for you. What are the Greek words for Authority and Splendor used here? How can that inform our understanding? I could see those being words with different synonyms/connotations/etc. in the ancient world, or perhaps not. Like, what type of authority precisely is it that we’re seeing evil tempt goodness with here?

    I love your writing and your theology. It’s thoughtful, intellectually honest, and accessible. :)

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    • I intuit that this comment is at least partially directed towards thine truly. The ellinika words in question:

      1) ἐξουσία/exousia (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g1849/kjv/tr/0-1/)

      2) δόξα/doxa (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g1391/kjv/tr/0-1/)

      Initially I was unfamiliar with the first word, but the calque literally is something like “out-of being”; the second word should readily identifiable as in the word “doxology.”

      Like

    • Thanks Andrew for the comment and Philippos for the response!

      I would add that the words used for “authority” and “splendor” are both very common words in the New Testament, and I would say they both get used in a variety of ways. ἐξουσία is often translated as “power” or perhaps “domain” – it can have connotations of governing, jurisdiction, or control, and/or connotations of freedom/strength. δόξα is often translated elsewhere as “glory,” or sometimes as “honor,” “praise,” or “majesty” (all things often associated with God and/or Jesus).

      blueletterbible.org is a fun resource, by the way – you can look up a verse or passage, find a word you’re interested in, and see some different translation options and where else in the New Testament it’s used!

      Like

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