The trouble with the devil is that he seems sometimes to make a lot of sense.
“You’re hungry – conjure up some bread,” he suggests. Quite reasonable. And it is not, after all, as though Jesus is not able to make bread – he stretches the loaves and fishes beyond their breaking point more than once in the gospels.
“You are the Son of God. You should rule the world.” How many times have we asked ourselves how much better life in the world would be if only, if only everyone knew and lived out the commandments to love God and love your neighbour – simple words yet so hard to put into practice, especially in a world divided into powers and principalities. Why wouldn’t Jesus want to do a deal, make some trades, take some political advice from the campaign manager of kings and make his mark?
And then, the last. The devil can even quote scripture to make his point. God said that the angels would take care of everything, so that you would never so much as stub your toe. Why not just close your eyes, fall back, and let them fix everything for you?
Despite our temptation to update everything into modern terms – email as the ultimate distraction of the devil – I think that in fact he probably had the classics covered already.
First, he tackles our bodies. Now let’s be absolutely clear: there is nothing, nothing, nothing wrong with relieving hunger or thirst or suffering of any sort. There is no virtue in prolonging pain for its own ends, and Jesus spent his life and ministry offering that instant relief of healing and feeding and forgiveness that his followers craved. But the temptation that the devil offered was not about generosity or charity nor even self care. Jesus had gone into the wilderness in the power of the Spirit, on a deliberate fast, in an honest attempt to claim the spiritual strength that his baptism had lent him to embark on the journey ahead. He had withdrawn to fast and to pray, and the temptation was to turn aside from that destination, and take care of his physical appetite at the expense of his spiritual longing.
It isn’t about being hungry or being fed. It’s about twisting relationships, so that the first thing that we think of when we think of prayer is coffee hour and the cupcakes we might find there. It’s about ruining our intimate relationships by letting our own desires overrule our concern and tenderness for our beloved. It’s about using and abusing drugs of addiction in an always doomed attempt to avoid the reality that surrounds us, the need to persevere day by day in the work of living with God and with our neighbours, with the hunger and thirst for righteousness which is just out of reach, and remaining hopeful.
In his little treatise about temptation, The Screwtape Letters, C.S.Lewis has his senior tempter advise the younger demon that, “However you approach it, the great thing is to bring him [that is, the temptee] into the state in which the denial of any one indulgence – it matters not which… – “puts him out,” for then his charity, justice, and obedience are all at your mercy.”
It is about what we put first: our relationships, or our appetites. Jesus put his relationships first.
So the devil went on to talk about power. We all like the idea of the quick fix. Those get-rich-quick schemes which we all know are scams are still so tempting because we love the idea of getting to the top easily, quickly, painlessly. We know, too, all the good that we could do, if we had just a little more power, influence, money, ammunition. We would use it for good, wouldn’t we?
Elsewhere in the gospels, when a young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do?” Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Why do you call me good? God alone is good.”
None of us has sufficient wisdom, grace, goodness to be trusted with power dishonestly come by. Even our best intentions can be misguided, especially if we start out by making deals with the devil.
It is worth noticing that the devil has fallen victim to his own temptation before this episode even begins. He boasts that all of the authority and glory of the kingdoms of the world are his to offer, “for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.” This devil, like too many of us, looks around and declares the world, or kingdoms of it, God-forsaken, and assumes that he, then, can take charge. But let us be very clear. There is nowhere on this earth that God has forsaken. There is no one in God’s good creation who is beyond the reach of the realm of God. God hates nothing that God has made, and God has made all of us.
The devil has fallen victim to his own temptation to take the place of God. When we consider ourselves to be exceptional, we have taken the first step towards accepting the devil’s offer, to use whatever means fall at our disposal to do whatever we consider necessary and good to bring about the order that we would like to see imposed upon the world. At its worst, we see that power played out in acts of violence and acts of war. We see it played out in homes and families, in parishes and in all sorts of systems, as we vie for power and influence trusting in our own righteousness.
Jesus said, “God alone is good. You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
When we fall into the trap of worshipping ourselves, or our own intellects, our own insightfulness, even our own denomination or country or city as being worthy and deserving of the greatest power, we diminish our ability to worship God in humility and truth, and to receive the wisdom of God.
But there is a counter to that, in the third and final temptation. The devil says, “Fine. If God alone is good, and God alone has power, there is nothing left for you to do but to cast yourself on God’s mercy and let the angels bear you up.”
The temptation that he offers here is the temptation to helplessness. Don’t be fooled just because he quotes scripture. This is not humility, to offer up your common sense and your good conscience and your free will for the sake of sacrifice. It is not humility to say, “There’s nothing I can do, so I might as well sit back and do nothing, and see what the angels do about it.” It is not humility to deny the sincere human agency that God has given us, to live together in relationship, to work things out, to share our insights and influence, to work for the common good, to deny the power of violence and oppression, to feed the hungry and quench the thirst of those longing for liberty.
If we turn our backs on those things, we are not trusting God, we are looking for a God to blame when things go wrong.
That is the temptation that the devil offered, “Hurl yourself from the temple, so that you may curse God as you die.”
There’s a lot of irony wrapped up in these three little timeless temptations. Feed the body without feeding our appetites. Don’t grasp power, and don’t give up the power that we have. Be strongest when fasting and famished; worship the Lord your God, and live up to God’s expectations of you.
There is irony and there is complexity and it is confusing and that’s just how the devil works, playing one thought off against another, using the words of scripture against themselves, flattering and wheedling and then belittling in the next breath. It is exhausting just to think about.
But Jesus didn’t take a whole lot of time and effort dealing with it all. He didn’t enter into a debate with the devil. He didn’t argue or dispute or take a whole lot of notice, by the sound of things. He simply shrugged the devil away.
“One doesn’t live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Short, sweet, and to the point.
We know that we are subject to the temptations of inappropriate or inconvenient bodily appetites, vanity and false humility; they are the classics. Jesus reassures us that we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time worrying about them; not that we should pretend that they don’t exist, nor that we should give in to them (he didn’t), but that we should not let them be the focus of our attention, we should not let them have that power over us.
Jesus spent forty days in the Spirit fasting and praying and concentrating on what was important: his relationship with God, preparing for his ministry. The episode with the devil, as we just read it, may have taken all of five minutes.
The forty days of Lent are for fasting and praying, studying scripture, building our relationships with God, and with our neighbours; practising disciplines that will enable our ministry as disciples of Christ, not for occupying our minds with the strategies of the devil, with temptations or distractions. They are not worth our time of day. To quote Lewis’s demons again, “Even of his sins the Enemy [by which the devil means God] does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased.”
Better, like Jesus, to carry on regardless, loving God and loving our neighbours to the best of our ability, and praying for the grace to do it better.
Paul offers this reassurance: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame,” and “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The devil left Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, having finished all of his tests. Jesus wound up on the top of the temple, refusing to put God to the test by throwing himself on the mercy of the angels to rescue him from a cruel death in the holy city, and the devil left him until a more opportune time. But we know that when the devil returned, Jesus had no more time for him during Holy Week than in the wilderness; so that no one who believes in Jesus will be put to shame, and everyone who calls on his name shall be saved.