Pushing Back Against the Devil

In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Several years ago, I taught a class called The History of Satan. It was a survey course looking at personified evil in the Jewish and Christian traditions. It was also an examination of what we call ‘the monstrous’ in the study of religion. I remember that one of my textbooks was in fact called Religion and Its Monsters. It was a popular course. Satan always is. University students aren’t unique in this regard. We are all a bit fascinated by evil, especially when it’s in the form of a fallen angel with a bit of an attitude problem. Like witnessing a roadside crash, we stare with our hands over our eyes, but with open fingers. But this is not a sermon about the devil or about whether such a creature exists or not. That might be a fun exercise for some other time. Rather, we take our cue from Luke, and we ask ourselves how temptation speaks to us; how evil can enter our lives.

When was the last time that you encountered true evil? It’s actually a bit of a rhetorical question, because we rarely if ever do. Oh yes, we may see what we think are reflections of it in some of the violent spots in our world, or we may look at some events or persons in history and see evil at work. But evil tends to be a bit of a slippery concept. It is so often used to cover up human irresponsibility and all too easily excuse human cruelty. Calling something or someone evil deflects our own implication in what’s happening. It helps us avoid human guilt—which is not to say, of course, that evil does not exist, or that it cannot be personified. It most assuredly does exist and it can be personified. The trick is to learn to recognize it, name it, and then stand up to it. Much easier said than done. But Jesus knew how. The gospels tell us that he was always calling out evil, always staking his claim to authority over it. Because for Jesus, evil was something quite real. This is why the showdown in today’s gospel provides such an intense theatrical moment. It pits two rather formidable foes against each other. What’s more—and this may be a bit surprising, considering the excessively dramatic ways that we tend to think of the Temptation in the Desert—it shows them to be on somewhat familiar terms, as if they knew exactly what script they were meant to be following. As if they knew each other: which they did, of course. As do we. We too know the drama of being confronted with impossibly attractive options, and being unsure if we can resist.

In the ancient world, the desert was beyond the pale of civilization: the wilderness, the place where real demons lived. When the early hermits and the first monastics chose to go into the Middle Eastern deserts, they knew they would be encountering not only God, but also those demons with their bags of tricks and temptations, and, what was perhaps even more worrisome, their own natures, their true selves laid totally bare. Luke tells us that the Spirit sends Jesus into the desert. The Spirit knows that Jesus needs to undergo this ordeal—this confrontation with his very own nature. It is the same moment of trial and tribulation that we see in so many other stories about heroic quests: the hero needing to test themselves in order to claim their mission. Jesus needing to test his limits before speaking publicly. This is the phase of initiation for Jesus, the moment of truth when he is forced to confront his own fallible nature, a nature he shares with us in every respect.

Yet it’s actually rather amazing how ordinary and banal evil seems to be in this gospel episode; how very human in its manifestations. After all, what are we really talking about? Greed (“Change this stone into bread”), power (“I will give you every possible earthly glory”) and arrogance (“Let God save you”). You see, what I find especially striking in this episode of the temptation of Jesus is not the fact that he resisted. Why wouldn’t he? He was God after all. It’s rather the fact that the devil is showing us how sadly conventional the roots and manifestations of evil in our lives and in the world can be. Are we truly surprised? Paradoxically enough, the devil, the ultimate trickster, can be quite a fine teacher. We can learn a lot from those devilish and wily ways. This encounter between Jesus and the devil puts on display our own human vulnerabilities, our own human shortcomings, all those things—greed, power, arrogance—which, if assented to as part of normal everyday existence, would inevitably begin a downward spiral of evil. This is the predictably human choice and, yes, the moral lesson that the devil offers to Jesus, and ultimately to us. We are being taught, both by Jesus and by the devil.

The other part of this story that is actually rather extraordinary is how the devil believes that he can tempt Jesus with such facile and showy tricks. How he would think that the Son of God could be talked into giving up and giving in. Is the devil stupid? Undoubtedly not, but it’s encouraging for us as mere mortals to think that he might be. Being fully human, I have no doubt that Jesus was tempted to give in, and we can certainly be glad that he resisted. It is meant to reassure us in our own occasional weakness, when we so often simply give in rather than push back. It’s encouraging for us to see the human Jesus stand up to this trickery and “call it out” in no uncertain terms.

And how does Jesus push back? What are his responses to what the devil so enticingly offers? These can teach us something. They can provide strategies for when we too might be cajoled to give in. To greed, he answers with moderation (“One does not live by bread alone”); to power, with devotion (“Worship the Lord your God”); and to arrogance, with humility (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”). Not the easiest things to strive for: they do pale when compared to the devil’s rather sexier offerings. Moderation, devotion and humility: the world tends to see them as the marks of losers. In fact, each of them can become a rather good Lenten discipline. There is something counter-cultural about such virtues. They speak to human contingency and to human care, but also to human mutuality and to our dependence upon each other’s goodness and, ultimately, upon that of God.

The gospel passage ends on a rather ominous and somewhat cryptic note: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” I suspect there may well have been many such “opportune” times in the life of Jesus, culminating in that painful episode of doubt in the Garden of Gethsemane and the heartfelt cry of abandonment on the cross. I suspect there were also rather more ordinary, run-of-the-mill times when Jesus felt discouraged or uncertain: a non-repentant sinner, a pushy doctor of the law, an ungrateful person cured, a supercilious Roman official, and, of course, a bunch of slow and thick apostles. All things which might have undermined his resolve. I don’t think the devil would have necessarily waited for those big and opportune times. The devil likes to nag.

When you think about it, this grand and studied confrontation is perhaps a bit anticlimactic. Perhaps there is too much posturing, too much about the devilish creature and its predictably scheming ways, too much about Jesus being the strong and resilient hero that one has come to expect. It’s as though Luke were putting a drama on stage, raising some hard-hitting questions about our all-too-human faults, all the while holding up a mirror for us to gaze into, encouraging and reassuring us. It is therefore quite fitting that this imposing clash of wills should be the opening act of Lent, for it projects, on a larger-than-life scale, those sizably smaller foibles that characterize our unsaved human condition. For the misery of the cross and the splendour of the empty tomb wait around the corner. Let us now hasten our pace.

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