Lectionary Reflections: Lent 1C
Luke 4:1-11, Matthew 1:12-13, Mark 1:12-13
References to Jesus’ temptation in the desert appear in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark makes a brief, two-verse reference to the event (Mk. 1:12-13). Mark recounts that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. In Luke and Matthew, we are told that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Matthew’s version makes it sound as if the express purpose of the wilderness experience was so that Jesus could be tempted by Satan. It may be that the scene epitomizes repeated temptations Jesus experienced throughout his ministry.
There are echoes in the encounter between Jesus and Satan of Israel’s testing in the wilderness. The reference to a mountain as a scene of a temptation is a counterpart to the mountain on which Moses received the Law. The New Moses resists testing God and shows himself to be the authoritative interpreter of Torah.
All three of Satan’s tests tempt Jesus to betray his identity and misuse his power.
The first temptation is to make the gratification of one’s own physical appetites the priority of one’s life. Jesus counters the Devil’s temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, then spends his ministry feeding people’s bodies and spirits.
The second temptation is to gain influence and followers by flashy shows of power. Jesus counters the Devil’s quoting of Psalm 91 with Deuteronomy 6:16, then spends his life inviting, not compelling people into the kingdom of God.
The third temptation is to gain wealth, possessions, and political control by an idolatrous misuse of power. Jesus counters the Devil’s invitation by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, which focuses true worship on God alone.
Who is this tempter in these scenes from the synoptic gospels? Called Satan in Hebrew, the devil (diabolos) in Greek, this figure stalks the pages of the Bible, growing in hostility and perceived power over against God. The Hebrew faith attributed both good and evil to God’s agency. The Satan (adversary) makes cameo appearances as an agent of God in the Old Testament. His primary role was to uncover the weaknesses of humans who were highly regarded by God, allegedly to preserve God’s honor (Job 1:6-12; Zech. 3:1-2). Satan becomes increasingly hostile and harmful in later Jewish views of his identity and role. He interferes with God’s relationship to Israel through temptation (1 Chr. 21:1), by accusation before God (Zech. 3:1), and by disrupting the course of events throughout Israel’s history.
Gradually, Satan’s identity shifts from divine employee to God’s chief competitor, in part as the result of Persian influence on Judaism. In that belief system, world history was viewed as a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and light and those of evil and darkness, with each represented by various angelic or demonic beings. Satan became the force of evil in the world. All sorts of existing legends and images about evil stuck to him as if he were a snowball rolling down a hill. So Satan is associated with the serpent of paradise, an ancient dragon, an exalted angel expelled from heaven, and the evil impulse that resides within each of us (Gen. 4:7).
In the Gospels, the present time is viewed as a showdown between God’s rule as inaugurated by Jesus and that of Satan. That bigger picture is the context for this temptation scene.
Satan gets shown up in this little episode. The Tempter trips up. Lucifer loses out. The Devil gets duped. The Adversary gets something I can’t mention in this column handed to him on a platter. Whatever label you want to slap on this debacle, I imagine that the Devil went back to his lair and engaged in a serious self-deprecation session followed by some determined debriefing. Here is how I imagine it went …
What Satan Might Have Said to Himself
Well, that was certainly humiliating. Thank God no one else was present to witness that debacle. I’m not used to losing, but I think I know where I went wrong.
For one thing, I think I overplayed the special effects. The appearing out of nowhere with the smoke machine. The flying with him on my back through the air up to the pinnacle of the temple and then the high mountain. The mountain was probably a mistake, too heavy-handed in its implied connection to Sinai. And on top of that, the actors’ guild angels missed their cue. It was in their contract in Psalm 91 to show up, and I even promised to pay them overtime. How did they repay me? By being a no-show for my dramatic moment: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'” (4:5, 5). They were supposed to be gathered at the bottom of the Temple with wings and eyelashes fluttering, arms reaching up to catch. But no, they were out in the break room, gathered around the buffet table. And then, as soon as I slink off with my tail between my legs, they show up and fawn all over him.
But enough of this self-flagellation. It is what it is. I’ve never faced this big a challenge before. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I blew it, and I may not get another chance. Still, if I do, this debriefing process will be important to my future success.
If I had it to do over again, I might try a less-is-more approach. I was way too obvious with my spiritual seduction strategy. I shouldn’t have shown him the things he could have if he renounced his identity and mission on such a big scale. Hundreds of loaves of bread, a bungee jump into the arms of angels, and all the high-end malls, golf courses, and lakefront property in the world. Maybe I should have just invited him to turn one small rock into a donut hole; gently encouraged him to jump off a low ledge, and offered him two weeks at a time-share in the off-season. I’ll remember that if there is a next time.
Another possibility that occurs to me is what I’ll call the “Ghost of Crucifixion Future” approach. Maybe I should have begun by approaching Jesus as a commiserating friend.
“Hello, Jesus. I’ve been waiting so long for you to show up. Your lips look so chapped. Here, you can keep this. (I’d hand him a tube of cherry-flavored Chapstick.) I’m so sad about what the future holds for you. I admire your restraint in still being hungry after all these days. Even though you could make these stones into artisan jalapeno cheese bread or lemon poppy seed muffins or even Cinnabons, if you so chose. I admire you for your extreme asceticism. When you starve to death here in the desert in a few days, I’ll make sure your remains are treated with honor. I am tempted to point out what a waste that would be, but a true friend doesn’t seek to dissuade someone from their sense of purpose, only to remain by their side in their hour of trial.” (That’s a good line; I’ll need to practice that to achieve just the right blend of sadness and sincerity.)
If that didn’t result in his nobly starving to death, I would take him to the pinnacle of the temple and say to him, “Some Sons of God would want to prove their identity and power by pulling dramatic, high-risk stunts. But you are content to stay in this backwater district and not take any risks at all and so preserve and extend your life and influence. The less you risk the longer you live. I have always wished that I had followed that advice, but I was so ambitious, so eager to move beyond the courts of heaven. I should have stayed there, at his side, where I belonged.”
If that didn’t motivate him to jump just to distance himself from me, I could try one final move. It would not involve my quoting Scripture, which, in retrospect, was the wrong rhetorical strategy to get into with him, though he was the one who started it. Rather than establishing a common identity between us, I think he got the feeling I was manipulating God for my own purposes. The other problem with the Scripture-quoting approach is that he knows it better than I do. There is a first time for everything.
If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t give him an ultimatum: “All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.” That was melodramatic, not dramatic. I came off as needy and desperate. The Devil is supposed to be cool. I was out-cooled. It was too much all around: the mountain, the ultimatum, and the over-the-top spread I showed him around the mountain. Who did I think I was dealing with? Some backwoods boy who just bought a lottery ticket?
Next time I’ll take him to somebody’s home. Not a palace, but a humble home. One where there is love among the family members. I’ll be fine as long as I remember to take my anti-nausea medication first. We’ll stand at the window as they gather around their dinner table, and I’ll say: “I think it’s so admirable that you are willing to give this up without any regrets or second thoughts. Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but you, you have nowhere to lay your head. And you never will.” That’s a good line. “You will have no wife to warm your heart and bed. No children to surround you with love and laughter and care for you when your steps falter and your sight is dimmed with age.”
And here I’d show him a scene of his hanging on the cross. “No, you have a different future. It is so amazing that, rather than scare you, it energizes you. Rather than frighten you with the prospect of pain, it strengthens you to forego the happy scene before us without any yearning or regret. Your steps will slow, because you drag a cross. Your sight will dim, because blood pours into your eyes from the wounds on your head. How I admire your utter singleness of purpose! I feel for your future pain. If I could, I would take your place. To save you this suffering.”
I wonder if that last bit is too much. Does it sound insincere? And wait, what if he says “Okay, you take my place” . . . then what?
All right, this coulda-shoulda session has helped clarify my thinking. If another opportunity arises; I now have two strategies in the hopper, two arrows in the quiver:
- The less-is-more approach : donut hole, ledge, time-share.
- The Ghost of Crucifixion Future approach: starve to death, take no risks, forego happy family and longevity in favor of premature, excruciating and prolonged death.
Last time I oversold the future benefits of betraying his identity and mission.
Next time, I go the opposite way. I present him with negative pictures of the future, if he stays on the path he has chosen.
Now to wait for an opportune time …