Lectionary Reflections on the Temptation of Jesus
March 13, 2011
First Sunday in Lent
Who is this tempter in this scene from Matthew 4:1-11? Called Satan in Hebrew and 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 in Matthew 4:1-11.
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 de-briefing. Here is how I imagine it went . . .
"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, first 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). They were supposed to be gathered at the bottom of the Temple, 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, 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 of 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 timeshare 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 him 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 chap stick). 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.)