Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Tempter: A Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11


“The Tempter”
Matthew 4:1-11
February 10, 2008


Do you believe in the devil? If you put a group of seminarians together in a room, this question inevitably comes up sooner or later. And the first answers you will hear from the people who are studying to be ministers will be all about the development of the idea of Satan, or, in Hebrew, Ha-Satan, the Tempter, which has been around for several thousand years at least. And someone will point out the fact that, in the Hebrew bible, this figure wasn’t originally conceived of as a yin to God’s yang, an equal and opposite partner of evil to counterbalance God’s goodness. Originally, Satan was a member of God’s heavenly court, as he is in Job, a tester entrusted with the job of determining who is truly righteous. And then someone will point out the origins of this story in the New Testament, and how the battle between Jesus and Satan was originally depicted in Mark as a test of strength, representing the cosmic battle between good and evil. Bring in some wine or beer and a pool table or a Yahtzee game, and trust me, the seminarians could go on and on like this all night long.

But then ask the seminarians if they believe in evil. The tone of the conversation changes. Oh, yes, they will say. They believe in evil. They’ve experienced it. They’ve seen it with their own eyes. And someone will remember when they were the case worker for a woman whose husband eventually beat her to death…and someone will remember the young gay man, Matthew Shepard, left to die on a fence post in Laramie, Wyoming… and someone will talk about a sister who is a heroin addict…and someone will detail a picture they saw on the internet of a child blown to smithereens in Iraq… which, of course, will cause someone else to remind the group that Saddam Hussein probably gassed thousands of Kurds… and someone, will, of course, mention the Holocaust.

No one, it seems to me, doubts the presence and reality of evil. No one doubts its existence, its power, its fearsome threats to rob us of all hope. We just don’t, most of us, know what to call it exactly, we aren’t sure it has a name and an address. One thing we’re usually pretty sure of: it’s not us. From Adam and Eve and the Serpent to Blackwater USA and beyond, most of us who are caught doing something we know perfectly well is out of bounds for decent human behavior will find a way to pin it on someone else.

If we are to take today’s gospel passage seriously we will find ourselves listening to a story about Jesus and some of those boundaries for human behavior. One of the interesting things about this story is the fact that the Tempter doesn’t seem, on the surface, to be asking Jesus to do anything particularly horrible. Surely for this man to provide himself with lunch after a 40 day fast is hardly the story of a prison guard at Auschwitz. So what is this story about? What exactly is the Tempter tempting Jesus to do? How does this story inform our understanding of good and evil? How does it instruct us with regard to temptation?

I wonder what the Tempter looked like. Our text doesn’t give us any clues. The stories of the desert monks are filled with the devil coming in the form of a beautiful woman. But I wonder, in Jesus’ case, whether he didn’t take the form of someone trusted… a rabbi. A Temple priest. Jesus’ father. Whatever his appearance, he had an unnerving opening line: “Since you are the Son of God…” One gets the distinct impression that the Tempter was there, by the river, forty days earlier at Jesus’ baptism, when God’s voice announced: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Seeing as you are the Son of God, the Tempter says… turn these stones into loaves of bread. Not “this stone” into “a loaf.” “These stones,” into “loaves.” The Tempter isn’t just trying to help Jesus to fill up after a long fast. One loaf would be plenty for that. No, he’s trying to get Jesus to do something impressive. Satan is trying to get Jesus to show off.

Jesus responds with words from Deuteronomy, that part of the Old Testament that tells of the people of God wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, enduring their own temptations: “It is written, one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Our translation, in an effort to be inclusive, obscures the point of what Jesus is saying. Jesus is really saying “man,” or “human beings” live by God’s word. Satan tempts Jesus to show off the fact that he’s God’s Son. Jesus responds that the best way he can show that he is God’s Son is by being a human being.

Then the Tempter takes Jesus to the holy city, to the pinnacle of the Temple, and even more vividly, tempts him to demonstrate his godliness by a great display. “Jump off, he chides Jesus, “the angels will catch you.” Actually, his words here are a quote from Psalm 91. Never forget: even the devil can quote scripture. And again, Jesus resists the temptation to show that he is the Son of God by a fabulous display that will leave the people oohing and aahing. For Jesus, being the Beloved Son of God means embracing the limitations of his humanity. Jesus is here not to lord it over us, but to join in solidarity with us.

The last temptation is, again, something that seems almost reasonable. Why shouldn’t Jesus be in charge of everything instead of the Roman occupiers or the corrupt little potentates of Herod’s family? Wouldn’t Jesus be just, good, and compassionate? But the cost—bowing down and worshiping anything or anyone other than God—is far too high. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” Jesus replies, and the Tempter is vanquished. For now.

Jesus is tempted by things that are not so horrible in and of themselves—by hunger, by the desire to know that God is truly with him, by the desire to live into his identity as Messiah. But these things can be accomplished only at the cost of altering his relationship with God, even severing it. I think the hard and deep lesson of this story is this: first things first.

Look at Jesus’ responses to the Tempter. In each case, Jesus is pointing away from the reasonable little miracle, the harmless display of fireworks, the self-aggrandizing parlor trick, and instead pointing towards God. The Tempter is really asking Jesus three questions: How do we live? By the word of God. How do we relate to God? By accepting that God is God. How do we judge between what is good and what is evil, or even between what is good and what is better? When in doubt, choose God. God first, God last, and God always. There is a prayer traditionally attributed to Saint Patrick that really captures the Spirit of how Christians are to encounter life and all the complex moral choices that go with it. It is called the “Breastplate.” It expresses a desire to be completely surrounded, and thus protected, by Christ, in all situations of life. This is the way Jesus the Christ relates to his Father. God first, God last, God always. I think, at the heart of it, this is a story about putting first things first, and letting them inform everything else. Jesus does this so simply, so directly, and so perfectly.

So how does this story expand our understanding of good and evil? May I say it again? “Even the devil can quote scripture.” What seems on the surface to have the purest of motivations can sometimes take us into the realm of what is truly evil. That’s the thing about evil: it can promise something that looks so good—a strong country, say, or life-saving research. And the next thing you know, we have everlasting detention camps, and African American men in prisons being injected with pathogens. This problem—the good promised through evil means—is captured well in a very funny movie, actually a remake of a film from the 60’s, called “Bedazzled.” In it a hapless guy named Elliott (played by Brendan Fraser) is seduced by the devil (played by Elizabeth Hurley) into selling his soul for a shot at seven wishes. And, of course, what Elliott wants is perfectly understandable, and not evil-sounding at all—he wants the girl of his dreams to fall in love with him. But the thing about the Tempter is this: no temptation is ever what it seems. Elliott makes his first wish: to be married to Allison, and to be rich and powerful. Then he wakes up to find he is a Colombian drug lord, and Allison, his wife, hates him. It goes on like that through 6 wishes, with Elliott refining and re-thinking his wishing formula, until finally, he is sitting in jail confiding his problems to a cellmate. “I sold my soul,” he says, “and I got nothing for it. Nothing turned out the way I planned.” His cellmate, looking at him with eyes full of love [and isn’t that the point of the incarnation? That we will have a Divine Cellmate, who will look at us with eyes full of love?] tells him, “Brother, you didn’t sell your soul. It was never yours to sell in the first place. No way, no how.”

We can’t sell our souls… they are not ours to sell. They are God's When the Tempter comes calling, when the Spirit leads us into the wilderness for some spiritual exercise, Jesus points the way. And perhaps unexpectedly, the way through temptation is the way of being human, of letting God be God, And when we are faced with the temptation to despair, because despite all our precautions we have, of course, failed miserably, we can remember the words of that Divine cellmate: “Brother, Sister, your soul was never yours to sell or lose in the first place, no way, no how.” We will fail. We will give in. We will get it wrong. And so our greatest hope is to know in whose hands we are, succeed or fail. And our deepest wisdom is to wrap ourselves in that protection, trusting that God can make it right.


Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort me and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.


Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

grateful said...

thank you. that post has helped me a great deal. i've always been a perfectionist. the problems came in the last couple of years. perfectionist tendancies manifested in disordered eating. and today has been a pretty nasty day. i feel like I've failed completely. i don't feel myself when i've failed. i know it sounds odd, but i feel sort of unclean, unworthy if i have failed. i only came across this blog because i searched for 'the girl who will not fail.' google narrowed it down to 'will fail.' your post also took me back to when i was about 7 or 8 and first heard the story of Jesus being tempted. i remember thinking at the time that being able to use your powers and do tricks like be caught by angels surely isn't the biggest temptation. but i suppose i was too young to realise it was a metaphor for things life throws as you - the usual 'temptations' people succumb to - alcohol, drugs, violence etc. and i now realise it's not so much what you're being tempted by that matters, but the fact that it is easy to get hold of, or an easy way out of problems, just like Jesus calling on the angels. But the hardest part is knowing that choosing or not choosing the temptation is decided by you.