Matthew 4:1-11 – The First Sunday of Lent – for Sunday, March 5, 2017
â€œThen the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him . . .â€ (Matthew 4:1)
Do I believe there is evil?
How do I understand Jesusâ€™ encounter with â€œthe tempterâ€ in the fourth chapter of Matthew? There, after forty days and nights in the wildernessâ€”where Jesus fasted and prayed, and inevitably was â€œstarvingâ€â€”the devil appeared and tempted him. Like God and Satan testing Job or Danteâ€™s Divine Comedy depicting a journey through the nine circles of Hell, I donâ€™t read it as an actual, factual event.
And yet I believe Jesusâ€™ devilish confrontation revealed a truthâ€”as the best stories doâ€”and that every verse and, in particular, each of the three temptations, were very, very real.
They were for Jesus.
They are for you.
They are for me.
Do I hunger to serve the word and way of God? Or do I just want my belly full? What hunger tempts me? Sex? Money? Property?
Is my relationship with the Holy (and fellow humans) defined by manipulation, by bargaining, by comparing, by â€œtestingâ€ God?
Who or what do I truly worship?
From the earliest references in the Old Testament, the use of â€œSatanâ€ typically referred to an adversary. That understanding continued into the narrative and theology of the Christian testament. And I tell you, I am so tempted to list resources that will show the odd history of Satan in Western Christianity that has little to do with the Biblical understandings. I am also tempted to prove in detail that Jesusâ€™ encounter with the devil was metaphoric, and not literal.
But in these days of â€œfake newsâ€ and â€œalternate factsâ€ and the perceived reliability or fallacy of mainstream journalism, there is nothing to argue or claim to persuade another to believe what I believe. Any source I reference could be considered suspect. Experts representing your â€œsideâ€ could match the scholars I might rely on to advocate for my â€œside.â€
We choose facts like fruit in a marketâ€™s produce section. It looks bruised . . . forget it! I decide it’s ripe . . . grab it! We discard or belittle information deemed unreliable. Our selected resources and references make it nearly impossible to listen to or learn from others.
I read about Jesusâ€™ temptations. Have I already been seduced into ignoring their deeper truths? Am I, instead, fascinated by the literal or figurative figure Satan? How much time do I waste in arguing about the â€œfake newsâ€ of a Satan rather than struggling with the toughest adversary in my faithful (or faithless) life?
That adversary? Me.
Most days, I want my belly full. My literal belly. My figurative belly. My growling belly. My metaphoric belly. My weak-willed belly. My stubborn belly. My arrogant belly.
Let the stones become bread.
No, please give me strength to resist!
And yet I am forever between a rock and a hard place.
I live in a land of lust. Every day I awaken to new and shiny advertising tempting me with a vehicle or clothing or diet or a thousand other things to make life â€œbetter.â€ As an active Facebook user, lust stalks me. I explore places on VRBO where my wife and I might vacation for our upcoming anniversary and images of cottages and cabins appear on my Facebook page. Itâ€™s the same when searching for dog toys or another book to buy or deals on clothes from Patagonia or cookware from Sur La Table. Any search produces a trail of digital breadcrumbs that I canâ€™t escape. Try this. Be that. Buy now.
Let these stones become bread.
Fill your belly, Jesus.
No, I shall feed on the word and way of God!
(Well, at least thatâ€™s what Jesus would say.)
What about me?
I am between a rock and a hard place.
Donâ€™t keep filling your never full belly. It always growls for more.
Donâ€™t debate the literal or figurative devil. Someone always loses that argument.
One of my first mentors in ministry was Rev. Ray Hart. When I met him, he was on the verge of eighty and no longer officially a reverend. His ordination was revoked because, during the early 1950s, Ray had gone through a divorce. The church deemed him an unacceptable sinner. You can strip away the title, but not the calling. Ray, befriended by the senior pastor where I became an associate, was that churchâ€™s minister of visitation. We also became friends.
We debated troubling and trivial issues. I argued against all nuclear weapons. Ray, a chaplain during World War II, countered that sometimes evil is battled with terrible weapons. I told him that many in my generation didnâ€™t want a minister just “dropping by” for a visit. It was important to call first. Ray frowned, and declared that knocking unannounced on the door was often better.
I recall him once saying too many people thought the devil was grim in appearance, with pointy ears and grasping a pitchfork. â€œI think these days, the devil looks pretty good. You have to stay alert.â€
I canâ€™t recall if Ray meant the devil was literal or metaphoric. He was my friend, and heâ€™d seen the worstâ€”the very worstâ€”of the world. And yet his life was completely and faithfully defined by serving God.
Ray died soon after I left that church. My final visits with him (and yes, I always called first) were beside his bed, where he lay dying. We didnâ€™t spend any time debating. Mostly, we held hands. All that mattered was our friendship, and our worship of a God revealed by Jesus who loves and loves and loves and loves and . . .
[Image is: â€œFollow Me, Satan (Temptation of Jesus Christ)â€ by Ilya Repin]