Matthew 4:1-11 – The First Sunday of Lent – for Sunday, March 5, 2017
“Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him . . .” (Matthew 4:1)
Do I believe there is evil?
How do I understand Jesus’ encounter with “the tempter” in the fourth chapter of Matthew? There, after forty days and nights in the wilderness—where Jesus fasted and prayed, and inevitably was “starving”—the devil appeared and tempted him. Like God and Satan testing Job or Dante’s Divine Comedy depicting a journey through the nine circles of Hell, I don’t read it as an actual, factual event.
And yet I believe Jesus’ devilish confrontation revealed a truth—as the best stories do—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 “testing” God?
Who or what do I truly worship?
From the earliest references in the Old Testament, the use of “Satan” 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 Jesus’ encounter with the devil was metaphoric, and not literal.
But in these days of “fake news” and “alternate facts” 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 “side” could match the scholars I might rely on to advocate for my “side.”
We choose facts like fruit in a market’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 Jesus’ 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 “fake news” 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 “better.” 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. It’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 can’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 that’s what Jesus would say.)
What about me?
I am between a rock and a hard place.
Don’t keep filling your never full belly. It always growls for more.
Don’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 church’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 didn’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. “I think these days, the devil looks pretty good. You have to stay alert.”
I can’t recall if Ray meant the devil was literal or metaphoric. He was my friend, and he’d seen the worst—the very worst—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 didn’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: “Follow Me, Satan (Temptation of Jesus Christ)” by Ilya Repin]