By: Fr. James Gross
The Church has chosen these readings for every congregation to reflect on today. And, of course, we will do that too. But I need to make a little disclaimer. I would really, REALLY rather not say much of anything about the devil. Now there’s a depressing subject! It’s like going to see someone’s newly renovated house and spending the whole time staring at a stain on the carpet where the dog did his business. Because of how he factors into these scripture readings, we cannot ignore the devil. So we will foil him by exposing and confounding his wicked plans.
The Greek word St. Matthew uses for the devil, diabolos, literally means “slanderer.” The Aramaic word Satan is slightly different, meaning an opponent or enemy. But something about “slanderer” adds a new layer of meaning. One who slanders cannot make or build anything; he can only distort. A slanderer takes something good and warps it, ruins it. Remember the ancient story handed down to us about Lucifer, “the light bearer,” a gleaming, brilliant angel in God’s firmament. Out of envy over God’s creative faculties, he rebelled, and forever resents being a mere creature. To this day, Satan creates nothing, but only manages to twist and pervert the wonders of creation.
Can we not see this trait in his very first words in the Bible? The serpent asks Eve, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Subtle, yes, but here all we have is a lie built on paranoia. “Maybe God’s not on my side after all. Maybe I’ll just need to do my own thing to survive.” Eve’s problem was her entering into the conversation in the first place. A fitting reply would have been, “No, we may eat of the fruit of every tree except one. Now get out of here, you slithering liar, and don’t come back.” Instead, sadly, Eve left the door open for the serpent to pile on more doubt, and for temptation to bear down on her. We shouldn’t forget about one other very important person. Where, pray tell, was Adam? He’s missing in action, or if not absent, definitely silent. Instead of protecting his beloved, Adam leaves her to flail and languish in battle. Why do no words of confrontation come from him to the serpent? Could Adam not have said, “Wait a minute: why are you questioning what is unquestionable? Where is there any defect in God? Does anyone outdo Him in goodness?” This answer would spring, not out of blind faith, but from direct personal experience of the Divine.
By his Paschal Mystery (that is, his dying and rising), Jesus would ultimately undo the curse and utterly defeat Satan. But much earlier, at the onset of his public ministry, he took some time for preparation. In the intensity of his prayer Jesus forgot about food, and just as the Lord was about to exit the wilderness, the devil made his move. Jesus does what Adam and Eve were unable to do; he rebukes Satan, but does so concisely, without an extended dialogue. And even when the devil becomes arrogant and starts quoting the Word of God, Jesus finds a “trump card” quote to lay on the table.
Each of Our Lord’s three responses comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, which some scholars take as a reference to his formation of the “New Israel.” Deuteronomy records Moses’ final words to his Hebrew brethren before they enter the Promised Land. Christ is to lead his Church as an entirely new kingdom, with new goals and new rewards.
Let’s briefly inspect each of the devil’s temptations to see what’s really behind them. The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. It seems harmless and innocent enough, and assuaging one’s hunger is not in itself immoral—especially after such a prolonged period of fasting. But the core of this first temptation is that Jesus would use his power for himself. He responds that life is about more than bread, and that he would break his fast in a humbler way.
The second temptation is to leap from a dizzying height. “You are God’s Son, aren’t you,” the devil taunts him. “He won’t let anything happen to you!” At the core of this second temptation are two things: a spectacular sign to compel belief, and the avoidance of the cross. The devil tempts Jesus to dazzle the masses as he would have it—not by healing or rescuing anyone else, but by doing something stupid (like jumping from the parapet of the Temple) and defying the consequences. Moreover, it implies that any suffering on the Lord’s part is unnecessary. Why not bypass the passion and cross, if one has that kind of power? But Our Lord proved his supreme obedience to His Father’s will in the garden of Gethsemane when he embraced our suffering in a spirit of fraternal allegiance, so as to go through it and come out victorious from the grave.
The third temptation is to receive dominion over all the world’s kingdoms in exchange for worshiping Satan. In the first place, it’s an empty promise. How could the devil really have something like that to give? Secondly, it was meant to play upon the national hardships of Israel. Palestine was a small strip of land that had become a buffer state, often trampled and made subject to the rule of this empire or that. How many of Jesus’ peers would have seen political autonomy as a tantalizing prospect? But at the core of this third temptation is compromise. Absurdly, the devil tells the King of Kings, “Go along with me and you’ll have everything.” But the only one worth serving is the Father, because to serve Him is to reign.
We may wish that temptations would remain far from us, that we would be immune to them as if they were a disease for which we have taken the vaccine. But the untested piece of steel is not necessarily stronger. When Christ is alive and active in our hearts, the moment of temptation is a chance to rise up as much as a chance to fall.
So how do we make this happen? If the devil chooses to work on us in a personal way, turn him aside with a personal rebuke. Tell him, “I am not your plaything; I am a child of God. You are a loser, because Christ has defeated you. By the Holy Spirit I bind you and cast you aside. I will play no part in your sick and pathetic plan. There is a greater destiny in store for me.”