February 22, 2015
On this first Sunday of Lent, we find Jesus in the desert with the devil. The devil, of course, is attempting to tempt Jesus to sin. On first reading of this gospel, it appears that Jesus and the devil are not alone. The story tells us that Jesus was with wild beasts and the angels ministered to him. But that is only one way of reading this text. It is also possible to see the presence of the wild beasts and the angels not as additional characters but as descriptions of the ways in which Satan comes to test Jesus. If we adopt this perspective, it is easy to understand how Satan would come to Jesus as a wild beast. The scriptures themselves describe Satan as a roaring lion, prowling about seeking someone to devour. But can we imagine Satan approaching as an angel?
We can. In fact, it is a clever technique of the devil to approach under the guise of something good. On the sidewall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, there is a fresco of today’s gospel, painted by the Italian painter, Botticelli. But when you first approach the picture, you have no idea that its topic is the temptation of Christ. The painting presents Jesus in conversation with a holy man, with a man dressed as a monk in a religious habit and holding a rosary in his hand. It is only when you look at the painting more closely that you see that under the hem of the monk’s habit are two clawed feet. Then you notice that on the back of the monk (out of the sight of Jesus) there are two small black wings. Botticelli understood that the devil does not usually come to us as a wild beast but often approaches dressed in something that is holy and good.
This is an important lesson for us during the season of Lent. During this time we try to turn away from evil. So we should understand that evil seldom comes to us in its true form. Peace is a genuine good. To live in harmony with the people around us, to get along with the people that we know and love is a blessing. But when the desire to keep the peace leads us to be dishonest with our spouse, when the desire to go along with the group prevents us from telling our friends that they are wrong to abuse drugs or alcohol, peace becomes merely a garb to cover something harmful. The devil is pleased to use peace so that we might enable others to fall. That is why we should not be taken in by his deception.
Service is at the heart of the gospel. To give of ourselves, to sacrifice our desires for the sake of another, is following the very example of Christ. But when others use our generosity to manipulate us, when our giving is used to abuse or hurt us, it is no longer a good. The devil rejoices to use our desire to give as a way to enslave us. That is why we must draw boundaries to protect ourselves. That is why we should not accept the sham that the devil presents to us.
Love is Jesus’ greatest commandment. The love of our family and friends is a profound good. But love of the people close to us can be used to diminish those who are different from us. The devil delights in using the love of our family and friends or the love of our country to lessen and denigrate others. That is why we should not fall for his tricks.
If the devil were to come to you as a wild beast, you would run away. But when an angel approaches, you pay attention. Today’s gospel warns you to examine the words of any angel and to look carefully under the hem of his garment. If you see clawed feet there, do not listen. Flee at once.