Relating to Evil
February 13, 2005
Genesis 2:7-9–3:1-17 / Matthew 4:1-11
It would be wrong to think that the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jesus’ temptation are simply reporting events that happened in the past. Both of these stories are mythic stories. When we call a story a myth, we are not saying that the story is false, but rather that it is universal. Myths reveal the human condition. They tell us something about ourselves and the way that we live. These two stories today remind us that evil is a part of our lives and that the temptation to do what is wrong is always close at hand. Therefore, since the church has presented these two passages to us today, I would like to make one point from each of them which I hope will aid us in the Lenten journey that we begin this week.
The story of Adam and Eve tells us that evil comes to us disguised as good. Our first parents were not tempted to disobey God directly, but instead they were offered a very good thing: a wonderful fruit, a fruit that the text said was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and the bearer of wisdom. It was in Adam and Eve’s effort to have this distorted good that sin entered our world. The same is true for us. Evil comes to us as a distorted good. The choices that we make to do what is wrong usually occur because we have convinced ourselves that we are choosing something that is good. What evil does is take good things in our life and twist them, so that instead of being blessings, they in fact do us harm.
A word that conveys this truth about evil is the word “addiction.” Usually when we think of addiction, we think of someone under the sway of alcohol or drugs. But the truth is that all of us are addicted to something. We might be addicted to eating or to shopping or to the need to help or make others happy. We might be addicted to the latest thing, the hottest trend, most popular fashion. We might be addicted to our computer, our electronic games, our favorite band, our golf clubs. All of these things are in themselves good. But when we give them control over our lives, when we make them necessary, they rule us instead of bless us.
Now the challenge of Lent is not to stop eating or to throw away our computer or our golf clubs. The challenge of Lent is to allow the good things in our life to find their proper place so that we can free ourselves from the addiction to them. There is only one thing which can occupy the center of our life, that is our relationship to God.
The story of Adam and Eve tells us that evil comes to us in the guise of what is good. The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us another truth about evil: we are usually not so much tempted by our weaknesses as by our strengths. The devil knew who Jesus was and what he could do. He used Jesus’ gifts to tempt him. He knew Jesus could change stones into bread or protect himself from a disastrous fall, or somehow corral the powers of the kingdoms of the earth. The devil used those very gifts of Jesus to attempt to lead him to sin.
The same is true for us. We are more likely to be tempted by our strengths than by our weaknesses. If we are an industrious, energetic person, that gift can tempt us to the amass excessive wealth. If we are a person gifted with organization and people skills, that gift can become a temptation to power. If we are a person who has a personality that is sensitive and passionate, we can be tempted to sensual pleasure. If we are a person who is intelligent and bright, we can be tempted to arrogance. If we are attractive and good looking, we can be tempted to vanity. What the story of Jesus’ temptation tells us is that, as evil approaches us, we should look to our strengths rather than to our weaknesses. For evil takes our gifts, the things that we are good at, and tries to twist them so that instead of helping us and others, they become a poison in our lives.
The two mythic stories in today’s Scriptures, the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jesus’ temptation, both tell us truths about our lives and our relationship to evil. They remind us that evil is close at hand, moving like a snake at our feet. It comes to us in the guise of good and uses our own strengths to tempt us. The challenge of Lent is to recognize this deception and work against it. We must pray for the strength to choose goodness rather than addiction. We must be vigilant that our talents are not used to hurt ourselves or others, but instead that we work to use our gifts to be our best selves and to build the kingdom of God.
Disciples or Imposters
February 10, 2008
Matthew 4: 1 – 11
There is an ancient legend that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection the devil, who is a master of disguise, attempted to get into heaven by pretending to be the risen Christ. The devil brought with him minions of demons all disguised as angels of light. As the group approached the heavenly gates, the demons began to cry out the opening verses of the great hymn which welcomes the Messiah. They cried out, “Lift up your heads, oh gates of heaven. Open wide your doors, and let the King of Glory come in!” The real angels in heaven looked down upon the group and saw the one whom they thought was their risen Lord. So they joyously added their voices to the next part of the hymn by crying out, “Who is the King of Glory?” Here the devil made a fatal mistake. In answer to that question he lifted up his arms and said, “I am!” In that instant the angels shut the doors of heaven to keep out the imposter. Because the minute the devil lifted up his hands, the angels could see that his palms did not bear the nail marks of the passion. And without the wounds of the passion, the angels knew that this was an imposter. He could not be the risen Lord.
Now Jesus is our savior but he is also the way to salvation. He is the model we are called to follow. Therefore, so it is not by chance that he bears the wounds of his passion in every gospel scene in which we see the risen Lord. These marks of the passion are not some stain or some flaw which the resurrection was unable to erase. They are an indelible reminder to us that our way to salvation will include struggle, pain, and death. Now this is not to say that struggle, pain, and death are somehow good gifts. It is to remind us that trouble and pain are part of the human condition, and the way that Jesus shows us to salvation is not around the human condition but through it. Jesus’ way must be our way as well.
This is certainly clear in today’s Gospel. Because immediately after Jesus’ baptism the first thing he does is not preach, but face evil. The first thing he does is not heal the sick, but grapple with the devil. The first thing he does is not to proclaim God’s Kingdom but confront the fragility of his human nature. Jesus confronts the devil, and in that action shows his weakness. Jesus struggles with human weakness. The gospel stories present this struggle in a very formal way, placing Jesus in complete control. But we can be sure that the historical Jesus did not find things quite as easy. He was like us in all things but sin. He experienced real doubt, real turmoil, real temptation, real pain. Such struggle with human weakness is part of our way to salvation. In his confrontation with human weakness, Jesus shows us our way to glory.
Now there is no doubt that we would prefer another way. We would all prefer to come closer to God without doubt, without struggle, without pain. But this is not the model which is presented to us. If we intend to be Disciples of Christ, we must prepare ourselves to deal with the human condition which causes us to struggle and to doubt. As difficult as that model is, the minute we accept it, there is good news. When we accept it, it leads to hope.
If we find ourselves doubting our faith, questioning what we have been taught, wondering whether the promises of eternal life are true, if we find ourselves struggling with sin, trying over and over again to improve but failing, the last question we should ask ourselves, “What is wrong with me? Why do I doubt? Why do I sin?” Those weaknesses are part of the human condition. But it is by fighting against doubt and sin that we trust that God will use our efforts to lead us deeper and closer to life. If we find ourselves lost with grief over the death of someone that we loved, over the end of a marriage, if we find ourselves paralyzed because the pain of a sickness or the fear of growing old or death, the last thing we should ask ourselves is “What have I done to deserve this? Why is this happening to me?” It happens to us because we are human. We face the same struggles which every human person must face. But we trust and hope that if we face them in union with Christ, if we fight the good fight, God will use our struggle for our growth.
Jesus is our model. He shows us the way. His way is not around our human condition but through it. His way includes the doubts, the struggles, the pains of life. In light of his example, we believe that God allows our worst trials, our greatest troubles, to be a part of our salvation. Those who wish to share in Christ’s glory, but cannot show the marks of the wounds in their hands, are not disciples. They are merely imposters at the gates of paradise.
Waiting for the Angels to Come
March 13, 2011
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is tempted in the desert by the devil. This Gospel, like all the Gospels, is meant not to simply tell us something about Jesus’ life, but to serve as a guide as we attempt to build our own relationship with God. So, what can we learn from this Gospel about our way of discipleship?
We might begin by noting that the Greek word which is translated in our lectionary “tempted” can also be translated “tested.” And, if we adopt this broader notion of the term, it allows us to pose two questions to the text: What kind of things test us in life? And what can we do about them?
This Gospel suggests that three things test us in life: scarcity, threats, and doubt. The first time that the devil tests Jesus, the issue is scarcity. Jesus is hungry and there is no bread. Scarcity can be a tremendous test for us because when something which is essential to our life is in short supply, we are indeed in need. This could be some material thing, such as the loss of employment or a crisis that devastates us financially. But, it also could be a personal issue such as a scarcity of love: questioning whether we will ever find someone with whom we can share our life, being afraid that the love in our marriage is dying, or grieving the loss of a loved one in death and wondering whether we will ever love again. Whether material scarcity or personal scarcity, when there is not enough, we are tested and we wonder how we will survive.
The second time that the devil tests Jesus, he places him in a threatening situation, on the parapet of the temple and asks him to hurl himself down. When evil approaches us in our life, we are threatened. It might be a physical evil such as sickness or depression. But it also could be an personal evil, such as a friend who betrays us or anger, jealousy, or discontent in our family. When such evil approaches us, our life is threatened and we are tested, wondering whether we will be able to face the future.
The third time that the devil tests Jesus concerns his relationship with God, because the devil asks Jesus to worship him. We can be tested in our own relationship to God through doubt. When something happens that we do not understand, when we expect God to be present and God seems to be absent, we ask: Why did this happen to me? Where is God when I need God? We can even begin to wonder whether God cares or whether God is real. Doubt can be a true test of our lives and a true test of our faith, wondering whether God is with us and will save us.
So we can be tested in life through scarcity, threat, and doubt. What can we do about it? Here, as always, we must follow the example of Jesus. What does Jesus do when the devil tests him? He stands his ground. He holds on.
Now, of course, as Jesus stands his ground, he is not idle. He knows the Scriptures and debates the devil. We must do the same thing: Know the Scriptures, know the tradition of our Church, consult with people who are wise as we try to cope with testing in our lives. But one of the things that this Gospel makes very clear is that even when we have those resources, the devil is not easily defeated. In the Gospel, the devil comes three times to Jesus. If it takes Jesus three times to send the devil packing, how much more difficult will it be for us? Therefore, the most important example that Jesus gives to us in today’s Gospel is that of perseverance, of holding on during testing. Jesus holds on as the devil attacks. He holds on until the devil departs and angels come and minister to him.
As we face tests in our own life, we should expect no different pattern. We need to hold on. We need to keep repeating the right words even when the words do not seem to be working. We need to keep believing that God is with us even when it seems that God is not. We need to keep trying even when it seems that things could slip away.
Now, this approach is not easy, and of course it does not produce immediate results. There might be times when we think that there is no way that we can succeed. But, this is why the example of Jesus is so important. We must hold on. We must face the devil toe to toe. We must stand our ground and wait for the angels to come.
Goodness in Temptation
March 9, 2014
There is a strange line in today’s gospel which we should discuss, because, if we understand the line correctly, it can show us the way to a profitable Lenten season. In three of the four gospels, Jesus is tempted by the devil before he begins his public ministry. This temptation happens in the desert, and here is where the problematic line is found. It says, “And Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” So why would the spirit of God lead Jesus into temptation? We would expect that God’s spirit would lead Jesus away from the devil. Yet the text is very clear that the spirit brings Jesus right into the devil’s presence. What sense can we make of this unexpected and contrary action on the part of the spirit? The bible itself gives no explanation. But here’s the basic rule: When the spirit of God does something to Jesus or to us, we can be sure that that action is for our benefit. Therefore this strange line in the gospel suggests that there is a goodness or an advantage in temptation. It suggests that there is something to learn from being tested that can lead to our growth.
What can we learn from temptation? Two things come immediately to mind. This first is this: When we are tempted, we realize that we are weak. When things are going along without any problems, when we move from one success to another, it is easy for us to imagine that it is our own strength and our own abilities that guarantee a successful life. But when we experience temptation, we have to admit that our abilities and strength are limited. After all, we could fall. With just a change in the circumstances or a bad decision on our part, our family, our job, our reputation could all be undone. So temptation shows us the fragility of life. It reminds us that a successful life results not only from our own efforts but also from God’s grace. Temptation shows our weakness and invites us to trust more deeply in God’s help.
The second good thing that can come from temptation is that it gives us a direction. The areas in which we are tempted are the surest sign of what actions are required in our life. For example, if we find ourselves being angry or disappointed in our spouse, if we are tempted to be unfaithful to our spouse, that temptation is telling us that our marriage needs attention. So the season of Lent should be a time where that relationship is addressed, a time for us to talk, a time for us to seek counsel from people we trust, perhaps even a time to seek professional help. If we find ourselves tempted to be self-indulgent, to do very little, to eat too much, to cater to our own desires, that temptation is telling us that there is too much taking in our life and not enough giving. So Lent becomes a time to get out of the potato chip bag, away from the television set, and choose some action of service that will help someone else. If we find ourselves time and again becoming angry or vengeful toward someone who has hurt us, then that temptation is telling us that we are wounded. Lent then becomes a time in which we open ourselves to healing and forgiveness, because it is only through forgiveness that we can become free. Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil because the spirit understood that Jesus, in his humanity, would learn something from that temptation. So can we.
This Lenten season is a time in which we ask ourselves, “Where am I tested in life? Where am I tempted,” and then allow our temptations to give us direction on what we should do during these 40 days. And if, following that path, we discover that things are difficult, that it is not easy to address issues in our relationship, that it is not easy to serve, that it is not easy to forgive, we should not be discouraged. Because temptation also tells us that we are weak, assures us that we are not alone, and invites us to trust more deeply in God’s help.
How Evil Works
March 5, 2017
Today’s gospel is the only story in the four gospel stories where the devil speaks. As such, it can prove a help to us as we examine our own struggle with evil. The temptation of Jesus tells us two things about evil: How it works and how we might overcome it.
How does evil work? By illusion. The devil never tempts us by presenting something before us that looks bad. What the devil does is take bad things and present them under the guise of something good. The devil tells Jesus, “Turn these stones into loaves of bread.” That action on its own would be a good thing. Bread can feed Jesus and many other hungry people. But what makes the devil’s invitation wrong is not the good action but the motivation behind it. It is an attempt to have Jesus worship and commit himself to the devil’s authority.
T.S. Elliot has said, “The greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Therefore, the devil twists things that are bad, to give them the appearance that they would be for our benefit.
The devil says to us: If you choose to lie or cheat, just think how much more money you would have. Wouldn’t that be a good thing for yourself and for your family? If you decide to put someone down because of their race or their culture, wouldn’t that make you feel important? That be a good thing for your own sense of worth? If you cheat on your spouse, wouldn’t that be exciting? It would make you more free than being faithful to a person who doesn’t understand you and often does not say how wonderful you are? The devil consistently takes things that are harmful to us and presents them as something of a benefit. It is an illusion. They will hurt us nonetheless. That is why the devil is called “the father of lies.”
So how do we overcome evil? The simplest answer is to see through the illusion, to realize that what is presented to us as something for our benefit will really harm us. But Jesus shows us two other things we can do to defeat evil. The first is that we should never engage with evil. As the devil poses temptation to Jesus, Jesus never takes up the devil’s temptation on its own terms. Instead, he quotes the scriptures. Jesus stands apart from the devil and refuses to dialogue with him on his own terms. In the same way, we should refuse to feed the temptations that are offered to us. If we keep thinking about how much money we can make by cheating or lying, sooner or later evil will win. If we keep replaying in our minds the scene in which someone has hurt us, sooner or later we will strike back. If we keep fantasizing about how attractive another person might be, sooner or later we will be unfaithful to our spouse. The devil’s temptations are dangerous. That’s why we should not engage them. We should simply dismiss them as the illusion that they are.
The second thing Jesus shows us is that in temptation we are not alone. The reason that Jesus can defeat Satan is because he knows that God is always with him, and God’s power is stronger than Satan’s power. So as soon as Jesus claims the power of God, Satan’s power is depleted. This is why Jesus can tell Satan, “Get away,” and Satan goes. We can do the same when we call upon the power of God.
This gospel reminds us that evil is an illusion. It calls us not to feed our temptations and turn to God for protection. and ask God’s power to protect us. If we do this, we can defeat the devil and expose him as the liar he truly is.