February 17, 2013
When we understand today’s gospel correctly, we understand what is at the heart of Jesus’ mission. Sometimes, we imagine this scene of Jesus and the devil in the desert is just obstacle that Jesus needs to jump over before he can begin his life’s work. But, this scene is his life’s work. It expresses in the clearest terms what the purpose of Jesus’ ministry is.
Jesus came into this world to defeat evil, to oppose all that is against God’s will. The devil in this scene represents the evil of the world, which Jesus intends to destroy. This becomes clearer when we understand that the Greek word in this text which we often translate as ‘temptation’ literally means ‘test’ or ‘contest.’ The devil is coming not so much to tempt Jesus as to fight with him. This scene is a struggle, a battle. The battle is against evil, and every subsequent scene in Jesus’ ministry is a continuation of it.
When Jesus heals a man who is crippled, he is not simply doing an action of kindness for an unfortunate individual. He is declaring that it is God’s intention to destroy every sickness, to eliminate whatever cripples human life. When Jesus heals a blind man, he is not simply reaching out to an individual in the darkness. He is declaring that it is God’s intention to eradicate every kind of blindness—the blindness which would put greed above service or violence above love, the blindness that would put coercion over human respect. When Jesus teaches the crowds on the hillside, he is not simply giving advice to those who would listen. He is revealing that there is a truth that can be used to confront evil and destroy it, a truth that will oppose prejudice, manipulation, and hate.
In every scene of Jesus’ ministry, the battle continues and every action of Jesus is another blow against the evil of the world that is first presented in this scene of Jesus and the devil in the desert.
But alas, evil does not submit easily. The evangelist Luke knows this because at the end of the scene he says, “After the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.” The battle is not over. The devil will return again at the climax of Jesus’ life—at the events in Jerusalem. It is those events, which we call the Paschal mystery, which make us Christian. Our faith stands on the conviction that the cross and resurrection of Jesus has broken the back of the devil and has inaugurated the ultimate defeat of evil. But that defeat is not complete. Even though the devil’s back is broken, he continues to crawl along and spread evil in our world. His final defeat will not occur until Jesus returns and destroys every evil forever. Until that day, our job is to take up Jesus’ mission, to fight with him against the evil that surrounds us, to undermine the power of evil in our world.
Sometimes we imagine that being a Christian is merely about knowing the Creed, coming to church, avoiding sin. These are all good things. But at the heart of discipleship is the commitment to join in Jesus’ mission, to take up arms against evil – wherever we find it.
On the last day, we will be called before the Lord to give an accounting of our life. If we come before him and say, “You know, I have said my prayers and I have tried to be as holy a person as I could be.” Jesus will say “Good. But what have you contributed to the destruction of evil? How have you fought at my side against those things that are against God’s will? Have you attacked prejudice or have you increased it? Have you attacked those things that are contrary to God’s will? Have you opposed injustice or have you tolerated it? Have you eschewed violence or have you fed it?” And it will be a bad day for us if that last day is the first time we ever realized that this is what Jesus has asked us to do.
Being a disciple of Jesus is taking up the battle against evil. It is more than avoiding sin. It is helping to create a new world. Following Christ is more than keeping ourselves pure. It is standing with Christ, facing the devil in the eye and saying, “Your power stops with me.”