Sketches of Evil

The First Sunday in Lent, Year C.

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’

and

‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 4:1-13

There’s a small sketch by Rembrandt, only about eight by seven inches, that was almost a masterpiece. It was the beginning of an idea and blocking for what would have been a much larger painting, but for reasons lost to history, the master decided not to complete. Despite its small size and rough caricature, it gives us a glimpse into one of the most profound scenes in the Gospels. Though it is but a sketch, much like the story itself, it tells us a story far larger than eight by seven inches or thirteen verses.

The sketch depicts two men walking side by side engaged in conversation. One is a step ahead, brightly illumined by the sunlight, the other a step behind slightly darkened in shadow. From the rough figures of their faces and the gestures of their hands, one can tell that they are consumed in a lively conversation: perhaps a debate like the Greek philosophers of old, their gestures reminiscent of the Raphael’s The School of Athens. But this is no ordinary conversation or high-minded theoretical debate, as it should come as no surprise that the sketch is entitled Satan Tempting Christ and the two figures in the scene are none other than Jesus and Satan.

Satan Tempting Christ, Rembrandt c. 1640-1642

Though there have been countless renditions and interpretations of this story, including three takes between the Gospel writers themselves, what’s remarkable about Rembrandt’s little sketch is how human, almost ordinary, the scene is despite the cosmic magnitude of the characters. They almost look like friends, with Satan’s bat wing starting to wrap around Jesus’ shoulder in a reassuring gesture and his hands outstretched offering a stone like a gift. Based on the sketch, it seems that Rembrandt had something of a theological debate that he never fully resolved, trying to decide between depicting Satan as monstrous or more human, having bat wings and goat legs, but also clearly expressed emotion, and even the faintest hints of clothing. The sketch seems to tell this story not as one of heroic resolve and high-minded idealism, but how ordinary, everyday evil is constantly just a step behind, seeming so friendly, reasonable, and tempting, despite its undeniably monstrous true form.

Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is one of the most unique stories in the gospels. It is one of the few where there are no witnesses other than us the listeners. Well, there is one other witness. Luke places this story immediately after Jesus’ baptism, after the grandiose voice from heaven proclaims Jesus to be God’s beloved Son, Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit.

We typically think of the wilderness in the story as a desert, and it is to an extent, but it isn’t a desert like the Sahara filled merely with sand and void of life; its rocky, with shrubs and caves and eerily full of life. Under every rock and in every cave lurked danger, from scorpions, to serpents, to bandits, to evil spirits. In the popular imagination of the time, the wilderness was seen as an existential threat, a remnant of the chaos before God’s ordered creation. Outside of the civilized populated areas, the wilderness could be seen as the devil’s domain. This backdrop is meant to illustrate how seemingly alone and serious this test is for Jesus. While earlier at the baptism Jesus’ divine status is confirmed and established, it is this test in the wilderness that scrutinizes Jesus’ humanity.

Luke is very deliberate in placing this story as Jesus’ final preparation before His public ministry, as he is addressing the criticisms that all who hear the Gospel message face. Mainly that Jesus’ teachings and the Good News of the Gospel are unrealistic, idealized, naïve, focused so much on the Kingdom of Heaven that they have no idea how to address the problems of earth. Even for us, baptized in water and full of the Spirit, the demands of the Gospel often seem too severe, too heavenly. So we too during Lent are led by the Spirit into the wilderness with Jesus; a final test and preparation for our public ministry. Though we are a small rough sketch of a scene played out and a victory won long ago, the temptations are no less real, and the sakes are still cosmic in size.

We do not know all the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness, our arrival into the story is in the final act. At His physically and undoubtedly spiritually weakest point, as evil often does, Satan comes to Him with the final and most difficult temptations.

They are so difficult not only because of the subjects they cover, physical need, political power, and religious righteousness, but also in the seeming reasonableness they are presented. Satan clearly went to Sunday School or at the very least heard a sermon or two, because he is quite good at quoting and framing his arguments in Scripture. What makes evil so enticing is how it can always be justified, based on reason, or address a real problem not yet solved. The test we face is seeing through the friendly and reasonable presentation and having the wisdom to know that it is always based in a lie. What makes it all particularly evil is that each lie we believe, or when we compromise the truth for the sake of supposed gains, we let ourselves be led further from God’s truth, and the real means to solve all earth’s problems.

The first temptation, to turn the stones into bread, is the temptation of the physical. To us it can seem hardly an evil temptation at all. After all, what harm could it be for Jesus to use His power as God incarnate to feed Himself, especially after forty days of fasting? But Jesus sees through the lie and explains what the temptation really is in His brief quotation of Deuteronomy:

“Man does not live by bread alone…” [Deuteronomy 8:3a]

Jesus realizes that Satan has clearly read his scripture, because He assumes Satan knows the rest of the quote, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Though it is cleverly disguised in Jesus’ real physical needs, the temptation isn’t really about Jesus using His power to feed Himself or the hungry, it’s a temptation to turn away from God’s promise. If Jesus were to use His power to turn stones to bread in this case, He would be turning away from God, who has provided for all humanity, and believe in the lie that there isn’t enough to go around. How often are we tempted this very way, that hunger, need, and scarcity that exists in this world is because God has abandoned His creation. That there “just isn’t enough to go around”. Yet Jesus tells us in His answer, and later demonstrates in His ministry, that God has provided for all our needs. The reason there is scarcity and hunger on earth is because of those who listened to the lie, who believing that there isn’t enough, through greed and fear hoard and withhold from the needy. The lie itself is the cause of the very thing it supposedly would solve.

The second temptation is political power, where Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth for the small price of paying some token homage to evil. This temptation is especially appealing when we think what kind of leader Jesus would have been if He had the opportunity. Though few of us have ever or will ever have such an opportunity for political power, this temptation is more than just ruling the kingdoms of the earth. Within it are all the compromises and shades of grey that we deal with navigating the day-to-day wilderness. What do we do when there seem to be no clearly good options? Would it be so bad to pay homage, even just some lip service, to a lesser evil for the sake of a greater good? But as before this temptation is based on another lie, a lie that if we believe, leaves us without hope for any change for the better in this world.

“Worship the LORD your God, and serve only Him.” [Deuteronomy 6:13]

Jesus answers with another quote from Deuteronomy, casting the truth against Satan’s lie. Satan shows his hand that he’s lying at the very beginning, when he tells Jesus that all the nations have been given over to him, that he is the true authority of the earth, and he can give that authority to anyone he pleases. While it is true that there is much evil in all the nations of the earth, it is a lie that evil is the true master of them. As Jesus observes in His reply, God is the true master of the earth not evil. In this case, Jesus makes no compromises with evil for the sake of some temporary good by becoming a political elite. Because to do so, no matter how much good He could offer as a ruler of a nation, He would be giving the ultimate authority of the world over to evil. In our wilderness, this temptation comes often as constant small compromises, each time bending what we know is the long-term good for the sake of short-term gains. The work of discernment is whether these compromises are really for the greater good, or that in them we are living without hope, instead of trusting in God, paying homage to evil. Even good deeds and good intentions, if they are done by the standards of “the real world” instead of the standards of the coming Kingdom of Heaven, can pave the road to hell rather than making a straight a highway for our God.

The final temptation is the most direct rejection of God and essentially a summary of all the previous temptations. It is particularly insidious because not only is it the most significant, it is also one of the easiest to succumb to. Like all the others, Satan disguises the lie in something innocuous, even good. Again, he quotes scripture telling Jesus if He really believed God’s promises to protect Him, He should have no doubts about jumping off the temple! And in this temptation, Jesus’ answer (again from Deuteronomy) often frustrates us:

“Do not put the LORD your God to the test.” [Deuteronomy 6:16]

We tend to see Jesus’ answer from Satan’s perspective: it seems like a deflection, a truism, a fallacious appeal to authority that flies in the face of any reasonable questioning of God’s difficult demands. And considering the Church’s history of corruption and misuse of this truth, this answer doesn’t feel satisfactory in addressing evil.

But like all the other temptations, Jesus doesn’t play games with the lie Satan offers Him, rather cuts straight to the truth. This temptation is not about posing legitimate questions about God, Scripture, theology, or the many claims of the Christian faith. Though it is dressed in sheep’s clothing as a question about what constitutes true faith, the temptation is to no longer love God. If Jesus threw Himself off the temple because some verses of Scripture told Him He could get away with it, He would be giving up His real faith and replacing it with the same contractual relationship with God that we are all tempted by. It’s not about believing in the truth of the Scriptures, or believing in the traditions and teachings of the Church, it’s not even about using the scientific method to test spiritual claims, it’s really about our relationship with God.

The heart of our faith is our relationship with God. Like all relationships it is built on love, communication, and trust. In a healthy relationship, you do not put your partner to the test, because at that point the test isn’t about love or communication but setting them up for failure or asserting your own righteousness over them. To test someone in this way shows that there is no more love, no more trust, and no desire to communicate and fix the problem. Jesus’ answer is not denying our ability to argue with or question God, if done in love and with a genuine desire to solve the problem, that’s healthy, good communication. Rather Jesus’ answer is about not needing to test God because we do love and trust God, knowing that God loves and trusts us, despite all our failings and giving into temptation.

Though we yet wander through the wilderness, tempted in every way that He was tempted, remember that we are not left alone with the evil one. We have been baptized and filled with the Spirit, and like Christ, though it may seem that we are alone, we are lifted up by the great cloud of witnesses gathered on earth and heaven. Our food, our power, and our hope supplied by the God who loves us beyond all measure, who walked among us and was tempted in every way, yet did not sin. Amen.

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