So, when last we left our hero, Jesus was wrestling with a newfound reality, the stark and sudden realization at his baptism that he is not merely a carpenter from Nazareth but “Son of God.” He fled into the wilderness in order to wrap his brain around this understanding, and what it means for his life on earth. After a long while in the desert, he encounters the devil who attempts to deceive Jesus into relinquishing his mission of understanding. Jesus defeats the devil’s attack by falling into a pit of mystery–rejecting the devil’s lies, and the doubts of his heart–and finding that God’s Word catches him, and like Ben Folds sings in his song Philosophy, “keeps him walking when he’s falling down.” Jesus will not be tempted from his path with simple lies and illusions, and he sides with doubt and faith rather than the need to be certain. In video game terms, this could be called “Leveling Up.”
So the devil tries again, in Matthew 4: 5-7 — Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”
No big deal, same thing as before, right? The devil is saying something, why not just take it for a lie, an illusion? Just like a video game, the second level is a variation on the first–most of the same rules and concepts apply (i.e. the devil=liar)–but there is a more difficult puzzle. The difficulty here is that the devil has adapted his attack specifically for Jesus’ best weapon: his dutiful faith in the authority of scripture. In the original Zelda, the monsters in the new level will be unaffected by the weapons you used to defeat the previous one. By the end of The Matrix, Neo is capable of superhuman feats, so in The Matrix: Reloaded, the bad guys need to come up with something new to challenge him and Agent Smith replicates himself a billion times over until Neo is overwhelmed. So, in the first level, Jesus relied on his tradition, what Richard Rohr calls “the Great Chain of Being” that scripture represents; a long line of theologians and the truths about God revealed in the text of their faithful struggles. In the second level, the devil uses Jesus’ greatest weapon against him. As Rev. Ken Heintzelman said in a recent sermon, “Even the devil can quote scripture.”
The devil selects his words from Psalm 91: 11-12. As John S. Kselman notes in my Oxford Annotated Bible, the language of Psalm 91 indicates that it “likely reflects Israelite popular religion,” and if you go and read it you will see that it reflects popular American Christian religion as well. The character in the psalm is one who takes full comfort in God and God’s word, and because of this believer’s faith and devotion s/he is promised to be delivered from enemies, named savior of the nation, and essentially spared all hardship. I can’t help but think of the “prosperity gospel” when I read this. It is more complex and beautiful than that, but it seems that there has always been the popular belief that God must reward the good and punish the bad, and if you are truly devout in your belief then no harm will befall you. Greg Mobley, Hebrew Bible Professor at Andover Newton calls this kind of thinking “moral causality,” where the good and holy are rewarded and the wicked sinners are punished. It’s the kind of theology that is challenged in the book of Job, which is a literary fable that explores the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s a theology that in Matthew 4: 7, it would seem, Jesus rejects.
Matthew 4: 7– Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
While this trilogy is called Jesus’ Trials in the Desert, I think it’s fair to say that this particular trial is his first Test. Dictionary.com provides this definition of “test”: the means by which the presence, quality, or genuineness of anything is determined; a means of trial.
In the first of Jesus’ trials, the conflict appears to lie in Jesus’ ability to separate his revelatory knowledge from the lies of the world. When he’s proven capable of escaping the devil’s grasp, he’s claimed for himself the weapon of God’s Word, then the next trial becomes an actual TEST, a means of determining the quality of Jesus’ abilities. It’s one thing to defy the devil, it’s another thing entirely to embody the will of God. Will Jesus be able to fulfill his roll as Son of God, or will he get stuck in the kind of petty “legalese” scripture reading, the small minded either/or power struggles that so many religious leaders (both before and after him) have fallen into. What kind of leader will he be, and what will be the quality of his love, the quality of his service? That is what is being tested. So then, of course, the question is, who is doing the testing?
Any insight I have to the character of the devil in scripture comes from a book called The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots, co-written by the aforementioned Greg Mobley and T.J. Wray. It’s a phenomenal book that beautifully and plainly demonstrates how scripture is tied to cultural perceptions of God and faith, and vice versa. In other words, scripture does not just inform our beliefs about God, sometimes–like in the case of the devil–it reflects our beliefs. As people of faith, we intuitively know that God is all powerful, all present, and all loving; but life teaches us that this all powerful and all loving Creator has no problem allowing us to suffer and struggle. How do we reconcile that dual reality? Over the course of centuries, authors of scripture began articulating that dual reality in the form of the devil; God loves us unconditionally, and it is out of that love that the devil comes out to test us. It’s a bit more complicated than that, I highly suggest that you read the book because it’s flat out awesome; but the interesting thing is that the presence of the devil in scripture, though he began as a reflection of our intuitions about how God works, spawned a life of his own in which he became perceived as separate from and actually AGAINST God. Whether that was the original intent, we will never know. So, all of that said, again, we have to ask: Who is testing Jesus? Who is testing the quality of his call to ministry? Even if we say it is clearly the devil administering the test, isn’t God still the ultimate authority grading the results?
A (potentially not so) Quick Sidebar:
The first time I ever heard of Mike Huckabee was the night of the Iowa Caucus in 2008, he was a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I had no idea who he was, but when he spoke about his perception of the big issues, he had a curious habit of moving his hand either up and down in front of his face, as if he were painting a picture, or from left to right. It wasn’t until Jay Leno brought up that he was a retired Christian minister that I understood what he was doing…he was using the image of the cross to sell his political agenda. Which…when you think about it…is just severely bizarre. He hasn’t stopped impressing me since then. Mike Huckabee was on the Daily Show last week, and at one point he gave his interpretation of a certain parable that Jesus told in order to illustrate truths about the Kingdom of God. Just to be clear, I do not in any way see it as my place to tell anyone else how to interpret scripture; I’m not smart enough and I haven’t been doing this long enough. But…the parable is pretty specifically and strait-forwardly a metaphor meant to illustrate truths about the Kingdom of God, and somehow Mr. Huckabee seemed to think that it was a story that was meant to be taken literally, having something to do with Jesus’ divine instructions for small business owners and their right to decide how to run their own payroll? It was fairly unclear…but I think that’s the gist of it. Now, again, I’m not going to tell anyone how to read the Bible; but you have to admit, there’s a pretty stark difference in quality between a carpenter in first century Israel whose realization of scripture calls him to serve in the Kingdom of God in the face of a hateful and suffering world even unto death on the cross, and a 21st Century white American politician who uses that carpenter’s words to serve corporate interests. I’m just saying.
In terms of quality of service…our politicians in general don’t seem to be testing too well. We just spent a week watching helplessly as our elected representatives played an expensive game of chicken with our government. What were they competing over? Well, certainly not better care and services for the poorest and weakest among us, not for the good of our troops engaged in our three wars, not even to win more boons for the wealthiest 1% of us (though, that certainly worked better than anything in the other categories). Nah…it was a big show, with no one exhibiting any kind of coherent ideology or reason behind it, which means that the most cynical view is the only rational one to take: Everyone involved had nothing at stake beyond their own pathetic political careers. Does anyone think that if a poll had come out saying that more than 50% of the country would blame a government shut down on President Barrack Obama that the Republicans wouldn’t have shut the whole thing down? And conversely, the President and the Democrats made about 40 billion dollars worth of cuts to programs meant to service their constituents (the poorest and weakest among us) so that Independent voters might be wooed by their desire to compromise and capitulate. No one fought for beliefs…everyone paraded for the crowd. There’s a qualitative difference between a public servant and someone who collects a paycheck from serving the public. Do we have the means to test the quality of our servants?
Last week, I went to see a psychologist who helped the Southwest Conference United Church of Christ administer a test to me, to test the quality of my emotional and psychological health and abilities. According to modern psychological science I am a normal, fully functioning adult. What quality of servant will I be? That is a test I have yet to pass.
And Now, We Return You to Your Regular (and incredibly lengthy) Blog Post:
Modern thinkers deal with this dual reality–the conviction there is a loving God in charge of everything vs. physical lives built on suffering and struggling–in a slightly different way; rather than telling stories about a devil, a creature out to act against that loving God, we tell the unfolding story of the baby of The Enlightenment, Science. Science has become God’s ultimate adversary, according to modern people, because it explains in concrete and observable terms phenomena that used to be attributed to “acts of God.” Some would have us believe that Science has the ability to “disprove” the existence of God, and they use language that is very similar to the devil in this story: science attempts to claim authority over spiritual matters, with the aim of disproving or disqualifying the believers’ faith. Just as the devil seeks to strip Jesus of the power he has claimed for himself by turning scripture against him, modern Atheists attempt to strip believers of their God-given power by claiming ultimate authority over all things.
I hear many people talk a lot of the time about the problem with “religion.” They are mainly hipsters and comedians. They are good people who genuinely find it difficult to understand how a group of people could base their lives around realities that cannot be physically proven in our world, and how these people could still be considered sane. The BEST critiques of modern believers (again, mainly coming from hipsters and comedians) take people of faith to task for failing to live out the prime directives of their faith (which, when boiled down to its basic core, 99% of the World’s Religions say the same thing: Love Everybody No Matter What). The truth is, most atheists I have met have a world view that is practically identical to my own, with the only differences between us being: 1) We use different words to talk about the same realities, and 2) they really want to sleep in on Sundays. But, of course, there are active, invested, quite angry Atheists who see faith as a plague on society, and seem to think that all the answers to the world’s problems can be found in rational, scientifically backed thought (these are people who should take The Matrix a bit more seriously than they do). Our modern debate between hard science and religious belief mirrors the dialogue between Jesus and the devil exactly.
The devil tries to claim authority over Jesus by trapping him with scripture; but Jesus surprises his opponent by EXPANDING, by opening himself up even more than he has before and making the ULTIMATE claim of faith….God is larger than scripture. The reality of God exists, not in the specific words humans use to talk about God, but in the space between those words. God is ultimately revealed in the tension between our opposing thoughts about God. The devil insists that the Carpenter make an impossible choice between an obvious death trap and staying true to his quest to become the living embodiment of God’s Word. The Son of God is able to resist the Death of Certainty, he is able to walk away from the Trap of Observable Truth…he walks comfortably in love and service, un-phased by complexity, untroubled by contradiction, under the authority of the Lord our God.
No matter how you choose to look at it–in very specific real life terms or in very abstract spiritual allegory–the truth seems to be the same: On the journey of faith, the level up from confronting “illusion,” has something to do with questioning “authority.” And how you pass that test…to whom you pledge your allegiance…determines the quality of your service.
Bonus Level: The devil took Jesus up to a high place and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.‘”
In the Birth of Satan, the authors point out that one of the many names scripture has for the devil is “stumbling block.”
Jesus refuses the devil’s test, he refuses to toss himself on the rocks, and it’s in that refusal that God saves him from dashing his foot against a stone.
Scripture is brought to life when we are courageous enough to NOT fight the devil.