Matthew 4: 8-11; Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
So…who is narrating this story? It’s just Jesus and the devil out there, no eye witnesses, no scribes, no “Brave, brave Sir Robin” style troubadours to retell the epic confrontation that foreshadows Jesus’ public ministry. So that leaves us with two possibilities for how this story entered into our scriptures: 1) Jesus himself retold this story to his followers later on, possibly talking about things that actually happened to him, or, even more possibly, using his beautiful technique of teaching through parable and metaphor to illuminate the complicated truths behind his actions. 2) The authors of scripture (first told in Mark, then elaborated upon in Matthew, and retold–though, in my opinion, less interestingly–by Luke) created this story as a poetic way of attempting to explain how Jesus was able to do what he did; how someone so phenomenally whole and dedicated and powerful as Jesus was/is became who he became. Whichever of these (or other) explanations you go with, it seems that it is in this third and final act that the red curtain is pulled back and we catch a glimpse of what this whole thing has been about.
No matter who is telling this story, it becomes clear that what is at stake in this story is, not just one man’s understanding of his identity, but the fate of the entire world. Think about the evolution of Jesus’ opponent through this short story: In the first trial, he is simply referred to as “the tempter,” evoking an image similar to the Serpant in the Garden of Eden, something slippery, sneaky, quick, almost without form whispering destructive thoughts to his victim. The second test gives him more shape, he is now “the devil,” and he “takes” Jesus on top of the Temple, implying more of a force, he has a more substantial form than a snake, he is able to transport and compel a fully grown man; though still in shadow, he is a more physical and intimidating presence, able to reason, able to wrestle, able to trap. It’s in the third trial that the gloves come off, so to speak. All is made clear, not only is Jesus able to name his opponent by name–“Satan,” which as The Birth of Satan tells us comes from a word that literally means “the adversary,” and like the character “Hiccup” in How to Train Your Dragon, it should be understood as “a function rather than a name (Wray, Mobley)”–but we also get a big reveal about the nature of this opponent: He is not a mere thug, stalking a lonely carpenter through the desert, he is somehow The Secret Ruler of “all the kingdoms of the world.” He must be in complete control of them, because he offers them to Jesus in exchange for his allegiance. He comes completely out of hiding, in broad daylight, we can picture him far more clearly now, glowing red skin, well trimmed goatee, cloven hooves, standing 8 feet high, smoke issuing forth from his nostrils, the voice of Orson Wells. He reveals his entire hand to Jesus, the powers of the earthly realm are yours…IF…you bow down to me. This is it. Jesus is standing toe to toe, face to face with the Ultimate Big Bad, Evil Personified…this is Satan…and he’s got the whole world in his hands.
G. Elliot Smith, a.k.a. Grafton Elliot Smith, was an Australian anthropologist-type of scientist at the turn of the 20th Century (that is, if I’m reading the correct Wikipedia page…I’d like to think that I am). He was the proponent of a theory called “hyperdiffusionism,” which is not something that I totally understand, but I guess that’s ok because apparently it’s a “widely criticized” theory at this point (again, according to Wikipedia…man, I hope I’m reading the right thing). It was basically a way of defending his idea that all culture as we know it was birthed in ancient Egypt, and then “diffused” throughout the world at various historical moments. I know about him because I found a book he wrote on Amazon.com that, through the magic of Kindle, I was able to download for free. It’s actually the text of a series of lectures he gave in the early 1900s entitled, “The Evolution of the Dragon.” It’s a fantastically boring read, even for my nerd brain, but it did identify some common features among “Dragon Myths” which I have found interesting and useful. The biggest of these being that stories about Dragons and the Hero who conquers Dragons, generally represent “The Destruction of Mankind.” Smith cites Dragon myths in which the powerful creature is responsible for everything from drought to flood, from hoarding food to causing famine by burning down crops, the dragon’s blood is both the elixir of eternal life and the poison in the water. Dragons are the Big Bad, the physical embodiment of “evil,” and “evil” is the thing, the one ultimate thing that is going to utterly destroy us…unless a hero rises who can defeat it.
Whether Jesus gave us this story personally, or if his followers composed it later, the central point of it is the same. Jesus is our real world hero who confronts the ultimate source of human destruction and defeats him. But there seems to be something that we often overlook about this “ultimate battle between good and evil,” and that is…it’s not a violent battle. As opposed to tales of daring do, the stories that glorify the spilling of blood and the triumph of us over our enemies…Jesus defeats Satan, not by violently removing Satan from the earth, not even by challenging Satan’s hold over all the earth’s kingdoms or leading some kind of bloody insurrection. Jesus defeats Satan by giving his allegiance to God. Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in turn for his worship…and Jesus will spend the rest of his time on Earth preaching about ushering in God’s Kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” “Away with you Satan…for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Jesus identifies the ultimate evil, the Big Bad, The Adversary as being a creature that is in control of the earth’s kingdoms–the power structures of the world–and he gains that power by taking humanity’s natural allegiance towards God for himself either through illusions, through traps, or, if necessary, outright bribery. Jesus identifies this Super Villain as the one thing that will destroy the human race…because without God we can’t live. And Jesus demonstrates how to defeat this menace…and it’s not done through violence, not through war, not through any kind of physical battle; it’s done by taking away the one thing he truly feeds on…our allegiance…and Jesus makes the ultimate demonstration of this counter protest, not just by rejecting “all the kingdoms of the earth,” but by committing himself to ushering in the Kingdom of God “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” It is not a battle…but a dialogue.
Emilie M. Townes is a professor at Yale and the author of one of the most transformational books I have read, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Her thesis is that Evil is created through something she calls “the fantastic hegemonic imagination.” It’s a complicated and important idea, and I’m worried I won’t do it justice here, but here’s how I understand it: Professor Townes says that Evil is, ultimately, a real thing in the world that is created by humanity’s shared imagination. It is an imagination that creates fictions which, in turn, give form and function to the institutions, the structures, the values, the systems that comprise our earthly world; these are the systems that continuously allow us to enslave and destroy many “others” for the benefit of a few “insiders.” Evil, as Professor Townes sees it, is not separate from humanity, it is the direct product of humanity’s shared imagination, so it is as powerful as we make it…and since we are somewhat hardwired to “fit in” and “go with the flow” and seek “safety in numbers,” Evil is extremely powerful. Understood in this form, we see that Evil is not something that can be destroyed or chased away, because it’s ethereal, it’s the stuff of dreams. But it can be dismantled. There are tools at our disposal with which we can pick it a part. If Evil is a monolithic idea that traipses through the world, then the weapon to defeat it comes from the Outside Voices–people who are not of privilege, women, people of color, people who do not identify as “hetero”–the tension wire created in the dialogue between different points of view, the creativity birthed from the struggle with the Hegemonic Imagination, that is where God enters in. If we can name evil, we can separate illusion from reality, and we can live in opposition to the Evil that we have imagined into being.
We don’t have to believe that the story of Jesus and Satan is a literal one in order to understand that it is wholly real and truthful. Over the years, we have acquired many ways of articulating our perception of what causes this ultimate evil–Empire, White Supremacy, The Seven Deadlies, Fantastic Hegemonic Imagination–and no matter how you choose to view the world, the situation remains the same: the powers of the world want your allegiance, they want your time, your effort, your money…and every day you have to decide if you will give it to them or God. And there’s no mistake about it, this is a decision we can’t help making. Because in order for Satan to have won, in order for him to have acquired Jesus for his own pawn, all Jesus would have to have done….is nothing. Apathy is submission. Non rebellion is compliance. The problem for most people of faith at the dawn of the 21st Century is that we have been living within a culture that has not done the important work of separating evil imaginings from God’s Real Creation. The Word of God has been allowed to mingle and integrate with Satan’s earthly kingdoms to the point that they all look like one thing. Much popular theology is a mix of scripture and worldly powers; like the Dragon itself, a confused hybrid of a beast that we have imagined into being, whom we hate even as we keep it well fed, even as we profit from it. We have a church that regularly supports the American Empire rather than the Kingdom of God, we have servants who bow and worship to Satan’s world rather than God’s Kingdom. And most of the time, we do this…by doing nothing at all.
There’s an entire chapter in Richard J. Foster’s book, Prayer, called “The Prayer of Relinquishment.” It is essential reading for understanding the art of resisting Satan’s kingdoms. Our ancestors have often expressed their faith in God’s Reality through worldly powers…they’ve seen war, the claiming and defending of land, the oppression and elimination of others, the accruing and defending of wealth, the seats of worldly power…they have seen all of these as being steps toward God’s Kingdom…when, in reality, these are the very things Satan offered to Jesus…they are the very things Jesus rejected to take. The theological task for believers in the 21st Century is to engage in God’s Loving act of Creation–which involves naming and separating–to dismantle our socially constructed evils and LIVE INTO God’s Kingdom. Our task is not to build and defend, but to relinquish and dismantle. Our task is not to impose, but to dialogue. Our task is not to kill, but to die. That is how we avoid destruction. That is how we slay the dragon. So says Jesus of Nazareth.
As I made my way back to Germany for my second and last semester abroad, I felt an odd and overwhelming sense of ease and calm. My anxiety about living within a foreign culture, using a foreign language…dissolved. The stress I had previously felt about being away from family and friends and home…disappeared. It was an odd sense of being different, yet…nothing was noticably different about my life. It wasn’t until I was going through security at the airport in Amsterdam that I realized exactly what was different. My vacation home had given me time to reconnect with family and friends, to revisit my old life and familiar ways, to rethink my current habits and self-destructive ways. I had done some dismantling of my own. For me, evil can be expressed as a monolithic reality; a grey, drab wall of apathy that mows down everything in its path until there is no creativity, no dissenting opinion, nothing abnormal and nothing extraordinary. It is apathy and it is silent compliance…and I see myself and my homeland enveloped in its grasp. The Amsterdam airport is extraordinary in its design, the Dutch seem obsessed with taking every possible opportunity to beautify and creatively enhance even the most mundane and distasteful settings…like airport security. In this picture, you can see the x-ray trays, normally gray in every single airport I’ve ever been to…died like Easter Eggs, bright multi-color treats that warm your heart and make you smile. As the day of rebirth approaches, I feel the anticipation of the new, the swelling pride of the creative, the rejuvinating energy of spring welling up inside of me.
In the final moments of Lent, I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes of all time, a group of friends huddled in a dark alley, buckets of cold rain pouring down on them, nowhere to go, literally staring into the mouth of hell. One person asks, “Well, what do we do now?”
Our hero answers, “I don’t know about you guys…but I’m going to slay the dragon. Let’s go to work.”