No Pact with the Devil!
(Readings: Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for today’s Mass highlight the contrast between the Kingdom of God on the one hand and the ways of the world on the other.
When we start to place our lives under God’s rule we find that it isn’t easy or effortless. Worldly motives and ways of thinking continue to attract us and we find ourselves tested and tempted by the devil, who tries to divert us away from God.
Today’s gospel shows that from the beginning of his mission Jesus himself was tested and tempted by the same motives, but that his single-minded devotion to God made him strong enough to reject them.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass...
At the end of his life, when he was being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, Jesus uttered the well-know words: “my Kingdom is not of this world”.
His statement on that occasion has always been seen as applying to us, his followers, as much as it applied to him. As Christ’s followers we try to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom, “in the world” but not “of the world” as he said on another occasion. We try to live by the standard of God’s holiness and love, which involves rejecting the corrupt and selfish standards of the world.
At an earlier point in his public ministry, when Peter had protested loudly against his prediction that he would eventually be put to death, Jesus said. “Get behind me, Satan – your thoughts are men’s thoughts, not God’s thoughts”. And again, as Jesus’ present-day disciples, we have to apply this contrast between God’s ways and misguided human ways to ourselves: how deeply do we think the way God thinks, see things the way God sees them?
Something very similar is true, I think, of this encounter between Jesus and Satan in the desert, as Jesus prepares to embark on his public ministry.
As with those other episodes I mentioned, these temptations which Jesus faced as Messiah are temptations which we also face as the Messiah’s followers. Jesus rejected these temptations as being incompatible with the whole nature of God and God’s Kingdom; and ultimately we also need to reject them – or engage in a lifelong struggle against them - if we want to make progress along the path of salvation.
Satan first of all tries to exploit Jesus’ physical weakness: his hunger following a long period without food. “Turn these stones into loaves”.
Of course human beings are not angels or disembodied spirits. We have basic material needs which have to be satisfied if we are going to carry on living at all, and food is the most basic necessity.
There’s nothing in Jesus’ answer here – “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” - which excuses material poverty or suffering on the grounds that it’s the spiritual side of life that matters most.
To be deprived of food and clothing and shelter - the necessities of life - is a great evil, beneath our dignity as God’s creatures, and the whole Bible testifies to the fact that we have a duty before God to attend to the material needs of those who are lacking them.
The principle that Jesus lays down here to counter the devil is that a vision of human life which only caters for our physical appetites – perhaps indulges in unnecessary and distracting luxuries, even – also falls far short of the dignity that we’re called to.
To be fully human it’s not enough just to feed the body: we need to nourish the life of the spirit. Our lives need to be directed to God, and we need to be open to receive the spiritual qualities that God gives us: the strength to deny our self-centred motives and the desire to be filled with the spirit of God’s love instead, which is the essence of the spiritual life.
We know from the example of genuinely holy people that although they have to attend to their material needs like anyone else - even saints need to eat and keep a roof over their heads and so on - the material side of life takes second place as the life of God deepens in them.
As the life of God takes root in people, they become more and more dependent on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”, and they grow less attached to material things. Very often they become capable of great sacrifices if some important spiritual or moral value is at stake. Christ himself was someone of this stature, of course.
This is the principle that Jesus asserts when the devil tries to exploit his physical hunger.
Secondly, Jesus rejects the temptation to attract people to his message or win converts by staging a spectacle or by displaying his power as the Son of God as though he were a magician.
Conversion to Christ’s message means taking on Christ’s qualities of love and service and sacrifice. Even when we are aware of God’s presence and God’s help, Christian discipleship is often difficult and involves perseverance. Any changes that take place are more likely to be quiet, unspectacular – almost hidden - changes in our inmost character.
Spectacular stunts on the other hand, attract people’s attention only at a superficial level. From the point of view of announcing the gospel message, magical tricks or impressive outward displays of any kind appeal to the wrong motive – the desire to be entertained or amazed – but not converted.
When such surface effects wear off, it turns out that no underlying commitment to God’s Kingdom has been established: and so Jesus rejects this attempt to make him adopt the wrong methods in proclaiming his message.
Finally Satan suggests striking a bargain with Jesus: worship me, he says, and I’ll give you “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour”.
The root of the temptation here, I think, is to believe that we can serve spiritual ends by worldly means; that if we pursue worldly power or influence we can use it for a righteous purpose.
One of the moral illusions that we comfort ourselves with in the West, I believe, is that we always use our superior wealth and technology and military power in the cause of good, in the cause of justice. It’s even possible to hear western political leaders, like our own Prime Minister, talk about the deaths and maiming of thousands of innocent people and about the damaging long-term consequences of war, as means which are justified by the supposedly beneficial ends.
There will always be dictators, politicians and men of violence willing to sacrifice people to achieve the results they want, and some of them will try to persuade themselves, and their citizens, that they are using violence to serve noble causes.
But this is an option Jesus refused to entertain. He refused to employ the methods of the worldly kingdoms to try to spread the Kingdom of God: God’s reign can only be established by the methods of love and holiness and non-violence. St. Matthew’s point here is that any compromise on this point would be – literally - a pact with the devil. And again, he isn’t only describing what Jesus did on one particular occasion. He’s establishing the root principles that should guide the members of the Christian community in their moral and spiritual lives.
Those are my reflections on this passage of the gospel, where the Son of God confronts and defeats the prince of this world, and the lessons I think we should draw for our own lives as followers of the Son of God.