‘WHAT’S YOUR DEMON’S NAME?’ (Mt 4:1-11): 10 February 2008 (First Sunday of Lent)
My most vivid images of the devil understandably come from the movies, and it’s amazing how the shape of the devil has evolved in the imagination of filmmakers through the years. He has come a long way from the conventional red tights, horns, and tail.
The most recent significant appearance of the devil on film is found in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Satan appears early on in the film as our Lord is shown going through his agony in the garden. It is a most unconventional appearance: You can’t tell if the devil is male or female. Eyebrows shaved, he has a feminine face and a voice that is neither masculine nor feminine. The best way I can think of describing this version of the devil is by comparing it to the lead vocalist of the 80’s band, Culture Club, Boy George–but without the make-up.
In today’s Gospel reading, the First Sunday of Lent, our Lord goes to the desert to spend forty days and forty nights of fasting and prayer, and there he encounters the devil and undergoes three intriguing temptations. If you let them, the temptations raise some questions for me.
In the first temptation, the devil asks an obviously hungry Jesus to command the stones to turn into bread. Now, what’s wrong with turning stone into bread? That’s hardly a sin, is it? After forty days of fasting, our Lord must be starving. Is it a sin to be a little bit resourceful and get yourself some food when you’re hungry? Isn’t that what Yahweh did for Moses when the Israelites were stuck in the desert after Egypt, concocting some food and feeding the Israelites what they called manna? Unconfirmed rumors circulating among biblical scholars have it that manna is a euphemism for edible bird droppings, but whatever they are, at least they kept the Israelites alive.
And let’s not forget that at the Wedding at Cana, Jesus himself turned water into wine. Can transforming stone into bread be all that different and all that bad compared to turning water into wine?
In the second temptation, the devil takes our Lord to the temple roof and asks him to throw himself down in full view of the crowd below. Again, what’s wrong with that if it will get your angels to perform a little miracle and earn you some applause from the crowd? It’s not such a bad idea actually. That little production number may just be what the Jews need to be converted, to turn away from their sins, and put their faith in the Lord. Wouldn’t our Lord be actually doing them—and himself as well as God—a favor by performing that miracle?
Finally—and here’s where the devil gets desperate—the devil promises our Lord all the kingdoms of the world as long as Jesus pays homage to him. Actually, the promise of all the world’s kingdoms should sound pretty appealing to our Lord since he dreams of bringing the good news to the whole world. However, the devil shows that he doesn’t know who he’s dealing. You don’t ask the Lord to engage in devil worship!
With the exception of that last one, the temptations sound pretty harmless to me, so why doesn’t the Lord simply yield to them? I think the reason is that our Lord knows that there’s something more to these three seemingly harmless temptations, something more than what meets the eye. If we examine them, each of the temptations represents a very basic human need and appetite.
We could call the first temptation the Temptation of the BREAD. The Bread here symbolizes our basic human need for possessions, be they riches or relationships.
The second temptation let’s call the Temptation of APPLAUSE. Applause symbolizes our very human need for recognition, honor, and for fame.
The third temptation we can call the Temptation of the CROWN. The Crown represents power and control.
The three temptations deal with three basic human needs or appetites. There’s nothing wrong with these very human needs per se. They are not sinful in themselves. We all need possessions and relationships in our lives, just as we all have a need for recognition and relationships as well as power and control. All this is part of being human.
The danger, however, is that if we’re not careful, they can enslave us. Depending on our personal histories and characters, one or two or all of them may turn into a drug that we could grow addicted to. So a question we could ask ourselves is: Among the three, which one is my drug—and why? Is it riches? Is it honor? Or is it pride? Which temptation am I most vulnerable to, given my personal history and character?
All of us are creatures of God—that is a basic truth. But it is a truth that brings with it a lot of insecurity, so very often we refuse to be content with our creaturehood, and we try to compensate. We make up for it, and cover up our existential insecurity. Unconsciously we end up using riches, honor, and/or pride to answer the question “Who am I?” Or more accurately, we use them to distort the real answer to that question.
What we do is that we lie to ourselves. If my drug is riches, I define myself primarily or almost exclusively through what I have. “I am equal to what I have.” Consciously or unconsciously I hoard up on possessions and even relationships because I feel empty without them. And when the time comes when these are taken away from me, I get a crisis.
If my drug is honor, I equate my being with my relationships with others or the recognition I get from others, how I look to other people. Sometimes I become a slave to social acceptance and approval. “I am what I seem.” I am only as good as what other people think and say of me. So if things aren’t going too well in the social department, I panic and am sometimes willing to do almost anything, compromise anything, in order to “seem” okay again, even if what I do is no longer right.
If my drug is pride, I tend to reduce myself to “what I do,” to my power and ability to control my life, especially through my achievements and my success. But as we know, these things, just like possessions and relationships, don’t last. They fade away. And because I’ve based my self-esteem and self-worth on these, when they disappear from my life, I’m in trouble.
Each and every one of these is a form of self-distortion and self-deception—in other words, a lie. By defining ourselves primarily and almost exclusively based on what we have, on what we seem to others, and on what we do, we are actually reducing ourselves to things that fade away, that don’t last. We begin to think that we are like God, but we are not God. You see, the serpent uses the same lie in the desert as in the Garden of Eden.
Maybe on this First Sunday of Lent, we can take time out to name our drug. Which of the three is your drug? It’s important to know your drug because that’s what the evil spirit will use to lead you away from God. If you identify the need that has the greatest power over you, you will know the temptation that you are most vulnerable to, and get an idea of the kind of conversion that God wants you to undergo this Lent. By naming your drug you will also be able to name the demon that awaits you in your desert.
(image: From “The Passion of the Christ”)
My Quick Question for you today is the poll question: “What do you think is the temptation you are most vulnerable to? In other words, what’s the name of your demon or your drug?” Take the poll if you haven’t yet, and if you feel up to it, share a thought, a feeling, or a question.