Living with the Devil

Matthew 4:1-11

I don’t know about you, but when I read this Gospel passage I think of a sort of cosmic boxing match:

“In one corner of the ring is the world champion, hailing from the darkest realms of darkness, proudly boasting a stench that comes from millennia of unwashed destruction and gore, that fallen angel of old, the devil.

“In the opposite corner stands the contender, a relative newcomer to the world, born only about thirty years ago, hailing from some insignificant part of a Judean backwater, some place called Nazareth, the son of a carpenter, freshly washed in baptism but famished after a forty-day fast: Jesus.  Some refer to him as the Son of God, for when he was baptized there came an audible voice from heaven that said, ‘This is my Son.’”

And I think, “Ha!  The devil versus the Son of God?  This ought to be good!  Go get him, Jesus, once and for all!”

And so the devil strikes first—with a temptation.

And I think, “Well, okay, that sort of makes sense. Jesus is hungry, after all.  He’s been fasting for forty days in the wilderness.  But easy schmeasy!  Jesus, the Son of God, is the Lord of all heaven and earth, including nature.  Of course he can turn some silly little stones into bread!  Right?”

And I wait for it: I wait for Jesus to strike back.

I’m like that, you know.  People say something about me or criticize me or act unusually around me and I get defensive.  And I often do something about it.  I say something back, or I deny someone’s accusations, or I simply act out against them: I put some sort of obstacle in their path to trip them up.

But I’m like that.  I’m too sensitive.  It’s one of my weaknesses.  Maybe you can relate?

But then it doesn’t come.  What I’ve been waiting for, perhaps even hoping for, never happens.  After the devil throws his temptation at the Son of God, Jesus doesn’t do anything.  Instead he just says some words.  And there’s no ring of retaliation in them: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

And I think, “What!  C’mon Jesus, you’ve missed your chance—your chance to show this ugly devil guy that you’re better than he is, that you’re the lord of all the universe and he isn’t!  Why didn’t you do something?”

But I need not fret.  The devil is already on to his next offensive tactic, which means that Jesus will have another chance to prove once and for all that he is lord of the universe.

So: the devil leads Jesus high up on a pinnacle and again tempts him.  And again I think, “Easy schmeasy!  Show him you’re the boss, Jesus!”  But, again, Jesus doesn’t do anything.  He just says a few words.

They are true words, I’ll give Jesus credit for that.  Indeed, we should not put the Lord our God to the test.  But in the end they’re just words, aren’t they?

By now another thought has begun to occur to me.  Perhaps I’m looking at this whole cosmic battle scenario incorrectly.  Perhaps I’m just projecting my own weakness upon Jesus.  Perhaps I just want Jesus to handle the situation as I would handle it if I were in his shoes.  Why isn’t he getting defensive?  Why isn’t he retaliating, doing something—or even just saying something—to trip the devil up?

With this new thought to chew on I continue reading—maybe a bit more self-reflectively.

And again, for a third time, the devil tempts Jesus.

“I will give you all the kingdoms of the world in all their splendor,” the devil says, “if you will just fall down and worship me.”

And now, instead of easy schmeasy, I’m thinking, “No, Jesus!  Don’t do it!  Don’t give in to the devil’s temptation!  Stand firm!”

Well, as you all know, Jesus does stand firm.  And instead of doing anything he merely speaks again: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

And—like skies abruptly returning to peace after a storm—the devil leaves him alone.  Jesus retreats to his corner of the ring, his angels minister to him, and he is proclaimed the new champion of the world.

And he has accomplished this feat not by rash retaliation—not by my tactics.  Rather, he has held through and through to the steadfast truth of every word that comes from the mouth of God, not by testing God but by worshiping and trusting in God completely.

Anyway, those are my thoughts, more or less, when I read this passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

Is there a lesson to draw from it?

If you’re at all like me, then, yes, there is.

For if you’re at all like me, then you get defensive.  Someone you work with or live with asks you a question and you read into it.  Or they crack a joke and you think you’re the butt of it.  Or some friends get together and post about it on Facebook and you weren’t a part of it.  These things hurt.

And if you’re at all like me, then you want to retaliate.  You want to crack your own jokes at another’s expense.  You want to coordinate your own besties-only event and post selfies on Facebook for all to see, hoping deep down that that particular person who hurt you will see them.  Or you simply play mind games with someone you’re annoyed with.

But if you’re at all like me, then Jesus provides an example you want to follow.  Interpersonal relationships can be difficult.  Jesus, of all people, knows this!  Think of that person that drives you crazy—that coworker, fellow student, friend, sibling, or family member.  That person is nothing in comparison to the devil!  That’s who Jesus had to deal with here on an interpersonal level.  And yet he didn’t retaliate even against the devil!  Surely you can show Christ’s love to that coworker, student, friend, or family member.

So then, if nothing else, here’s a simple take-home lesson for today: live patiently with others.  Or the flip-side: in your relationships, do not retaliate.

But did I say “simple”?  It’s simple to say; and simple to grasp.  But it’s oh so difficult to do!  Let’s work at this together then.  Let’s live patiently with each other.  Let’s not retaliate against one another.  Instead, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt.

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