Words on the Word
1. Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:7-9, 19a, 3:1-7: Did God really say that?
Romans 5:12-19: Many were made sinners.
Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus was tempted by the devil.
On the First Sunday of Lent we contemplate Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. We may take all that with a pinch of salt. The devil seems to many a character from fiction. As for temptation, we think it old-fashioned, an expression of former times’ complex-ridden attitudes to desire, attitudes which we, a sophisticated lot, have cast off. Oh well, it is good, then, that we hear this story again at least once a year so that we can remind ourselves of what it’s about.
The devil is a very real presence in Scripture, known by its work – by its hoofprint, if you like. The word ‘devil’ is a contraction of the Greek diabolos. The diabolical is the opposite of the symbolic. We know what a symbol is. A symbol draws threads of meaning together into intelligible unity. There is no antonym in the form of ‘diabol’. Such a word couldn’t exist, for the diabolical is not a unified principle; it generates strife without intentional order. It is a purely destructive tendency pulling in different directions at once. When Jesus meets the possessed man in Gerasa and asks the demon for its name, it replies: ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’ Evil has no personality; fragmented, it fragments, simply feeding on what is good.
In the wilderness the devil would distract Jesus from his purpose. It would have him doubt the task entrusted to him. It fails. Thereby we confront an aspect of temptation that is noteworthy. In Biblical vocabulary, a ‘temptation’ isn’t just the well-known inner voice that bids us have yet another sticky bun or a fourth glass of wine. A temptation is also a trial. And trials aren’t all bad. By being tried, we realise what we’re made of. A trial can strengthen our integrity by giving us a sharpened sense of what is right, what wrong. That is beneficial, even if a little costly.
How temptation works is expressed in our first reading, about the fall of man. What depth there is in the first few chapters of Genesis! The Church has dwelt on them for 2000 years and kept coming to luminous insight. The fact that this part of Scripture is now often dismissed as fairytale is a sign of our times’ superficiality. Let’s not be taken in by that. Instead we should ask what we can learn from the drama of Eden, which expounds a profound theology, an existential philosophy, though in tableaux and images.
Remember: at this stage of human history, man has a single commandment to keep. Our parents are not allowed to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for they haven’t got the strength for it yet. ‘On the day you eat of it’, the Lord has declared, ‘you will die.’ Everything else that exists is for man source of blessing. So of course temptation takes place at this particular tree.
The devil follows a strategy in three parts. First it seduces and flatters. It winks knowingly at Eve and asks, ‘Did the Lord really say you shouldn’t eat of any tree?’ Implied is: ‘And you fall for that?! You, a mature, intelligent woman fully able to tell for yourself what is and isn’t good for you?!’ This is how we’re led into presumption to this day. We spontaneously trust those who flatter us. The second part is an outright lie. ‘If God has said a thing like that’, continues the devil, ‘it’s because he is a mean, jealous God who does not want you, Oh Glorious Creature, to realise your potential!’ Thereby it gets the woman to doubt God’s goodness. It arouses her desire to be god herself, almighty at least in the cabbage patch of her own existence. Part three of temptation comes in the form of a promise: ‘Eat, and your eyes will be open; you will see the world as you’ve never seen it before.’ Here the tempter speaks the truth, as it happens; but not as the woman intends it. This reminds us of something important. Isolated truths, served up as it were in distilled form, are not necessarily of good. To do good, truth must be stated in love and be part of a whole. The Gospel shows us that even God’s word can be twisted to perverse purposes.
We have identified three stages in the devil’s temptation. The woman’s respons is marked my four. The first thing that happens is that the woman consciously distances herself from what God has said and adopts the tempter’s perspective on reality. She sees that the tree is ‘good to eat and pleasing to the eye’. Why make such a fuss of it? It is easily done, in the hour of temptation, to call darkness light, light darkness. That is why we need God’s commandments. The second stage is marked by the arousal of desire for heightened experience and novelty. The tree was desirable for knowledge, and who doesn’t want more of that, especially if it’s free? We like to be self-sufficient in that regard. Next follows the deed itself: disobedience enacted. There is a categorical difference between toying with the idea of sin and actually sinning; but one leads to the other. The more comfortable I am with the thought of sin, the less remote is the possibility of realising it. That is why we should take care about thoughts and fantasies that seem to promise pleasure and excitement but in fact reduce our world to ashes and leave us standing, absorbed by shame, in terrible loneliness. Standing thus, Eve displays the fourth and most tragic part of her response. Having realised the consequence of what she has just done, she reaches the fruit to Adam and says, ‘Hey, have a bite!’ If we are to stand out in the cold, shuddering with self-loathing, at least we’d rather not stand there on our own. So we pull others along.
When the Son of God conquered the reign of sin, this was the pattern he destroyed. We’re no longer bound by it. Christ offers us our freedom and our dignity back. He tells us: ‘Choose life! Put your foot on that serpent’s head!’ We may ask ourselves this Lent: Where am I prone to fall into temptation? Where am I unfree? Where do I especially need God’s saving power? For the sake of our salvation he accomplices his Paschal sacrifice to this day.
‘Just don’t engage that fellow in chatter!’, the Desert Fathers would say about the tempter. What it needs is a good metaphorical kick in the behind. ‘Away from me, Satan!’ Mosaic from the Basilica of St Mark in Venice.