This morning's Gospel lesson from Luke was the one I've been waiting for!
Yeah, I know that's strange. Who really looks forward to hearing about Jesus being out in the desert, starving and thirsty, and then getting faced with the temptation to turn rocks into bread; have all the kingdoms to himself; and finally put God to the test by throwing himself from the Temple to see if the angels will *really* be there to catch him?
Answer: me (obviously). After Jesus' baptism, I was expecting we would get this story since it seems that in his spiritual autobiography, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River and then is (according to Mark, at least) immediately driven into the wilderness. That chronology works well for my brain-on-God.
Jesus' time in the wilderness is critical for him in his preparation for ministry. And after having the Spirit descend like a dove at the time of the baptism, it only seems fitting that it would quickly transform into a turbo engine that drives him to the place where he must empty himself, so that he will really come to depend upon God, and become the Son of God that was the foundation of his life.
But something struck me in listening to our New Revised Standard Version of the translation of our Bible. The one tempting Jesus in the desert was called "The Devil." Now, we all have heard of "The Devil." And, at Halloween, you'll see costumes for "The Devil." Generally, he (always a "he") has a red suit, pitchfork, a long tail, horns, and a forked tongue. He is regarded as very powerful. Some have even argued that he is a demi-God (that line of thinking is very problematic if you are a monotheist). In other words, the story seems to give us support for the existence of a being called, "The Devil."
But I don't believe that there was a real, actual character named The Devil standing before Jesus and tempting him because I think we've missed something in our translation. I think the character with Jesus is more accurately called, "Satan." Satan, in the Hebrew understanding of the word, means "obstructor, hinderer" or, even more closely, "accuser." In this sense, Satan is the prosecuting attorney, the one who is perpetually examining and looking for that area where our defenses let down, and we are broken. There is a difference between a Tempter, and an Accuser. Temptation makes me think of seduction and the effort to lure you into making the wrong choice. Accusation makes me think of something perhaps more terrifying because you are put on the defensive. An Accuser would require Jesus to justify himself. And I think that is an accurate portrayal of what is happening in this story. And the justification Jesus is providing comes from his pounding, shaping and molding my his alchemist Father. His Father has given the counsel necessary for Jesus to face this prosecution. If I were to re-imagine the dialogue between Satan and Jesus, it might sound like this:
Satan: Are you hungry, Jesus?
Satan: It's been said that you are the Son of God. Then you should command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Why don't you do it, since you're hungry?
Jesus: One doesn't live on bread alone.
Satan (consults his notes, continues): You are aware that there are many kingdoms in the world?
Satan: And you know that I have been given charge of these kingdoms of the world?
Satan: To have glory and authority over all the world would give you quite a lot of power. Are you willing to forego your mission, set out by your Father, in order to become my President of the Board of Trustees of All the Kingdoms of the World?
Satan: No? You don't want to have the front office suite and the best cigars and the finest wine?
Jesus: I already have a mission, and it's the best job of following The Lord my God. I am loyal to the Company of Heaven.
Satan: (pause. Looks at Jesus) You have studied the Torah?
Jesus: I have.
Satan: And you are familiar with the words of the Psalmist?
Satan: Then you know the words from Psalm 91: 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'
Satan: Then, if you know this to be true about your God, then you should be able to throw yourself from the pinnacle of the Temple, and God's angels will bear you up?
Satan: (spinning around to look Jesus squarely in the eyes) NO?
Jesus: That psalm also says, 'He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty.' My trust is in God, and you do not put The Lord your God to the test.
Satan: (Long pause. Satan flips furiously through his notes) No further questions, your Honor.
And Jesus, having survived this trial, thanks be to God's wisdom and good counsel, will eat and drink again. Meanwhile, Satan prepares the case for the next trial, the one in Jerusalem. And that one, as we know, comes with capital punishment.