Giving the Devil His Due

The first two Sundays of Lent present the temptation and transfiguration of Jesus, which form a virtual epitome of the paschal mystery. Jesus, taking on human form, humbled himself even to death and was tested by his Father, yet this was a presage of his glorification. The following three Sundays in the Lukan cycle of readings stress themes of penance and conversion. The Old Testament readings recount those saving deeds of Israel’s history that will again be heralded at the Easter Vigil. Compressed in the Lenten readings are themes, motifs and figures which resound throughout Scripture. The Lenten pilgrimage is best made with Bible in hand.

While Mark narrates the testing of Jesus in two short verses, Matthew and Luke present elaborate narratives that weave together the dialogue between Jesus and the devil, a contest of Scriptural interpretation and themes that foreshadow the subsequent career of Jesus and, in Luke, of the early church. The testing of Jesus reflects the Old Testament theme of the testing of righteous people (e.g., Job), the servant of Isaiah 53 and the suffering just person, who though tested by God remains faithful and is called a child of God (Wis. 2:12-20; 5:1-23). It also recalls the radical emptying of Jesus (Phil. 2:5-11) and Heb. 2:18, because he himself [Jesus] was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.


Luke stresses at both the beginning and end of the narrative that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, so the testing is enveloped by the presence of the Spirit. The testings emerge when the devil challenges Jesus to follow a path different from the one willed by his Father. Jesus is first tested to use his power to provide food for himself (much as God provided food for the people in the wilderness); but in the first of three responses (all taken from Deuteronomy), Jesus says, One does not live on bread alone (Dt. 8:3). Jesus is then shown all the kingdoms of the world and their power and glory, which the devil will give him if you worship me. Jesus responds with the most fundamental affirmation of Israel’s faith, the first words of the Shema, You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve (Dt. 6:13). Finally, on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, Satan challenges Jesus (as in the first testing) to a miraculous demonstration of his power, and Jesus again invokes Deuteronomy (6:16), You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

This powerful narrative presents multiple challenges to appropriation today. Could Jesus really be put to the test by the devil? Is the world really under the devil’s control? What was the fundamental test that Jesus faced? What do these have to do with Lent? Many Jewish writings close to the New Testament era, while affirming the absolute sovereignty of God, state that the kingdoms of the world, with their proliferation of idolatry and brutal military rule, were Satan’s domain. Luke anticipates the conflict of kingdoms that will unfold in his Gospel when Jesus will enact release of captives (4:18; 13:16) and cast out demons, and the early church will practice healing all those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38). With Jesus’ conquest of the devil, the ultimate victory of goodness over evil is assured, but the struggle will be renewed throughout history by Jesus’ followers. In a world where evil power is manifested today by humans in almost superhuman form (brutal, grasping dictators; structures of massive economic exploitation), Luke’s conflict of kingdoms seems quite contemporary.

Luke has a strong parallel between the first and third test. Both involve use of Jesus’ power to save himself from suffering and death. This is the root meaning of these tests. Luke ends by noting that Satan leaves Jesus for a time. The final test to Jesus comes also in Jerusalem, on the cross, when again three times he is tempted to use his power to save himself. Jesus was tempted to follow a different kind of messiahship than the Father offered, one that would substitute demonstrations of power for rejection and suffering.

Such a test is the lot of the followers of Jesus today. Our culture offers seemingly infinite possibilities for remaking one’s self, with a priority put on personal fulfillment and material success. Christians are challenged to live not by bread alone (think of today’s metaphor bread for money), to worship and serve God alone and to discern and accept God’s will in lives that seem often pedestrian and unimportant. But as with Jesus, the trial of our lives begins with the embrace of the Spirit in Baptism, unfolds in following Jesus’ example and leads through suffering and death to new life, again to be filled with the Spirit. This is the Lenten journey ever remembered, ever renewed.

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