Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
In 2016 Morgan Freedman produced a National Geographic series on The Story of God. It’s not really a history of the divine, but a compendium of the ways people have understood and talked about God over the millennia, and how that has developed. Like all reference to the divine, he comes at it obliquely, for that is finally all we can do. I had a couple of seminary professors who were going to do something similar with the devil. What’s the devil’s story? How has humanity understood evil, related to evil, courted, resisted, or given in to evil that seems somehow greater than they are?
The writer of this story seems to understand the devil in similar terms. Does Jesus need to avail himself of a greater authority in Scripture to overcome the devil? That idea flies in the face of the Resurrection, Christianity’s great story of the vindication of self-giving love over evil. The same is true here. Jesus could just stand up to the devil and say, “bead it, bad guy!” but he does not, because this story is not about Jesus beating the devil. It is about how we overcome evil. If we go at it thinking we can do it all alone we’re bound to lose. In that sense, the evil we face within and in society is greater than we are. But when we approach evil from the spirit, from that place in us that has surrendered to the love of God, evil retreats—it must retreat, for it cannot continue in such contexts.
I think of the movie, Moana, a fabulous epic tale. As Moana approaches the blazing volcano that has tried to destroy her in a kind of love willing to sacrifice her own life for her people, she is able to place the stone on the heart of the “devil,” and resurrect the world.
The Rev. Paul Moore
Priest at St. Paul’s (email)