Getting to Know the Tempter

First Sunday of Lent: Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11.

Satan is known by many names in the scriptures: the Adversary (the most literal definition of the word “Satan”), Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Devil, the serpent, the Prince of the World, the Father of Lies, and the Tempter. Today’s readings give us a chance to get to know him as the Tempter. First, we watch him tempt Eve and cause the great fall of humanity. Then, we watch him try to tempt Christ in the desert. What we might realize from the readings is just how tightly interwoven his whispers are to our way of looking at the world. His temptations are the same ones we encounter today. 

As we revisit our origin story in Genesis, it absorbs us lyrically like a colorful legend. After forming man from clay, God “blew into his nostrils the breath of life.” God plants a garden and makes trees sprout up that are “delightful to look at and good for food.” What evocative language! But lest we consider this just a colorful story, remember that it is laced with the undeniable stamp of truth. One example: thanks to modern science, we realize that we are made of biological building blocks like DNA, in turn made of inert elements (the “clay”) like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, somehow sewn together and animated in relationship to one another.

But I am not trying to be a Biblical literalist here; let me focus more on the theological truths in Genesis. Let’s consider that the garden is an imperfect metaphor for perfect life with God, in other words, the Kingdom of God, one to which we long to return. The garden is planted in the east, not just symbolic of newness, but the direction of the rising sun. It is the place of eternal renewal and newness (which is why Catholic churches have their altars in the east and the people face east during Mass). In the middle of the garden is the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life is the creative power of God, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil reveals characteristics of his essence. God’s only commandment for Adam and Eve is to not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. The message here is that humanity should not try to partake in the essence of God, should not try to be Gods.

Lo, enter the serpent, the “most cunning of all the animals.” He begins his conversation like the quintessential gossip: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” The “really” is very telling — he’s not asking for clarification, he’s asking because he has an agenda, something he wants to implant in Eve’s mind. She naively tells him about the injunction on the tree in the middle of the garden, and the serpent responds: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” The first thing we must acknowledge is that the Tempter is setting himself up as an alternative truth, a friend who shares secret knowledge. This presents Eve with a choice, who to believe? And her great sin (and Adam’s) is to begin to doubt God. She doubts that God has been entirely truthful. 

Creation and Fall of Man (1513-1514), Mariotto Albertinelli | Creative Commons, courtesy The Courtauld Gallery/ArtUK. Note the depiction of the serpent in the tree as a human voice whispering in Eve’s ear, a nice representation of temptation as a familiar, almost human voice.

The Tempter, we see, is a friendly devil. He operates by setting himself as a friend who wants the best for you, but that “best” is always to be questioned. Who on earth or in the heavens knows the best for us other than God?

It’s important not to misunderstand the outcome of their choice. We read: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked.” Was Satan right? He said their eyes would be opened… Like a good used car salesman, the Devil may have laced his lies with some half-truths, but when their eyes are opened like a god’s, they do not become omnipotent (which we realize in retrospect he didn’t promise) but realize the evil they committed in disobeying and distrusting God, and the goodness of the garden they just betrayed. It is their shame that they realize, and the metaphor or perhaps simply the object of this shame is their nakedness, which they attempt to hide. Their nakedness caused no shame while they were in perfect, trusting relationship with God, but they became ashamed of their very nature (most physically obvious in their nakedness) once they broke the trust.

This is the Original Sin: mistrusting God.

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (1829), Alexander Mosses | Creative Commons, courtesy Walker Art Gallery/ArtUK

St. Paul connects for us the truth in God’s statement to Adam and Eve, “You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.” The death of which God warned was not immediate (as if the fruit was a poisoned apple), but now an inevitable part of the nature of humans, brought about by their sin. Paul writes, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.” Sin and death are inexorably joined. But the good news Paul shares is that when Jesus Christ takes on this sin and offers it to the Father in a perfect sacrifice, we are given life again. This life is evident in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and is now available to all humanity.

Jesus is the new Adam.

And just as the Tempter wormed his way into the minds of Adam and Eve, he attempts to do the same with Jesus. The three temptations he uses with Jesus after his 40 days of fasting in the desert are a case study in the way we experience temptations to this day.

The first thing we read from Matthew in today’s reading is that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” How much this tells us of the Spirit of God! Jesus was led by the spirit in order to be tempted. One of the major questions modern people ask when they question God is why he permits evil in the world. There are many ways to approach the answer (one of which being the fact that we were meant to be in the garden, not the world, but we screwed that one up), and this passage gives us a clear impression. As we read from our Church Fathers, God refines our spirit through the fires of temptation and difficulties. God, no doubt, tests us and wants us to continue to purify ourselves and our souls in order to rejoin him in perfection. Jesus was not exempt from this. And temptations are hard, particularly because the Devil is so convincing. This is why in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God not to lead us into temptations (although it is His prerogative to do so).

Matthew tells the temptation story in a very neutral voice. Picking up on his clues (calling the devil “the tempter,” for instance) and knowing what we know of the devil, we can flesh out this story as we contemplate. We are told that Jesus was hungry after his 40-day fast. So when the Tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread,” we can almost hear the false compassion in his voice.

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert), 1886-1894, James Tissot | Creative Commons, courtesy Brooklyn Museum. I particularly like the depiction of the Tempter as a common desert ascetic, hiding his nature from Jesus.

Satan wants to appear empathetic to Jesus’s hungry state and offers him a way out. But Jesus points out the falseness of his empathy in that the Tempter focuses on physical things when the test is a spiritual one. Jesus responds with a scriptural quote: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. What a great way to start Lent, when we might be tempted by this same devilish voice to focus on the physical discomfort we might feel in fasting instead of forging our spiritual fortitude.

With the second temptation, we might think that the devil is mocking Jesus when he says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the high parapet of the temple in Jerusalem. But I think he’s more smooth and sneaky than this. He is a fallen angel and has the same nature as these celestial creatures, so he could appear to Jesus as an angel who is interceding with him. Note that at the end of the temptations, this is precisely what happens when angels tend to him. Indeed, I think that he takes Jesus up on his redirection of the first temptation that this is a spiritual quest, and he pretends to support him in this. The Tempter quotes scripture when saying that God will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you. In fact, Satan may have been posing as one of those angels who would support him, making the temptation all the more difficult to resist.

The Temptation of Christ (1834), studio of Ary Scheffer | Creative Commons, courtesy Walker Art Gallery/ArtUK. While this may depict the third temptation, I find it works well at this point in my post because it depicts the devil in an angelic form.

But Jesus demurs and in humility reminds Satan that we are not to tempt our God. This is another great reminder not just during Lent but for life in general. We may feel that we are due a certain support from God or from other people, but humility and the fear of God (as in reverence and awe) should be our focus, not our own rights/desires/feelings.

Jesus calls out the Tempter for who he is in the final temptation. Perhaps because the vice of pride is on full display with this tempation. The Devil says of all the lands below them on the earth: “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” He appeals to both Jesus’s pride (the promise of power and glory) and his own pride (of being worshipped). Not only is pride the opposite of humility, but it is also a fundamental regard of oneself above God. It is, in essence, self-worship. The Devil’s condition of worshipping him carries this double-meaning of worshipping self.

Temptation on the Mount (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna | Wikimedia Commons. This earlier representation of the Temptation of Christ is done in an icon style where the entire story is told, regardless of each element’s temporal relationship to the others. In other words, the devil unmasked appears, Christ in victory appears, as do the angels who tend to him at the end, the wilderness, the mountain, and Jerusalem.

Christ calls out the tempter at this, knowing that the core of all truth and light is the first commandment to worship one God above all else. Satan has revealed himself as the antithesis of truth. Elsewhere, in the gospel of St. John, Jesus elaborates on how Satan is the antithesis of truth: “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44b). The phrase “He was a murderer from the beginning” refers to the Adam and Eve story in that Satan brought about our fallen state of sin and death. Note that Christ establishes the fact that the Tempter’s very nature is the antithesis of truth. He contains no truth and is not to be trusted.

Christ shows us the right way to deal with the Father of Lies. We must always keep God in the forefront of our minds, and as a result all of the truth that God shares with us in his commandments. When we encounter temptations in the workplace, in our home, even in the quiet of our own minds, we must compare these thoughts and words to the truth revealed to us by God and through Christ. We have been given agape (love) and charity as our guides for how to act in the world — they are essential guideposts for us as we discern the difference between the voice of God and the sneaky, all-too-human voice of the Tempter.

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