Devil’s Bargain

 

Then 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. Matthew 4:1-11

There are hundreds of stories about people who make deals with the devil, of which Faust is probably the most well known. Usually these stories end badly for the deal-makers, although some of the more modern variations on the story have the protagonist outwitting the devil in some way. There’s the short story of the devil and Daniel Webster, the musical Damn Yankees, and of course, the bluegrass song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis might say that when similar stories pop up again and again in different times and places, that’s because there’s an underlying truth to them.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus’s encounter with the devil took place right after his baptism and affirmation by God as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus needed to decide exactly how he ought to go about that ministry. And so he goes into the wilderness alone, away from the distractions of everyday life, to think and to listen for God’s direction. But before he hears the voice of God, he hears another voice, a voice that is not from God.

The voice of the devil takes advantage of Jesus’s hunger and suggests that he use his superhuman power to turn rocks into food. Not only would that alleviate his immediate physical distress, it would assuredly yield great results if he duplicated the trick for others. And feeding hungry people is a good thing, right? And it would certainly get people’s attention quickly, and garner him a lot of followers. (That’s exactly what happened later when, out of compassion, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd that had come to hear him)

But Jesus said no to this idea. Although he was deeply concerned about people’s physical needs (see Matthew 25) he knew that there was more to his mission than being a one-man food bank. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I’ve often heard it said that the purpose of this quote was to say that there are things in life that are more important than food, but I think there’s more to it than that. God’s words, as recorded again and again in both the Law and the Prophets, tell us that taking care of those marginalized by society is not an option, but an imperative. Those who have should share with those who have not. And it’s not just an individual, but a corporate responsibility. God will judge rulers and societies by how well they live by these words. Jesus knew that God had already told people how societies ought to function, but that they mostly ignored or disobeyed those instructions. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” A one-man, or even a one God-man relief operation wasn’t the answer. The hearts of many would need to be changed, the law “written on their hearts”  before the kingdom of God could begin to spread exponentially. Jesus foresaw a time when his followers would do even more in the way of helping people than he had been able to help during his short time on Earth.

The voice of the devil also suggested that Jesus could jump off a tall building in the middle of town, then supernaturally float to the ground and land unharmed. That would get the attention of a lot of people, right? They would pay attention to someone who could perform a stunt like that, yes?

But Jesus said no to this idea too. “Do not put the Lord your God to a test“. This scene reminds me of “King Herod’s Song” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Herod taunts Jesus to “prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool” Demanding signs from God is not only arrogant, it’s ultimately ineffective. In the stories of the Exodus, Moses found that to be true again and again. Pharaoh remained unconvinced by Moses’s staff turning into a snake and most of the plagues.The children of Israel seemed to have had extremely short attention spans, for in spite of witnessing multiple supernatural events, kept whining and complaining. As Jesus told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, even the most spectacular miracle is insufficient to overcome confirmation bias. People will deny any evidence that does not conform to what they want to believe is true.If (people) do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Paul made the same observation when he wrote to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

It’s also interesting to me that in this particular temptation, the devil quoted Scripture to try and get Jesus to go along with him. But Jesus knew Scripture well enough to recognize a passage taken out of context and used manipulatively , and Jesus responded with a Scripture passage of his own that was more relevant to his decision-making. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about trying to convince people to read and study the whole Bible is because I think Biblical ignorance is one of the best tools in the devil’s toolbox. Just to take one example…how long was slavery justified on “biblical” grounds? Did you know that there was once a “slave Bible” that contained passages like “slaves obey your masters but omitted all the passages that “might incite rebellion” such as Galatians 3:28 not to mention the entire book of Exodus? That was a devilish use of the Bible, and unfortunately there are many more examples of the Bible being used in devilish ways.

The voice of the devil then makes an offer he thinks Jesus won’t be able to refuse. If Jesus will pledge allegiance to the devil, then the devil will make Jesus king of the world. Then Jesus will have the power to control everybody and everything. That would be a good thing, right? Jesus could make all the laws, so everybody would have to behave themselves or else. Jesus could redistribute the world’s resources any way he saw fit. And being Jesus, all his decisions would be loving and just and fair. The world would be a much better place with Jesus in charge!

But Jesus said no to that tempting offer too, referring to the first commandment. Idolatry doesn’t always come in the form of a golden calf. Idolatry is anything in which you place your ultimate allegiance and trust. Now, as in Jesus’s time, the most common idols are money, power, and pleasure. “No man can serve two masters“, Jesus warned his disciples. In Matthew’s context, Jesus was speaking specifically of money, but the warning can be generalized to other idols too. The way of the cross- the way Jesus took- is diametrically opposed to the way of power and control.  (Jesus), “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”  Counterintuitively, Jesus’s refusal to use his power and “come down from the cross” resulted in him becoming (as Obi-wan-Kenobi might put it) more powerful than anyone could imagine. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The sayings “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the ends don’t justify the means” don’t come from the Bible, but those concepts are at play here in the deals the devil tries to make with Jesus. Jesus said “no” to any kind of devil’s bargain, and I think it’s incumbent upon his followers to do likewise. Real, lasting change won’t come through the love of power, but the power of love. Jesus has shown us the way.  And that’s good news to me.

Peter: The End is Near

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

The two letters of Peter are quite different in content and style. Most scholars believe that while 1 Peter was written by Simon Peter during the time of Nero, 2 Peter was written, perhaps by a student of Peter, many years after his death. While 1 Peter is primarily concerned with how believers should conduct themselves during a time of intense persecution, 2 Peter is concerned with false teachers, probably antinomian Gnostics, who promulgated licentious lifestyles. The writer of 1 Peter expects the imminent return of Jesus while the writer of 2 Peter hypothesizes reasons for its delay.

It is upsetting to me when I hear people claim U.S. Christians are being persecuted, because I think such talk does a disservice to all those who have faced and are facing real persecution. I like Benjamin Corey’s essay on this subject. The people to whom 1 Peter was intended faced the very real possibility of being fed to lions in the arena, or set afire to illuminate Nero’s gardens at night. I doubt they would have much sympathy for people who complain because someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.Furthermore, complaining and raising a fuss about persecution is doing exactly the opposite of what Peter advised.  Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings…Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.” Instead, Christians should endeavor to live good lives, and by doing so they will not only increase the likelihood of their own survival, but also may draw those outside the faith to God.  Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge..For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish..”

By the time 2 Peter was written, Nero was gone and active persecution of Christians had died down, at least temporarily. Now the early church faced a different and perhaps more dangerous problem. Jesus had not returned as expected, most of the original apostles were gone, and the original good news of the gospel was being challenged by new teachers with unorthodox ideas. The author of 2 Peter writes, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” and rebukes false teachers who equate liberty with license and who take advantage of and exploit people in order to feed their own greed and passions.He has some pretty harsh words for people like that: They are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm…they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption”  By contrast, genuine faith is marked by spiritual growth that demonstrates positive qualities:“For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ”

Although the two letters of Peter were written in different times and had different concerns, they are consistent in their message. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It is not so much a question of how that might happen or when it might be as it is what we are doing in the meantime. And again, the message is pretty clear on that. We are to follow Jesus, and he’ll take care of the rest.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Corinthians: The Greatest of These is Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child, as his two letters to the Corinthians will attest. The Corinthians seemed to have been an enthusiastic, but immature group of people.  Paul’s letters to them deal less with theological than practical matters, primarily how to deal with cliques and one-upmanship, but also with “anything goes” behaviors that went beyond what was considered normal by even the fairly lax standards of a cosmopolitan city in the pagan world. He spends most of 1 Corinthians telling them everything they are doing wrong, and a fair amount of 2 Corinthians apologizing for his earlier harshness

The good news of the gospel- that God loves and accepts everyone- was perverted by some as justification for licentious and harmful behavior. Paul emphasized the difference between liberty and license. Yes, you are free from following arbitrary rules in order to be accepted by God, but no, you are not free to do things that hurt other people. For Paul, the key to moral behavior was love.”Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”  “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When it comes to moral choices, don’t just think of yourself. Don’t do things that hurt other people. Do do things that help other people. Paul gives several examples that most people would consider universally relevant: don’t murder, don’t steal, be faithful to your spouse. He also gives some examples that most people do not consider universally relevant: women should wear head coverings in church and remain silent.

I think the thing to remember about Paul’s letters is that they were just that: letters to specific churches, dealing with specific problems those churches were facing. I don’t agree with my more traditional and conservative friends who think every word Paul wrote was straight from the mouth of God and therefore literally and universally applicable for all cultures and all times. I don’t agree with my more progressive and liberal friends who think Paul’s letters are irrelevant and have nothing to say to us today. Some of his advice to first-century churches may no longer be applicable in the twenty-first century, but the principles which lie behind his advice are still valid. If Paul were writing today, he might give different examples of bad behavior- maybe he’d rail against spreading gossip on the internet instead of women with bare heads.

The devil is in the details, but God is in the principles, so it’s the underlying principles I look for when reading Paul. And the greatest principle of all is love. As Peter later writes, “love covers a multitude of sins“. If we put the principle of love first, in everything we say and do, we will be headed in the right direction.  It’s that easy, and difficult.

And that’s good news to me!