Have you ever seen those cartoons where a guy has a little miniature devil sitting on one of his shoulders? The devil is looking wonderfully dastardly—complete with red cape, horns, and pitchfork. You know what I mean? The little stinker is whispering all kinds of temptations in the guy’s ear, while simultaneously there’s this beatific mini angel sitting on the dude’s other shoulder. The tiny angel is telling him not to listen to the devil, and is encouraging him to holiness. You must’ve seen this somewhere. This image is used in cartoons, sit-coms, and TV commercials ad nauseam.
Do you know where it’s not used? It’s not used in the gospel lesson assigned for Lent 1, Year A in the revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 4:1-11). Yeah, there’s a devil and angels in this story, but they don’t show up simultaneously. Jesus is left to deal with the devil all by his lonesome. The angels don’t show up until the ordeal is over. If I were Jesus, I might be tempted to tell the angels, “Thanks a lot, you guys! Fat lot of good you turned out to be! Where the freak were you when I needed you, huh?”
Personally, I don’t blame the angels for not showing up. I’m much more relieved that Jesus was left out in the desert to struggle alone. I mean, that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I’m not sure I want to worship a Messiah who hasn’t felt alone in the wilderness or who got extra miraculous help to deal with all the stuff a world drowning in sin can throw at you. I just have to give Jesus props for going it alone.
When I look at this story, I notice that Jesus is on pretty shaky ground from the start. First off, he’s just been praised by John the Baptist, baptized, and called the Beloved by Almighty God. That makes him a target for the Tempter right there. Second, he’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness—a deserted place, mind you—for a substantial length of time. I don’t advise anyone to spend too much time alone. That’s when your head really gets messed with. Finally, of course, he’s really, really hungry. If you’ve ever done without or wondered how you were going to pay for a meal, you’ll know you aren’t in the most spiritual of places. Hunger, fear, and desperation hang out a “Welcome” sign for the devil.
Twelve-step programs like to warn newcomers about temptation. The basic message is, “Stay out of the wilderness.” That is, of course, metaphorical. It’s not that your AA group doesn’t want you to go hiking in the Poconos, it’s that they want you to steer clear of those places and situations that are going to make it easy for you to screw up your life and the lives of the ones around you. As a recovering person myself, I never had to worry about hunger or loneliness. If, in my youth, a girlfriend dumped me and I felt abandoned, I always had a good book or my own company to enjoy. If I were out of work, I’d gird my loins both professionally and financially and set about getting back on track. It was when I was on my feet—when I felt successful and had the world by the Fruit of the Looms—that was when my self –destructive tendencies blossomed into giant, man-eating plants. I totally get why the Spirit would drive Jesus out into the wilderness just as Jesus is being proclaimed the new hot thing. It’s because that’s the moment when the temptation to self-reliance and arrogance is the strongest. That’s the moment when our eyes look inward at ourselves and away from God.
What makes the Tempter in this gospel lesson so freaky is the fact that he’s dealing with Jesus. When he says, “If you are the Son of God…” given the Greek grammar, he might as well be saying “Since you are the Son of God…” The grammatical construction suggests that Jesus already has the power to do that which the Tempter suggests. Now, if you just wish you could do something evil but you don’t have the guts or the opportunity to actually try to get away with it, you’re not really being tempted. BUT: if you’re honestly weighing the possibility of harming yourself or another, of getting wasted, of committing an act of betrayal, of completely giving in to despair, of indulging in the cream-filled lies we like to tell ourselves to make our own greed and selfishness seem okay, or of imagining how great life would be if we just didn’t have to give a crap about anyone else—if that’s where you are—than you’re in the same place Jesus was.
And Jesus has been where you are.
It sucks being in the wilderness. But once you’ve made it out, you might just discover that the angels have been with you all along. It’s only when the struggle is over that you can appreciate their presence.
Thanks for reading. A blessed Lent to you, my friend.