Knowing the divine nature of Jesus, I’ve always felt that Christ was just toying with Satan before he told him to get lost. Up against Jesus, Satan never had a chance. He gave it his best shot… bribery, flattery, trickery … and he came up empty. In reading this week’s gospel, we may be tempted to see Satan as a pushover. And that would suit him just fine.
In our gospel Jesus is just beginning his public life. He is still more or less an unknown quantity. But Satan knows Jesus well enough to send in the first team and try to take him on head to head. He’s got very different plans for us. Rather than direct confrontation, Satan lays a life-long siege to souls … undermining, eroding, chipping away. His plan is to make evil merely banal, commonplace, the norm. He is the master of the slippery slope; turning petty prejudices into hatred and hatred into holocaust.
His favorite ploy is as old as Adam and Eve. Pride is the undoing of countless souls. Once we believe we are the arbiter of good and evil, the game is lost. What feeds our appetites becomes good; what denies them becomes bad. Lately this convolution of values has been accompanied by a fig leaf of self-justification. How many times have you heard people say: “I am a spiritual person, but I just can’t buy into religion?” Like a sheep who strays from the protection of the shepherd, that soul has been marked for destruction. The first frisky steps of what is disguised as freedom leads right to the jaws of the predator.
Once pride takes over, all the rest is easy. Truth gets to be what you want it to be. Moving a decimal point on a tax return is no big deal. A little office flirtation never hurt anybody. Everybody does it. You’d be dumb not to. There’s no harm if you don’t get caught. Pretty soon Satan doesn’t even have to bother with temptation. We’re out looking for it and finding it everywhere.
So what do we learn from this gospel? First, take Satan seriously. Whether you call him the Devil, Beelzebub or just evil; whether you envision some cartoon character with horns and a tail or simply some corrupting, ethereal force; Satan lives and you are in his sights. Know, too, that while we strive to be like Jesus, we are not Jesus. We are not equipped to debate with the Devil. He is smarter than we are and has been at this a very long time. C.S. Lewis warns us: “Like a good chess player, he is always trying to maneuver you into position where you can only save your castle by losing your bishop.”
So what to do? Like Jesus, fill your life with goodness. Leave no room for evil. Give the earliest sign of temptation to God. He knows how to handle it. He will bless you for it. Like Jesus, be humble but resolute in the face of evil. Run and hide in the Lord. Make your life an active, ongoing conversation with God. Be assured that evil will come, many times in many guises. And when it does, make sure you’re not fumbling to find God’s number in some forgotten address book. Stay close to him. And he’ll be right there with you, ready to deliver us from evil.