A Lenten Journey, decease part 3: Supper with Satan
I don’t know who said that if you want to know someone, drugstore invite them to dinner, but in my experience it’s been true. Breaking bread and sharing some wine creates a convivial atmosphere conducive to revealing our ideas, hopes, dreams, and fears to one another.
During his time in the desert, Jesus doesn’t exactly dine with the Devil, but they do get to know a lot about each other. During this part of our Lenten journey, I’d like us to consider that the devil is nothing to be afraid of—and that, in fact, there is no devil. At least, not the way we in the West classically think of the devil as an individual entity.
The longest of the temptation stories is found in Matthew (4.1-11), with a virtual clone in Luke (except for a slight change of event order for narrative continuity). The story is only a single sentence in Mark (1.13), probably because Mark’s Jewish audience would have understood the underlying metaphor better than Matthew’s partially Gentile, and Luke’s extremely Gentile, audience. In all three Gospels, however, Jesus isn’t afraid of the Devil as an evil being trying to fill Hell with souls. The concept of an eternal place of punishment in the afterlife appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible and only enters the Second Testament after decades of Hellenistic influence.
In the context of First Century Judaism, Satan isn’t the personification of evil we have turned him into today. He isn’t even an individual being. Rather, ha-satan is translated as the adversary. It is a courtroom reference made obvious in the story of Job. Ha-satan is not evil. The adversary, or an adversarial situation, is never called by a proper name. It’s always the advocate or the adversary who argues the other side of the case. Most importantly, ha-satan was thought of as any adversarial situation that inhibited spiritual growth.
Jesus isn’t battling with an evil Satan-as-fallen-angel in the desert. Jesus is having an inner conversation with situations that inhibit spiritual growth. He’s mulling over all the things with which this world tempts us: Kingship and power over human realms. The opportunity to use our spiritual gifts for our own benefit and glory rather than God’s. The temptation to make life purely about material gain and physical happiness rather than about living in Christ Consciousness (constant awareness of the powerful and creative energy of love that creates and sustains all reality).
Satan is simply presenting these situations to Jesus as the things that can derail Jesus’ (and by extension our own) journey. In the West, we tend to view Jesus’ experience with Satan as a bad thing—but our ancient spiritual ancestors understood that all growth—especially intense spiritual growth—creates adversaries and adversarial situations.
The ancient Israelites knew that these situations, while often unfortunate, could also often be used as opportunities for spiritual growth. Slaves in Egypt? Continue to have faith in God. Surrounded by mighty empires that want to wipe Jewish culture off the face of the Earth? Have faith. God will lead you to the promised land. These obstacles are not the making of an evil adversary; they are life events. Humans are horrible to each other without any help from any devil. We find ourselves in, and create, adversarial situations all the time.
The task at hand is not to take the easy way out and say, “The Devil made me do it,” but instead to take a much more difficult approach. Invite the devil to dinner and have a long, hard, honest conversation about the temptations in our lives that are keeping God at arms length. Don’t be afraid. The Devil is an advocate for God, not against us. Any conversation, any wrestling we do with our personal ha-satans is a sign of spiritual growth, and a necessary part of our journey out of the wilderness.
Meditation: I AM filled with the consciousness of Christ.