As the Lenten season pushes on -- with its invitation for us, in Christ-like manner, to give up something significant for 40 days -- it is perhaps helpful to continue returning to the scripture text guiding this noble, difficult, soul-strengthening pursuit: the story of Jesus' bouts of temptation with the Devil, found in Matthew at 4:1-11, Mark at 1:12-13 and Luke at 4:1-13.
As the story goes, after Jesus receives the Holy Spirit with his baptism in the River Jordan, that Spirit drives Him to the harsh Judean wilderness where He is fiercely tested by the Devil. First the Devil tries to get Jesus to eat after he’s fasted for 40 days. Then the Devil tries to seduce Jesus into accepting control of the the world -- all the latter need do is bow down and worship the former. Finally the Devil tries to trick Jesus into proving God's promises of protection and special blessing by suggesting He jump of the Temple pinnacle. Will our hero Jesus succumb to the lures of Evil????
No siree bob! Each of these tests Jesus passes with flying colors after, we are sure, much steely resolve and faithful grit.
Our response to this intense competition is usually along the lines of, "Oh, if only we could be as faithful, as strong, as good as Jesus in withstanding our temptations – giving up for 40 days eating chocolate, drinking alcohol, buying books on Amazon – the kinds of things that tend to comprise our “Lenten discipline” (and yours truly has grappled with tooth and nail in Lenten seasons of yore).
This spirit of agonizing endurance is fueled, no doubt, by the very stressful, super-serious spirit in which we are usually encouraged to read, understand and be inspired by this gospel story. There is certainly nothing fun or lighthearted about what Jesus is up to here!
However, the more I read these “temptation texts” and especially the version provided in Luke’s gospel (which was the lectionary gospel text for the Lent’s first Sunday this year, February 14), I wonder if this is how the ancients heard…and enjoyed…the battle between Jesus and his nemesis.
From a comic lens, this story seems filled with surprising delight…more of a classic “battle of wits” than anything else.
Battles of wit are a staple of comic storytelling. Smart, clever people try to get what they want by one-upping their opponent withlots of wordplay, irony, intelligence and chutzpah.
Take for example this example, from “The Princess Bride”:
Or how about the famous “love at first sight” (har!) scene from “The Taming of the Shrew”? Here's a choice segment.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail...
Katherine: In his tongue.
Pet: Whose tongue?
Kath: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
Pet: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again. Good Kate, I am a gentleman --
Kath: That I'll try. [She strikes him.]
Pet: I swear I'll cuff you, if you strike again.
Kath: So may you lose your arms. If you strike me, you are no gentleman. And if no gentleman, then no arms.
If we were going to ask ourselves what is so amusing about each of these examples, we might say the first lets us laugh as the one who is clearly going to be undone nevertheless tries his clever best to outsmart his opponent. It's fun to watch the mysterious silent hero with one quick swoop uber-easily outfox the fox. We delight watching the goofy-looking villain pretty much and without warning pull the rug out from under himself.
The second example is a classic of “wordplay,” where each character takes what the other says and turns it on its ear to give it new meaning and put down the other. We delight in seeing how each side takes in and then tears down the other bit by bit (literally and figuratively, right!?).
These examples comprise the spirit, I believe, ancient audiences understood and appreciated the wilderness battle between Jesus and the Devil.
At each juncture, the Devil thinks he is being super clever in the way he tempts Jesus to renege his commitment to God, and in response Jesus each time quickly and masterfully one-ups his luring opponent with a simple, funny play on words.
In the first temptation, the Devil doesn’t just offer the famished Jesus some bread. Instead he also appeals to Jesus ego, telling him to rely upon his special god-like ability to turn a stone into bread. Not only will his hunger be relieved but he'll also get to feel powerful and important.
And Jesus doesn't just say "no." Instead, He cleverly takes the word "bread" and outdoes the Devil by then quoting a "bread" scripture that puts down the primacy of all material goods. Clearly Jesus is not only strong-willed, but he's also way more mentally agile than his adversary, responding in this appropriate, scripturally-twisty way.
In the second temptation, the Devil again does not just plainly offer something bad messes with Jesus’ head in order to get him to relent. He remins Jesus that God has given the sinful world over to the Dark Side as well as the authority to give the reigns - and the opportunity to transform it - to someone else. Will Jesus take this great opportunity to do good by relenting with just a little bit of bad behavior - worshiping the Devil just a wee bit?
Jesus again, with little effort it seems, snaps back with Commandment Number 2 (because of course he’s super-adept as his Commandments, as we all should be), “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Turn the page.
Finally, a light bulb goes off in the Devil's wily brain. He'll beat Jesus at his own game, fight fire with fire! For the third temptation, he quotes scripture, too! As he suggests Jesus jump off the pinnacle of the temple, he quotes - twice! - a Psalm about how God commands angels to protect his chosen Son. There is nothing to fear.
Jesus simply swipes back, putting the kibosh on any future tempting by condemning, scripturally, of course, this whole game:
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
I can’t help see the original audience sporting a look of excited anticipation as they wait to hear what smart line Jesus will use to put down the Devil this time. And then this time! And again this time! I hear the crowd's laughter and responses like “Good one!” “Oh yeah!” “Touche!”, and they get a little more boisterous at every turn.
Why would this story actually be intended as a comedy? What difference might it make in our understanding of the text, and, perhaps, the gospels' take on temptation?
One this it suggests is that maybe we're supposed to understand from the get-go that as ominous as the Devil (and what the Devil symbolizes - Evil) may seem. In fact, He/evil has no clothes. Jesus can stomp it all like a bug. So...maybe we (when filled with God's Spirit like Jesus was) can, too! Temptations, schmemptations!!
Perhaps the gospels are also saying in our battles with temptation, never underestimate the power of wit. Our wit! The amazing God-given tool of our own very capable and clever brain. Maybe the secret to winning the battle against our compulsions is to outsmart them rather than stress and strain to keep from somehow at bay.
For example, one of the ways I’ve learned to forgo eating fattening sweets I know I don’t really want (as much as in the moment I’m sure I do), is to pretend I’m not on a diet and have just ordered some gooey masterpiece or other. I pretend I’ve taken a bite, and that’s about all I need to then let that temptation go.
How does it work? I don’t know. But I’m grateful to have gotten the idea from Meredith Wilson and his “Music Man” (who teaches by the “Think System” – you imagine playing the tune and that’s all you need to do! It humorously sort-of works in the Wilson piece, and, I must say, it definitely can work at Starbucks!
Just a suggestion I, and perhaps, the Bible, offer as you proceed along Lent’s rocky road (whether it reminds you of the ice cream or no…although I suggest it does!)