The temptation of Christ has always held fascination for me. Where many of the warnings against the Devil in my younger Christian years were connected to phenomena as diverse as self-doubt, serious illness, and rock ‘n roll music, this text actually puts the Devil in one place (although an intentionally ill-defined place) and has him speaking his own lines. My own imagination, fed as it was on science fiction novels and Dungeons and Dragons games, liked this: although even as a teenager I wasn’t deaf to the allegorical overtones, still this was a genuine encounter between characters that so often in my own everyday life were invisible abstractions tied to what church folks did or didn’t want me doing. I could get into this.
As a student in New Testament studies classes in college, I remember well our lessons on this story, and the question that haunted me then (and still fascinates me) is what exactly the Devil means when he offers Jesus the kingdoms of the earth if Jesus will worship the devil. David Matson, from whom I took all of my New Testament classes at Milligan, noted as we studied this episode that, as far as archaeology could tell, there was no Anton-LaVey-style Satan-cult in the ancient world, that Satanism as we know it would have been a phenomenon of the age after Milton’s Satan became a literary superstar. That puzzled me then, and when I finally got around to taking some Greek in seminary, this was one of the first episodes to get my attention and that of my lectionary. What I found was a new way to think about worship and a new way to think about Devil.
Proskyneo (which I’m transliterating for the sake of everyone’s poor browsers) is a word does work well beyond the scope of what we moderns call “religious” contexts. In ancient literature folks used that word to indicate any relationship between a metaphysical superior and a metaphysical inferior. In other words, one could certainly worship God or the gods, but a mortal could also worship an angel, a subject could worship an emperor, a pilgrim could worship the priest who offers sacrifice in his behalf, a slave could worship her master, and so on. What the Devil is demanding from Christ here is not that Christ listen to Marilyn Manson but that he grant the Devil, whom Paul calls the first among the powers of this world (Ephesians 2:2) legitimacy from one deemed Son of God at Jesus’ baptism in addition to his de facto principality among the spirits that wield power in the world.
Of course, anyone who’s been in Sunday school for very long knows Jesus’ line here: as it is written, worship the LORD and serve him only (Matthew 4:10). What Jesus affirms here certainly includes those rites and meditations that we moderns call “religion,” but just as certainly it includes all of those things that would grant the Devil legitimacy, most notably here the lies and the threats and the manipulation that it takes to be a ruler over the nations of the earth. What Jesus first refuses here he calls to get behind him when Peter rebukes the announcement of the crucifixion, renounces when He says during his trial that His kingdom is not of this ruling order, overcomes by becoming the object of humanity’s greatest sin and the risen-again embodiment of the salvation of the world. What Jesus leaves behind in this encounter is the ability to engage Rome, the hated Kittim, on the fields of propaganda and violence where Jerusalem would eventually fall in its struggle against the Golden Eagle. What Jesus reserves for God only would be claimed by those forces of accusation, of slander, of the lies that violence needs in order to maintain its stranglehold.
The bad news for teenage Gilmour is that the story of the Devil demanding worship of Christ turns out to carry all sorts of allegorical freight, though not the sort that I had first learned to look for when I was looking for “the devil” in my daily interactions. This devil wants Jesus and Jesus’s followers to bow down, not necessarily while sacrificing cats in cemeteries but certainly when the worldly-wise call on the faithful to stop being “idealistic” and to get “practical.” This is the sort of “lesser of two evils” calculus that has driven good Lutherans to National Socialism as they fled Communism, has convinced good Catholics that working in Pinochet’s torture chambers was acceptable because it staved off Communism, and has convinced good American evangelicals that Oliver North’s sales of weapons to Nicaraguan terrorists was alright because the civilians they were killing were… well, Communists again. If the first century had its Rome-hatred, the twentieth century’s isn’t hard to spot. My hunch is that, a hundred years from now, the twenty-first century’s Rome won’t be hard to spot either.
May we all follow in the hard and faithful footsteps of the tempted Christ.