|Temptation of Christ by Vasily Surikov|
Faust; The Devil and Daniel Webster; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Damn Yankees; and my favorite: The Devil Went Down to Georgia – making a deal with the devil has been a popular theme in the arts for hundreds of years. The story line is basically the same. Some poor soul wants something beyond his reach. Whether it’s the height of happiness; perpetual youth; a Major League Pennant; or a shiny fiddle made of gold, the protagonist becomes so desperate for the object of his desire that he willingly sells his soul to the devil to get it. Sometimes the devil wins; sometimes he’s outsmarted – but there’s one common thread in every story: someone succumbs to temptation and makes a deal with the devil. Today’s Gospel tells a different story – Jesus stands up to temptation and tells Satan, “No deal!” Through his example and the disciplines of Lent, we can too.
It may be comforting to know that even Jesus faced temptation from the devil. In today’s Gospel, Satan comes to him when he’s most vulnerable – when he’s hungry and weak from 40 days of fasting. And in his vulnerability, Satan tries to convince Jesus to be something other than what he really is – the Beloved Son of God. He tries to “seduce Jesus into thinking that what it means to be God’s Son is to be physically full, physically safe, and politically powerful.” As we heard in our first reading, that’s exactly what Satan did to Adam and Eve – he convinced them that by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, by disobeying God, they could be like God. Well, they couldn't, and we all know how that worked out for them. They fell prey to temptation, they made a deal with the devil and were driven from Paradise forever. Jesus, on the other hand, knows who he really is; he knows what it means to be the Beloved Son of God, and he accepts that it doesn't always mean that he’ll have an abundance of food, that he’ll be safe from physical harm, or that he’ll be politically powerful. So he stands strong against the temptation to sin and refuses to deal with the devil.
Sin is a strange thing. In fact, it’s so strange that the Church refers to it as a mystery to “acknowledge its irrational character and its intoxicating allure, even when we rationally know better. Sin draws us away from God and directs us to nothingness.” But we sin anyway. Why is that? Well, we’re afraid. We’re afraid that we won’t have enough to survive, so we hoard our belongings. We’re afraid that we’ll be hurt, so we lash out at others under the guise that a good offense is the best defense. We’re afraid that the good things of life will never come to us, so we take advantage of others in order to get them. The strangest thing about sin is that every time we succumb to temptation, we lose an opportunity to experience the only joy that will ever fulfill us – the self-giving love of God. We miss the opportunity to love God by loving our neighbor, by sharing what we have; by treating people with compassion; and by respecting human dignity. Through sin, we lose the opportunity to be who we really are: Beloved Sons and Daughters of God.
Just like Jesus, the devil approaches us when we’re most vulnerable – when we’re sick, when we’re lonely, when we’re afraid. In our weakest moments, we can count on Satan to try his level best to tempt us. And he’s good at it too. “The devil doesn't come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything [we've] ever wished for” that’s beyond our grasp. The most dangerous temptations to sin appeal to our “fantasy selves,” to the person we think we want to be, not to the person we really are. Our vulnerability lies in not understanding what it means to be a Beloved Son or Daughter of God, in not believing with every ounce of our conviction that God loves us and that, because of God’s love, all will be well in the end no matter what this world throws at us. “When we do not know who we are, we enter into temptation. When we do know who we are, we can reach for the resources to resist it.” So the secret to avoiding the temptation to sin lies in knowing that we really are Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, in believing in God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ, and in trusting that God never welches on a deal.
So what resources are available to us to resist temptation? Well, how about the disciplines of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving? Let’s start with prayer. “The best way to say no is to be in touch with a stronger yes.” That yes, of course, is God, and the best way to be in touch with God is through prayer. In prayer we speak directly and intimately with God, sharing our hopes and our fears, our joys and our sorrows with him. Through prayer, we hear God’s voice calling us to love and helping us discern between right and wrong. With prayer, we bear the mantle of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, a shield that can deflect Satan’s strongest temptations.
Fasting – I hate fasting, which, of course, suggests that I need it most of all. Fasting helps us empty ourselves of what we think we need so that we can be who we really are: Beloved Sons and Daughters of God who are “filled to the brim with divine life.” When we’re full of divine life – God’s self-giving love – we can’t hold it in, and that leads us right to almsgiving. There’s no surer way to love God than to love our neighbor, and Satan knows it. Some of the most egregious sins we can commit involve harming or taking advantage of another person. But when we love one another, when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, we love God and really tick off Satan.
So I've got a deal for you. Together, this Lent, let's tick off Satan. Let’s commit ourselves to tackle at least one temptation that Satan keeps throwing at us by dedicating ourselves to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. What’s in it for us? Well, we’ll ground ourselves in our true identity as Sons and Daughters of God; we’ll be filled to the brim with God’s self-giving love; and we’ll strengthen ourselves in our resolve to sin no more, so we can say to Satan in no uncertain terms, “No Deal!” What do you think? Deal?
 John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as It is in Heaven, Matthew, Year A (Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 2004) at 105.
 John W. Martens, “Away with Sin,” America, vol. 210, no. 7 (March 3, 2014) at 38.
 Tucker Max, Assholes Finish First (New York, Gallery Books, 2011).
 Shea at 107.
 Father Robert Barron, “Lent Day 4 – Mother Teresa’s secret to Joy,” Lent Reflections with Father Robert Barron, March 8, 2014.