We start our Lenten journey in a familiar place: the wilderness of temptation – that necessary preparation for Jesus’ ministry. We may be perplexed as how it is that Jesus wasn’t “ready to go,” but we forget that as much as he is the Son of God, he is also a Son of Man; and he must steel that part of him that partakes of the flesh, is derived from the world. And so, like us now, making of a time of fasting and prayer a time of testing. Today there is very particular test I’d like to focus on as it builds on previous remarks I’ve made about the contest between Christ and the Devil, between ourselves and the powers of this world.
Now you may recall that I spoke about how we are tempted to avail ourselves of earthly power to solve our problems – that is, we use force to compel others to act against their will, even against their conscience (usually from the conviction that we are right about the matter at hand); or to seek this power through proxies, representatives; the obvious example of that is politics where we admire and support the leader who uses force to achieve his ends. I said that the countervailing, and frankly superior force is love, because we as Christians confess that God is love. And this isn’t to be understood as mushy sentimentality, but grounded in a proper understanding of love as defined within our Catholic tradition. To love is to will the good of the other. And so, even when we find ourselves in armed conflict, at war, the Christian nation must remain committed to the good of its enemy, must pray for those who hate us; strive to end the conflict in a victory that vanquishes evil, but then make a clear path toward reconciliation.
In today’s gospel we have Jesus tempted with earthly power, and price of it is the worship of the Devil.
It may seem obvious to say that this is a ridiculous demand because we can’t imagine how Jesus would ever agree to it. But it is for us as much symbolic of our struggle as it is a report of what Jesus faced.
Jesus often refers to the Devil as the “prince of this world.” And that is telling us that his evil character informs a lot of what goes on around us; that too many of us exhibit his qualities in the way we live and act.
He is called the Devil in English, and that is derived from the Latin and Greek word “diabolos” – which means “the slanderer.” So, he is a being that maligns, misrepresents relationships and social realities, and slanders others with half-truths and lies.
Diabolos is itself a translation into Latin and Greek of the Hebrew “Satan” and that is a name with which we are all familiar, and it carries a similar definition: “the one opposes; who plots against another.” In Hebrew tradition he is seen, especially in the famous story of the Garden of Eden, as a deceiver, one who seduces with lies and misrepresentations; notoriously bringing Eve to believe that she could not trust God.
And what is it that lies, misrepresentation, and slander oppose? Well, the truth.
God is truth. God is truth as God is love. Our Lord and the prophets and the apostles all give witness through their teaching and preaching that God is Truth. Christ himself says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”
To love is to participate in God, to speak the truth and live according to the truth of things is to abide in God.
So, what the Devil is trying to convince Jesus of, and not without reason, is that what our Lord proposes by way of a program of transformation of humanity to achieve its redemption isn’t going to work because we human beings aren’t going to like the truth. We’re more apt to fall for the seductive lie; that Jesus can’t be straight with us.
We know that there is the bald-faced lie that we can’t help but refuse, but from our knowledge of Satan the deceiver, it’s the more subtle lies that really work on us; the half-truths and the omissions of truth that hook us.
Now, I could launch into a diatribe on the state of our politics, local, national and international. Politicians do seem to be an obvious instance of this sad truth; we’ve heard lately our political leaders slandering common folk, accusing them of being the worst kind of people without any evidence because they dared to speak against them.
We are witness now to the wicked violence of military invasion in the Ukraine that is the fruit of so many lies and evasions by the aggressor, but also by those who claimed to stand in support of the victim. The belated response to the crisis comes as much, if not more so, from shame as it does from solidarity with a nation that has struggled to grow into a democracy and a place of true freedom.
And in this Lent we are called to account for how we have contributed to this by our lackadaisical trust in our institutions and not doing the hard work of citizenship to ensure that those we trust to look after the affairs of the nation both domestically and globally do so by making truth the principal factor in their political and diplomatic calculations.
So, we mustn’t deceive ourselves in placing the blame for the state of the world principally on the shoulders of those we’ve elected to leadership. Truth is also something we must be attentive to in our spiritual lives, in our personal sphere. We cannot deceive ourselves about the nature of our faith that sees too many Christians give into the lie that our own good conscience as we estimate it is a good conscience in the eyes of God. We should take care to not chase after preachers and teachers who are so affirming of us that we cannot imagine ourselves as sinners, who parse holy scripture to provide us with excuses and show us supposed loopholes in the eternal moral law of God.
We need to take care in how we speak of others, aware that we never have the whole of the truth of things.
Perhaps our greatest challenge is simply to deal with the reality that only God possesses the whole of the truth, as he is the whole of truth; and that should humble us. We are, as Moses tells us, the descendants of a wandering Aramean, we’ve arrived here today by God’s good grace, and our inconsistent trust in him.
Even being open to God’s guiding wisdom, our own St. Augustine tells us that most of the time the best we might be able to know is what is not true, what is the lie, what is the slander, but find it a mystery as to why things are the way they are, broken and corrupted. This is much harder work to know the whys and wherefores of a fallen world. One thing we know to be true is that the work begins with us and our allegiance to truth and our resistance to participating in lies and slanders.
Living in truth is about being reconciled to a reality that is at times harsh, cruel, and as I said, mysterious, only partially grasped by us. And that reality, that truth calls us love each other, to be patient, kind, and to bear each other in our differences and disagreements. This certainly isn’t an easy vocation, to live in truth and love and find a way to express that truth in love, even to those who deny the truth and perversely try to compel us to love them in their sins and act contrary to the truth. We only love them despite their transgressions against truth, despite their denial of reality, in the hope that they can repent, and return to God. We work to repair the damage they do, and set that good example that gives them glimpses of the truth to which they are called.
This is hard work concerning ourselves, others, the world, and it will not always be appreciated. Indeed, it is quite likely to be condemned as impractical, foolish, even as a denial of reality by those who live in delusion.
Saint Paul is reassuring here, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” To believe in love and truth, these things that are the essence of God, is to know that you can call on the Lord with confident faith: because everyone who calls on the Lord, who is truth and love, shall be saved.