Have you ever wondered, friends, why Old Scratch would start with a test so easy as “If you’re hungry, just eat?” As I noted in the last post, that first test was not even directly linked with the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation. It had nothing to do with taking dominion and restoring relationships. It only had to do with living for another day. And if you’ve already been without food for 40 days, what’s one more day? It almost seems as if this was a throw-away test, a warm-up, a vocal exercise to loosen the tongue.
But what if that was the point? What if that was the devil’s way of sighting his rifle? Or, more insidiously — and more in tune with his MO — what if that was Satan’s way of making Jesus look so far ahead that he might not see the rock he is about to stumble upon? If the devil believes that dominion is Jesus’ end game, then wouldn’t the promise of dominion be the best trap? If so, it would be important to have Jesus thinking about that dominion rather than about his immediate circumstances. And what better way to have Jesus focus on his end game than to make him use it as a defense, as a shield? “No, Mr. Scratch, I’m not worried about food because my Father has bigger plans for me.” And so Jesus’ eyes lift to the horizon, fists clenched with determination, and the devil thinks, “Ready, aim….” But no, Jesus walks too closely with his Father to stumble.
And so, friends, Satan begins test number two.
It’s at this point that Matthew and Luke diverge slightly. The particulars of the three tests are the same, but the order is different. In Matthew, Jesus is tested at the temple, and then with the kingdoms of the world. But here in Luke, it’s the other way around. And I prefer Luke’s order, because even though the kingdoms may seem to be the larger temptation, I think Old Scratch’s suggestion on the pinnacle of the temple is the more diabolical of the two — it’s by far the most logical. And one should always save the best for last.
So we move from survival to domination in the blink of an eye:
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” — Luke 4:5-7
This is a sticky one, friends. It’s as close as Scripture ever comes to explicitly stating that Satan has dominion over the earth up to this point. Of course, Satan is the Father of Lies, so take it with a large grain of salt, but there are three things worth pointing out here.
First, the best lie is a half-truth, a quote without context, a word redefined into oblivion. Old Scratch prefers nuance more than overture, fine print over bold declarations. I’ll say it one more time, folks: the devil is in the details. Which means, his claim of dominion is probably at least mostly true.
Second, Jesus does not call him out on his claim. The only part of Mr. Scratch’s offer that raises Jesus’ hackles is the part about worship:
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” — Luke 4:8
Third, I need to acknowledge the second prong of the fork I mentioned a couple posts ago. If the devil is not a person, a monster, a demigod, then he is a personification of collective evil, of the ways of the fallen world. And yes, that would cause us to read this temptation differently: Use the ways of the world to take it by force in the name of righteousness. Replace the current Pax Romana with Pax Christi. A rule by force for the common good. The monster who hunts monsters. The lesser of two evils. In which case, Jesus’ response in verse eight would simply be a declaration of the name in which the conquest would be made.
Choose whichever fork you wish, friends. But I’ll tell you why “personification” is problematic for me when reading these particular verses: if Mr. Scratch is only a symbol, then this encounter and its three tests are only an allegory. It simply becomes a way of explaining what’s happening in Jesus’ head. An internal monologue. A dream. And in my mind, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the Gospel According to Luke, or any of the other gospels.
Like a work of magical realism, there are no markers in the text telling us when we’re transitioning from fact to fancy. There’s no wavy haze signaling a dream, no change from black and white to color and back again, no explanatory voice-over, no sudden cut to Jesus and his disciples reclining at the table with Jesus saying, “Well, I wasn’t really out there for 40 days with the devil, but it sure felt like it.” And if Luke is making such slights of literary hand, nothing can be trusted. Even Jesus’ death and resurrection may only be symbols, a way of saying, “It was so hard it was almost like dying and coming back to life again.”
But whether or not we believe that Mr. Scratch really does control the world, or that it was given to him in the first place, or that all we’re really talking about are the systems and norms of a fallen world, the trickiest part about this test is that it appears to allow Jesus to accomplish his goal. Satan knows that Jesus has come to take back what was his, and on the surface, receiving an earthly crown to rule all the kingdoms of the earth would seem to satisfy that goal. Except that Satan knows the means are just as important as the end. Old Scratch knows that if Jesus takes this route, he will have to make sacrifices at the expense of others for the greater good, shed blood to defend his national values, and ultimately be corrupted as all those with absolute power eventually are.
But again, Jesus passes this test because, unlike the devil standing at his side, Jesus knows that dominion is simply a side-effect, an aftershock, a settling of dust. Jesus’ dominion, folks, is simply the natural result of his flock having the right relationship with his Heavenly Father. And so it comes back to worship, and Jesus parries again.
But now we come to what I believe to be the most difficult of the three tests. In the twinkling of an eye, Jesus is whisked away by Mr. Scratch to the one place in all the earth where the boundary between symbol and reality is thinnest, where the means and the end rub so closely together they make sparks. In the next and final post on this passage, we’ll witness a test so diabolical that it is second only to the Crucifixion itself.