Meeting Mr. Scratch, Part 5

I mentioned earlier that the first of the three tests was the “easy” one, if any encounter with Mr. Scratch can truly be called easy. Turning stones into bread was a test of faith, yes, but faith about what? I have to admit, friends, that in my mind some things are easier to have faith about than others, and if you put daily sustenance on one scale, and waging a war of the soul against the traditions and institutions and cultural bullet trains of the world for the everlasting lives of every person on earth on the other, the later hits the table with a thud and the former gets catapulted to the ceiling. The second two tests aren’t about mere survival, or even about mere power. They’re about directly accomplishing the (perceived) will of the Father, which makes them all the more dangerous. I don’t believe history has ever provided any greater excuse for death of the body and captivity of the soul than pursuing “God’s will.” And so I believe the last two tests are very much a pair. In fact, I think they’re two sides of the same coin.

I believe both tests — the kingdoms and the temple — are about dominion of the earth, but by different means. The test of the kingdoms was about worldly domination via earthly authority, a multiplicity of coups d’etat or a popular overthrow of the Pax Romana in favor of a Pax Christi. In other words, folks, I believe the test of the kingdoms was a temptation of civic leadership. The test of the temple, on the other hand, is a test of religious leadership, which is far more dangerous.

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you
   to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
   so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” — Luke 4:9-11

All temples are liminal spaces: thresholds that can leave us trapped between planes, floating between stages, torn between worlds. They are built by human hands and — at least until the last century or so — form the heart of every metropolis, the seat of kings, the nexus of culture and commerce. And yet, they are the houses of the gods, or at least the portals through which the gods touch the mortals who pray to them. And the Second Temple in Jerusalem is perhaps the best example of this intertwining of civic and religious power. It’s based on the original plans from God, and yet mired in political controversy. It’s the place where the first fruits of chosen humanity pass from earth to heaven, and yet it’s mired in financial corruption. It is, as I said before, the one place in all the world where the boundary between symbol and reality is thinnest, where the means and the end rub so closely together they make sparks.

It’s no surprise to me at all that Mr. Scratch has chosen the pinnacle of the temple for his final test. If Satan believes that dominion is Jesus’ endgame (rather than a means toward a true relationship with our Father), and civic leadership has been rejected, religious leadership is all that remains. And as I’m sure Satan well knows, religious leadership always bleeds (no pun intended) into civic leadership. It’s a more difficult path to domination, but it results in a domination that is far more complete. It leads to Babylon, which has everything money can buy:

…cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men. — Revelation 18:13

If all this is true, friends, then the means become obvious: leap from the most important liminal space in all the world, open the gate between heaven and earth before the eyes of humanity, and let the angels cross into our world to protect the greatest demigod ever known. If Muhammad can inspire his troops through divine revelation and prophecy, what can Jesus do through an irrefutable channel of direct spiritual power? In other words, why mess around? “Take it!” says Satan, melodramatically burying his face in one hand while holding out the keys to the world in the other. “It’s yours!”

But again, even though the devil knows better than anyone that the ends never justify the means (and he takes great pleasure in the misconception), he leaves himself open to a single thrust from the Torah, straight to the heart:

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” — Luke 4:12

To be honest, friends, that response used to confuse me. I always took it to mean that our Father didn’t want us to stride out into the middle of the street, look evil in the face, and presume that God’s power would be with us. That there was a thin line between faith and presumption. That we must face evil with every expectation of death, and if the Father saved our lives and vanquished the evil before us, we simply thanked Him for another day.

Perhaps I was half right. The boundary between faith and presumption is embodied by the Temple of Jesus’ day and everything that goes with it. I believe that faith is humble confidence, whereas presumption is what philosophers, metaphysicians, and practitioners of eastern arts call Void: nothingness personified, a state of unknowing that supposedly frees the mind to know anything. The Force. The Matrix. But faith is knowing, friends. Not a knowing of the future, but a knowing of reality, of the power of God, of the will of God. And that’s the context of Jesus’ quote from Deuteronomy 6:16. God was tested in Massah not by faith, but by a lack of faith. The people doubted and demanded answers and signs. They demanded presumptions.

I believe a leap from the temple would be such a presumption. It would force Jesus’ Father to a tipping point: if Jesus was the Son of God, the angels would come, and if he wasn’t, they wouldn’t. It would be like saying, “Okay, God, I’m going to do something crazy, and if you really want me to do what you want me to do, you’ll step in right here, right now.” But Jesus knows better. He knows that even though he will die, he is not ruled by Death. He knows that his Father will both accomplish His will and strengthen their father/son bond no matter what. Even if a cross gets in the way.

And now, friends, as Mr. Scratch vanishes in a swirl of dust to wait for a more opportune time (Luke 4:13), we’re left with our original proposition from so many posts ago: There is a fundamental difference between the ministries of John and of Jesus. John clears the road, and Jesus travels it. The difference between John and Jesus is the same as the difference between train tracks and a train. And if John’s call to repentance was not to free sinners from sin but to show them that freedom exists and where to find it, what’s left for Jesus is the freeing itself. And whatever you believe about the nature of Satan, I think the three tests show us exactly what Jesus has come to free us from: a world where survival is paramount, and the ends justify the means. A place where politics and religion lead to blood. A place many of us today still choose to live in even though the gate was flung wide 2000 years ago.

To put it simply, Jesus has come to save us from Mr. Scratch.


The Temptation of Christ, Ilya Repin




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