According to the German legend, Faust was an astrologer who longed for restored youthfulness, fame, and fortune. Now, there is nothing wrong with youth, fame, or fortune, to be sure. But Faust so longed for these that his yearning became obsessive. And such obsessive longings drew the attention of the devil, who is always on the prowl, sniffing for the scent of irrepressible desire. As you recall, the devil offered Faust all that he wished—youth, fame, and fortune—an instant gratification, for the duration of his life. But in exchange, Faust had to give the devil his soul for eternity when he died. To Faust, it seemed like a good deal. A simple contract and handshake, and it was done. Immediately Faust was handsome, popular, and rich, and he enjoyed those benefits throughout his life.
Of course, the good deal did not look nearly so good when it came time for Faust to die. But by then the die had been cast. And Faust entered eternity, and our folklore, as the poster child depicting the tragic consequences that befall those who make deals with the devil. The story proved to be very popular as it passed down in oral tradition from parents to children, and from pastors to parishioners, for centuries. The tale of Faust is retold in the writings of Marlowe and Goethe, was staged in the operas of Berlioz and Gounod, and inspired a symphonic poem by Liszt.
But long before the legend of Faust, the New Testament writers recorded another encounter between the devil and a man. But this story is not a Faustian tragedy, for the man named Jesus wins his battle with the devil. That story forms the reading today from Saint Luke’s gospel. As we enter the season of Lent today, the Church turns to this ancient story, and we seek from this text a path we might follow when we are tempted by a devil’s deal.
Temptations are not enticements to do evil, but to twist something good for our own convenience.
Notice the subtlety of the devil. He does not come to Jesus until forty days have passed. By this time Jesus is tired, he is hungry, he is lonely. The desert elements have sapped his strength. Like a lioness seeking the weakest and smallest animal from a herd, the devil waits to pounce when he thinks his prey is most vulnerable.
And when the tempter speaks, it is with a whisper, with innuendo, with mere suggestions. What could be wrong with satisfying hunger, turning a few rocks into bread? Would not Jesus create bread in the wilderness for a great multitude later in his ministry? And what’s wrong with using political power to overthrow oppressors? Or using miracles to prove God’s existence and convince the skeptics? These are the implied shortcuts to a world-wide Church that the devil offers to Jesus in the wilderness. And who would know anyway, way out there in the desert? How subtle and sly are the innuendoes of the devil’s counsel! But Jesus anticipated this tactic of Satan. As far back as the Garden of Eden, the whisper of the devil was to rise, not to fall. He did not suggest to Eve and Adam that the forbidden fruit would make them like the devil, but like God. The fall is there, to be sure, when you cut a deal with the devil. It is just hidden in the fine print. Just ask Faust!
When God created the world, he called it good. Evil sneaks into this world when we succumb to a serpentine voice asking us to use something good for a twisted purpose. So, money is not evil, it is the love of money that leads to evil. And alcohol is not evil, but the abuse of it is. We could say the same of beauty, of power, of credit cards, of technology, and of food. The devil tried to get Jesus to use his creative power to satisfy his own needs, and thus subtly shift the focus of Jesus’ ministry from the path of suffering redemptive love to one of self-preservation. It was, in essence, a temptation to by-pass the passion and cross in favor of a more comfortable life. And Jesus said, “No.”
How are we faring with this same temptation? What are we living for? Is it worth dying for?
Second, temptations are not signs of weakness, but of strength.
We are not tempted to do that which we cannot do, but that which is within our reach and power. For this reason, the greater a person’s power, the greater the temptation. How fierce must the battle have been for Jesus Christ! This struggle was not against a cartoon figure with horns and pitchfork. It was a real battle, of cosmic proportions. The force of temptation is proportionate to the opportunity to do good that is before a person. In the case of Jesus, the clash could not have been more dramatic.
On the backside of every strength is its hidden weakness, its Achilles heel. If you are beautiful, the temptation is to use that beauty to open doors of your own ego, or to invest too much of your self-worth in superficial and temporary appearance. If you are wealthy, the temptation is to become possessed by your possessions, rather than use them for God’s glory and purposes. If you are powerful or popular, the temptation is to believe that you are essentially different than the rest of humanity, better than others, and therefore worthy of their servitude and adoration. All of these gifts can make a life great when channeled in service to the world, and all of them can be distorted and wasted if used only to selfish ends. Faust missed this truth, and it cost him his soul. Jesus understood this truth, and in the end, though he gave up his life, he did not trade in his soul.
So, how are we to withstand temptation? The path of Jesus marks the way. Just remember your baptism, and remember why you are here in the first place. Your life is God’s gift to you, and using it in service to your fellowman is your gift back. A life lived by a lesser value is just simply not a good deal. And if anyone tries to tell you otherwise, just do what Jesus did—tell the snake “no.”