Sacrifice not Magic

In Scripture it is in the desert or the wilderness that we meet God, as Israel met God in the wilderness wandering at Sinai. God said of fallen Israel, “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). Paul before he took up his calling as an apostle went first into the desert country of Arabia (Galatians 1:17). The woman who bore the child whom God took up to His throne was given a place in the wilderness, that is in God’s presence (Revelation 12:6). And it was also into the desert that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit where He began His eternal warfare against Satan by rejecting the blandishments of the prince of this world. We are commanded to pray that God will not lead us into temptation, which is an essential act of humility, always asking divine aid, for temptations will come. God, we are told, tempts no one, but flaws we have built into our character, perhaps even more than the world and the flesh, make us ever liable to Satan’s offer (James 1:13).

But our temptations are not the temptations of Christ. Although Satan opens his campaign with a weakness that belongs to human nature—after fasting forty days Jesus was hungry—Christ’s temptations are the temptations of a King, each being a variant on the taunt of the soldier: “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross (Matthew 27:40). If you are the King of Israel, then drive want from the earth by changing those stones into bread. If you are a king, defy the laws your Father had put into creation; cast yourself down from the temple roof, you will not be harmed. And finally, take from Satan’s hand the rule he exercises over the cosmos. These were not merely illustrations of divine virtue, although that they were, but in fact show us Jesus’ abandoning at the threshold of His work on earth the path of power, the use of magic, the ability in a fallen world to do good without sacrifice. This was a suffering and an enduring not unlike the enduring on the cross. When the devil had fled, angels came and ministered to Him.

The founding of the Kingdom of God in time and place, the laying of its cornerstone, is accomplished by Jesus’ victory over temptation, ending with the words, “Get thee behind me Satan. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve.” When the scene in the desert begins Satan is secure in his status as the prince of this world; after Jesus’ words rejecting Satan’s offers his reign is compromised. It is not Manichean to note that, in the words of the second reading, from the son of Adam and Eve to the giving of the law, from Adam to Moses, sin reigned unchecked and with sin death. Then came Sinai and then the pattern of salvation began to unfold, bringing finally the Incarnation of the Word of God. But even then, even after the Incarnation of the Word, Satan’s rule must be defeated in history, as it was by the actions of the King who, beginning with the events of today’s Gospel and issuing finally in the sacrifice of the Cross, challenges Satan’s rule by the gift of His sacrifice and by His resurrection, by His purchasing the gift of the Holy Spirit and by the founding of the Church, and by the conquest of death and sin in the lives of believers. The war will go on until Jesus returns, but the prophet John sees that with the birth of the Child born to the Woman Clothed with the Sun, the kingdom of this world had become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever (Revelation 11:15).

The victory is secure but the battle still rages, the battlefield being the human heart, the battle lines the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (I John 2:16). Satan, ever enraged because he now knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12), is still able to field a formidable army whose object it is to convince every human soul that its fulfillment lies in saving itself, ministering to its own will, in asserting its power as it chooses, in that revolutionary liberty which has damaged souls and marred the face of civilization. The illusions that Satan proposed in the Judean desert have not lost their ability to deceive and destroy. Still we believe we will, through human power, take control of man and nature and build a kingdom that is without want, sickness, or difficulty. Because we do not live in Russia, or Africa, or southeast Asia, but in a kind of blessed island where until the day before yesterday Christ was king; because we are not Jews in Europe in the 1940s, because our unwanted children are destroyed out of sight, it is easy not to see how virulent the power of Satan is even after Christ’s death and resurrection. For while Christ came so that believing we might have life, death is Satan’s project, and our age has been an age of slaughter to which such traditional examples as the Thirty Years’ War and the Inquisition cannot hold a candle.

And all this from the illusion that human power can build a perfect world from which evil can be driven by politics and technology. The result is a world of dead souls, dead because we do not look within ourselves for the fulfillment of our souls and the melioration of the human condition which inevitably follows upon that right ordering. Atheism, and we are beset with atheism, although atheism of a decidedly religious cast, has its costs, for when Christ is not king, His place will be taken by a magician who will promise to bring a better world without discipline, without self-abnegation, without sacrifice.

The nexus between our desires and our duty, as Our Lord knew perfectly, is temptation, which would not be temptation if it lacked its compelling attractions. It is a dogma of the followers of Jean Jacques Rousseau that temptation cannot be resisted, or that to do so would be immoral, an act denying our ‘nature.’ And popular testimony would seem to verify the point, for very often temptation is not resisted. Nevertheless Katherine Hepburn was right when in African Queen she poured Humphrey Bogart’s liquor into the river. When he protested that to deny him drink was against human nature, she replied that nature is what we’re put on earth to rise above, with nature understood as nothing more than a collection of desires and impulses. The Apostle James put it better when he wrote: “Blessed is the man who endures trial. For when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life God has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:11).

Christ’s suffering at the hands of the prince of this world is the pattern of suffering as that occurs as that part of our nature which abjures discipline is being brought under the reign of Christ. “Because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). And again, “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15–16). And hear Saint Paul: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure” (I Corinthians 10:13).

Perhaps because we live in a culture characterized by a sea of indefeasible, importunate desires, not only ordinary sins and follies but a tsunami of skewed impulses, obsessions, and addictions, there is now sometimes a willingness to throw in the towel of moral aspiration, to throw up our hands and abandon the nobility of the human struggle for holiness. But be it remembered that this superficially merciful strategy leads to the desolation of souls. God can forgive failure, weakness and sins as often as we can repent and ask, but there is not much evidence that He can help those who do not take up the fight for the good life, which means bearing temptation as did Our Lord in the Wilderness and never despairing of victory.

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One Response to Thoughts on the Gospel Reading for Sunday, March 9, 2014; Matthew 4:1-11

  1. Mary Conces says:

    Thank you for the inspiration, Dr. Patrick. At Ambrose House we have just begun to study Dante. There it is–right at the beginning of “The Inferno”: a maladversion against cowardice. And here you come, also warning against my besetting sin. Someone must be trying to tell me something.
    Mary Conces