(Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7)+Psalm 32+Romans 5:12-19+Matthew 4:1-11
In 1963, writer, philosopher, and political thinker Hannah Arendt published a book about the trial of Nazi Secret Service chief Adolf Eichmann. The subtitle of Eichmann in Jerusalem became both a lightning rod and a catchphrase – A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt, herself a Holocaust survivor, came under some harsh criticism for her assessment of Eichmann as a perpetrator of evil without actually being evil himself even as she recognized the colossal horror of what he had perpetrated.
But this phrase, the banality of evil, recognizes an important aspect of malevolence: it can come disguised in the most nondescript packaging. To Arendt, Eichmann did not have the depth or intellect to distinguish himself from the party to which he belonged nor its ideology. Sitting in the box for the accused, surrounded by guards, and dressed in a suit and tie, Eichmann certainly did not look like the personification of evil.
It seems clear that evil rarely comes in a manner that signals its intentions.
The devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness did not have horns and a tail, no matter what artistic images it might conjure. The διάβολος as it is rendered in Greek is the word from which we get devil and diabolical. We know that those are wicked things. But the word itself actually means slanderer or false accuser, and my preferred translation is the Tempter. This devil slanders Jesus’s identity by tempting him to believe he is not who and what he was just called in his baptism: the beloved Son.
The Tempter does not approach Jesus as soon as he enters the wilderness. No, he waits until the end of the forty days when Jesus is at his hungriest, his weakest, his most vulnerable. You can read that forty days in whatever numerical value you want. Whether it was Noah and the menagerie on the ark for forty days or the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, this “forty” just means a really long time.
And so, the Tempter watches and waits and then offers Jesus the most inviting of things – bread. If you’re God’s son, it’s no big deal, right? Just turn these rocks into bread. And, you know, if you are who you claim to be, throw yourself off this highest point of the temple. It’ll be all right. And then, the Tempter takes Jesus up the highest mountain and tells him he could have power over all he surveyed, but there’s just one catch. Fall and worship me. Prostrate yourself to me. This kind of worship isn’t about going to church and singing songs to God. No, it’s about giving up oneself, one’s will, one’s very being. The word used for this kind of worship is the same one that described what the Magi did when they laid their gifts before the infant king: to bow down and acknowledge the other as Lord.
There is no doubt that those who first heard this story about the temptation in the wilderness immediately thought of two other temptation stories: Adam and Eve who disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree that would give them equality with God; and the Israelites who, upon reaching the Promised Land, decided that maybe things were easier back in Egypt and this land God promised already has people in it and we just aren’t sure we’re up to it, and these doubts led God to send them on forty years of wandering until that generation had died out.
But Jesus doesn’t doubt God. Jesus has been told that he is the beloved One, and the Tempter is no match for that kind of deeply embraced understanding of who and whose he was. He was the One who got it right, and finally everyone had someone they could look to who relied on God’s promise and did not fail. Jesus had been through the wilderness, praying and handing over to God his trust, his will, his very life. What the Tempter offered did not compare. It didn’t look evil in its banality, but it was the worst kind of temptation, inviting Jesus to abandon his trust in the One who named him.
Two people were in the news this week who exemplify both the faithfulness to which we are called as followers of Jesus and the failure to throw our trust and obedience onto God.
I am sure that leading a megachurch could seem like a good thing. Spread the gospel, draw people to Christ, baptize just as Jesus commanded. 45,000 in weekly attendance, a worship space that seats 16,500, employment for a staff of 368 people? What could possibly go wrong? Well, the rumors that pop up every so often resurfaced this week that Pastor Joel Osteen takes a $54m salary from the Lakewood Church his father founded, drives cars that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and lives in an $11m mansion. He preaches a prosperity gospel that says that such abundance indicates God’s blessings on him and his ministry. Apparently, most of his income derives from books and personal appearances, not the church, and Osteen does not seem to be a bad person, but the temptation to such wealth and privilege, convincing himself that it’s okay, is to succumb to that banality of evil. The Tempter did not come with horns and a tail but with dollar signs.
The other person in the news is former president Jimmy Carter, who at 98 has entered home hospice care. There are conflicting views about his presidency, but no one can question his faithfulness. He taught Sunday School whenever he could up until recently. He built houses with Habitat for Humanity into his 90s. He founded the Carter Center to promote peace and global well-being and health, and those efforts have almost eradicated guinea worm disease that once afflicted more than a billion people worldwide. Even in his political days, his critics might have accused him of being sanctimonious, but he was never accused of lying or impropriety.
Carter knows who and whose he is. Whatever temptations to wealth and power he might have experienced in his long life have a come to naught. He and Rosalynn still live in the same two-bedroom ranch-style home they bought in 1961 that is now worth about $167,000. They have clearly taken to heart Jesus’s words about wealth, in stark contrast to Joel and Victoria Osteen. I am not standing in judgment of the Osteens; that is way above my pay grade. But I can’t help wondering if they succumbed to the smooth and easy temptations of wealth and privilege because they can’t trust – truly trust – that God will provide. That maybe they don’t really know to whom they belong.
The Tempter comes for all of us, not just the Carters and Osteens of the world. And it can look so harmless, so banal, so unthreatening. We can so easily convince ourselves that we deserve the money and the nice house and the vacations and the clothing as if we somehow did it all by ourselves.
But as faithful people, we believe that all things, up to and including our very lives, come from God. And Lent is when we revisit that, reset our perspective. Whether we give something up or take something on or spend a little more time in prayer, it is all intended to remind us that we belong to God, that nothing is of more value than that. And then when Easter comes, we will truly know the joy of resurrection, of rebirth.
Those forty days in the wilderness strengthened Jesus’s understanding of who he was, of his belovedness. It took forty days of solitude to let that all sink in.
Jesus is not the only one who can resist the Tempter. No, he showed us the way. Maybe we aren’t going to go wandering in the desert for the next six weeks, but spending a little time listening to God’s voice, basking in God’s love, might just help us recognize when the Tempter is lurking about, all dressed up and looking so innocuous, so banal. And we gain strength from each other, from being part of a worshipping community of faith.
Over these next forty days, remember: you belong to God. And if you tend to forget that, come back here to listen to the Good News, to eat the bread and drink the wine, and be strengthened for all that lies ahead.