Sunday, March 10, 2019

Talking Back to Satan (Lent 1.C)

“Man does not live by bread alone.”

And that’s a good thing, since I gave up bread for Lent! (Well, after breakfast, anyway.)

Of course Jesus isn’t speaking about what we eat but about how we live. And in today’s Gospel he is showing us a priceless method of living according to his example and teaching.

I don’t really need to point out what’s happening in the exchange between Jesus and the devil. Just after his baptism in the Jordan, and just before he begins his public ministry, Jesus is tested and tempted.

The temptations are familiar to each one of us. The offer of food is the temptation to gratify the senses, whether by gluttony or lust. The offer of kingdoms of the world appeals to our greed for power and possessions, and jumping off the top of the temple is a temptation to pride.

In his first letter, St. John sums up these three as “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, [and] the pride in riches.”

There’s nothing new there. These invitations to sin appear in the Garden of Eden, all through the Bible, and in our own lives.

What’s new here is the method of fighting evil that Jesus models for us. He uses no special power that we don’t have. He doesn’t toss Satan off the roof. He works no miracle.

What Jesus does is use Scripture. Our Lord handles the devil in a way that any one of us is perfectly capable of doing.  He takes up what St. Paul calls “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).

You might think that’s perfectly obvious.  Well, if it is, I’m a bit slow. I’ve read this story dozens of times, but this is the first time I figured out exactly what Jesus was showing us.

I can’t take any credit for figuring it out. I owe it to a fourth-century monk called Evagrius Ponticus (or Evagrius of Pontus). Evagrius gave a name to what Jesus is doing in his encounter with the devil: he called it “contradiction”—the use of a verse of Scripture to confound the devil.

But a recent translation of Evagrius’ work uses an even better name: “talking back.” Responding to evil thoughts with the Word of God is talking back to the devil.

St. Benedict, born about 150 years after Evagrius, picks up this idea in his Rule for monks. He tells them—and us—to catch hold of temptations and “dash them against Christ.” Christ is the immovable rock that shatters the hardest temptation, just as he does in the Gospel we’ve heard this morning.

There’s a big challenge here. Talking back to the devil with God’s Word requires something: we need to know what the Word says.

Standing at the top of the Temple, Jesus did not tell Satan, “Hold on, I need to look something up in my Bible.” And that’s not only because he didn’t own a Bible. The verb “dash” suggests something done quickly—in fact, St. Benedict says to do it while our temptations are still “young” (RB, Prologue, 28).

In Sunday School, many Protestants learned to memorize Scripture.  When I was young, all we memorized was catechism answers. As adults, it may be time to memorize at least a few key verses from the Bible that we can quickly use to talk back to temptation.

We could start, of course, by memorizing the three Old Testament verses that Jesus uses in his confrontation with Satan. We may not be tempted the same way, but these scriptures answer many of the devil’s standard opening lines.

I mentioned the book Talking Back. It lists dozens of short Scripture passages that Evagrius suggests we use to contradict specific temptations. If the devil tells you this, you tell him that. 

(You can take a look at Evagrius's work on-line here.) Some of the Bible quotations are a bit obscure, but why can’t we make our own little talking back book, listing the things the devil likes to tell us and matching them up with a contradictory verse from the Bible?

If you’re looking for a Lenten project that’s more interesting than giving up bread or chocolate, grab a Bible and start thinking about how it can help you talk back against Satan and stay strong in the fight against temptation and sin.

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