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Third Temptation

by John Hemer MHM

Many people are puzzled by the third temptation of Jesus in the desert.  The first two Ė the temptation to make bread and thus be relevant and the temptation to perform a great stunt and thus be spectacular are easy enough to grasp with a little thought. The third however, seems a logical impossibility.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them;  and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (Matthew 4:8)

Jesus is preparing for his ministry and considering various ways of approaching his task, some of which are good, some bad, hence they are temptations. But is it conceivable that the Son of God would ever be tempted to worship the devil, to recognize Satan as the source of his strength and inspiration? Indeed all the evidence in the gospels suggests that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in political power Ė he literally ran for the hills when it was offered to him. (John 6:15) So how can the devilís offer be a temptation, be something attractive for Jesus? Surely power is the last thing he wants.

Jesus doesnít want political power, but he does want to influence people, he has a message and wants people to hear it. There is, especially early in the gospels, a sense of urgency, so much to do and so little time. Perhaps here is where the devilís suggestion becomes a little more plausible. Heís trying to get Jesus to keep his eyes fixed on all the kingdoms of the world. Heís trying to make him desire and go after as many followers as possible. Heís trying to get him to play the ratings game; to be guided, if you like, by opinion polls. Heís trying to make him desire success above all things. And it sounds so good and holy. What could be better than for Jesus to be THE influence, the guiding force over everyone on earth?

But if Jesus does that how will he cope with opposition? How will he cope when the Pharisees tell him heís wrong, or when some of his own disciples tell him that his words are intolerable and leave him? (John 6: 66) Well, if he eyes are fixed on getting (and keeping) as many followers as possible, in such circumstances he will tailor his message to suit his audience. He wonít do an about turn, he wonít deny anything heís said or done so far, but he will make subtle changes in order to make his message more palatable. The Pharisees, after all, are hugely influential, thereís no point in alienating them when they can be such useful allies. So rather than heal on the Sabbath and court controversy, Jesus can heal on other days, heís still healing after all. Rather than lose all those followers at Capernaum, he can call them back and explain the Eucharist in terms that are less offensive, more acceptable. No major changes, just tweaking the message here and there to make sure it hits its target audience.

Just as a ship only one half a degree off course will end up hundreds of miles from its destination, so if Jesus makes these little changes here and there, he will end up preaching not Godís truth but what his audience want Godís truth to be. What will be guiding him will not be the voice of God but the voice of sinful human beings, the values of sinful human institutions. Without even realizing it he will no longer be worshiping God, but the devil. And by worship we mean more than just an isolated religious act. The thing we worship is the thing which guides our lives, the thing that motivates us. If Jesus allows himself to be motivated by the desire for success, it will always be fallen human concerns which guide him.  The Truth will then be whatever his listeners want to hear and that is tantamount to worshipping the devil.

Itís significant that when the gospels use the word Ďdemoní they are usually talking about extraordinary manifestations of evil, possession etc and Jesus deals with this straightforwardly. But when they talk of Ďthe devilí or ĎSataní they nearly always mean evil appearing in fairly conventional, even very attractive human forms, such as religious institutions which purport to be holy but in fact keep people away from God. Or even more subtly, when Peter, very understandably, objects to the idea that Jesus has to suffer and die Jesus answers him: Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do. (Mark 8:33) Peter, with his great idea of saving the messiah from suffering, is dancing to the devilís music, not Godís.

All through Jesusí public life we see the consequences of this victory over the devil as he refuses to be swayed by public opinion or by threats or violence. Worshipping the devil isnít necessarily a huge act of rebellion, just a series of small acts of accommodation. Itís a constant temptation for us as Christians and the only sure antidote is the one Jesus gives: You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. (Matthew 4:10)



This version: 18th May 2006


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