When I was a little kid, my mum’s friend had a pile of comic strip compilations, and one of them was Garfield at Large.
In one strip, Garfield has pulled himself up onto the dining table and is playing with Jon’s soup – batting at it at first, but eventually putting his paws fully into it and splashing it around. When Jon sees the mess and shouts, Garfield responds, “The Devil made me do it.”
I was intrigued by the concept. I was only four or five years old and I was from a mainline Anglican home. We didn’t talk about the Devil much outside of reading about him in children’s Bible stories. It’s kind of amazing considering I grew up during the Satanic Panic.
Come to think of it, that joke might have been the first time I considered that the Devil could make you do something. Even at that age, I knew it was just an excuse. Garfield had already spent multiple pages scratching the furniture, beating up the hapless Odie, and stealing Jon’s lasagna. Garfield clearly liked doing these things. He didn’t need the Devil to make him do anything bad. That’s the joke!
And that was comedian Flip Wilson’s point when he invented it. I watched one of his old routines on the Ed Sullivan show. It was pretty funny – he tells a story about a minister and his wife, who claims that the Devil forced her to buy a new dress that they can’t afford, despite her best efforts. Actually, three new dresses in a week. Also, the Devil is the one who made her drive the car into the outer wall of the church by grabbing the steering wheel. When the minister asks her why she didn’t put her foot on the brake, well, she couldn’t because she was too busy trying to kick the Devil.
Not her fault. Not Garfield’s fault. The Devil made them do it.
I think a lot of people still see the Devil this way, as a tempter who convinces us to do things we shouldn’t but really, secretly, want to do. For those of us who are uncreative in the work of malice, it’s little things, like taking the last cupcake or stealing a parking spot. For the rest, though, it might be bigger things. Embezzlement. Abuse. War crimes. The Devil made me do it.
This year, I set myself a goal of preaching more on the Hebrew Bible, what’s sometimes called the Old Testament, with help from a Jewish study Bible. And it’s especially interesting to take a look at Luke’s temptation account in light of who the ancient Jews thought Satan was.
Some of you might know that “Satan” is not a personal name but a title. In Hebrew, ha-satan means “the Accuser.” OG Satan was an angelic figure in the heavenly court, acting under God’s instructions. He’s, without irony, God’s prosecuting attorney. We might remember him from the story of poor Job. Please note that he is not named as the serpent in the actual text of Genesis. That is a much later addition.
Satan has a very specific duty in ancient Jewish tradition, which is not only to act as prosecuting attorney, but, in the words of Jewish biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, “to test the righteous.” It makes perfect sense that he would show up in this story, as Jesus prepares for his Galilean ministry.
And what does he do? Well, there’s a standard laundry list of temptations he offers, ones we might be familiar with enough at this point that they lose some of their potency. Here’s where it’s helpful to read the Deuteronomy passage alongside Luke.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you were scratching your head hardcore when you heard that. What the heck do instructions about how to handle the first fruits of the land have to do with Satan or temptation OR LENT FOR THAT MATTER? (Happy Lent, by the way). But there’s some good stuff in here! Let’s dive in.
The Deuteronomy passage is part of a much longer list of legal requirements for the Israelites, and in fact is the linchpin for a pretty significant turning point in the text. Up until this point, the instructions have been rules for the people to follow in order to be in covenant with God. And we have this beautiful passage that begins with the command for the Israelites to remember where they came from, not just by naming themselves as former refugees and slaves, but by offering their bounty to the Levites and the “aliens” or “strangers” that reside among them. Offering first fruits is an act of humility, and humility is to be followed by an act of solidarity. This is underlined in the following verses which require a third-year tithing of one’s produce to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows – not so that they can just scrape by but so that “they may eat their fill,” says the text – as well as making a verbal promise to God, a sacred vow, that nothing has been held back.
So here we learn that the covenant between God and Their people, which is what Deuteronomy is concerned with laying out in exhaustive and transparent detail, involves a sort of reorientation. The former refugees and slaves have been given the land of promise. It is a gift. They did not earn it. They must therefore act in solidarity with the marginalized. The fact that the writers of Deuteronomy sometimes seem to get mixed up about this does not negate the power of this act of worship for us today. To paraphrase Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, “With the freedom and privilege offered in the Promised Land come obligations.”
If this connection with the Luke story seems fanciful, note that the biblical quotes Jesus gives here are mostly from Deuteronomy.
So while Satan’s status as a tester of the righteous means he might offer Jesus things Jesus might want, from basic needs like food to more complex desires like political or supernatural power, that’s not all he’s offering Jesus. Satan’s offering a different orientation, one that’s in line with what the world expects of us, one counter to the more radical and honest story Jesus wants to live – I’m sure none of us knows what that feels like – one that encourages Jesus to look out for Number One rather than practicing solidarity with the poor working people among whom he has ‘pitched his tent,’ as John the Evangelist so lyrically puts it.
Here, at the pinnacle of the Temple, Satan even employs Scripture to his purposes, as the saying goes. And yet in quoting it he undermines the real truth of that passage, which is supposed to offer comfort during times of sorrow and oppression, the polar opposite of what he encourages here: reckless misuse of trust and privilege, in a sense.
Jesus doesn’t fall for it. He accomplishes the task and goes on to begin his ministry, and Satan departs until “an opportune time.” Insert spooky string section interlude here.
Okay but what does that mean for us, just inside the threshold of Lent 2022?
Well, maybe Satan was never the voice that told us to indulge in one more cupcake or put off calling Aunt Gertrude or insert whatever kindergarten sins here. Maybe Satan is that prosecutorial mindset – the one that assumes the worst of us, that tells us to say, “F you, I got mine,” that says, “There is no covenant so you better hustle or you’ll be in the gutter by Thursday,” that says, “God can’t stand the sight of you and none of those holy promises of love and salvation are for you.”
Maybe sometimes Satan says, “Why don’t you try being God?” And maybe sometimes he says, “You’re too despicable to even speak God’s name.”
And if that’s the case, maybe Lent isn’t about saying, “Dang, Satan, you’re right,” and crawling into a dung hill of sorrow.
Maybe Lent is about saying, “I am not God, but I am a beloved child of God, and there is a covenant, and it is for me, and the only terms are love and solidarity.”
And then doing those things.