When I was growing up, my siblings and I had a simple understanding of right and wrong: you couldn’t do something bad to someone else unless that person had done something bad to you. We considered, “He hit me first,” an iron-clad justification for anything short of permanent maiming. And any grown-up who didn’t accept this reasoning was grossly unfair – even incomprehensible.
There are days when I wonder if my moral instincts have advanced much in 65 years. Whereas the weapons of most of my currant battles are social and emotional blows rather than the bloody noses and black eyes of playground days, the rational for my violence is about the same: “I can’t let him make a fool of me . . . I have to stand up for what’s right . . . If I let this (whatever the offense) go, he’ll think it’s alright . . . For evil to triumph all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing.”
Jesus faced the temptation to accomplish his good goals by whatever means would succeed. He lived in an acutely evil situation where Rome afforded Judea no more humanity than was necessary to keep its hatred from exploding. The right person could have easily set a match to this hatred and Jesus had that capability. Who, but the Romans, would have questioned his right – even duty – to lead his people in rebellion.
The Satan in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ temptation isn’t a horned, personified evil. Satan is the urge to use the very behavior that keeps the world in an uproar to rescue the world from uproar. Use violence to stop violence. Use force to promote justice. Use hate to spread love. Use ridicule to nurture respect. Use the methods of the world’s history to bring about God’s Future. It all seems realistic – until we think deeply about it.
The Satan that Christians need fear isn’t a red, pitchfork-toting demon; it’s the idea that we can further the world Jesus promised without living the way Jesus lived. Our temptation is to believe that, if we pray correctly and believe correctly, we can do everything else our way. That temptation is real, it’s now and it’s huge.