Sunday, March 13, 2011

All these will I give thee

Today's Gospel reading was the temptation of Jesus. I've often mused a bit about the temptation in which the Devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will fall down and worship him. Does the Devil have the kingdoms of the world to offer, or was the offer just a fake?

We know the Devil doesn't actually play fair, but I've always suspected that he really did have the kingdoms of the world to offer. Jesus Himself called the Devil "the prince of this world." Human beings have free will, but they're usually only too ready to listen to the wrong leaders and the wrong promptings. If Satan really wanted to set someone up to rule the world, unless God chose to intervene and stop it, I would guess that Satan could do it.

If this conjecture is right, then Jesus turned down a genuine offer of world-wide rule in place of the road to Golgotha.

And it may be, too, that the Devil sometimes offers us things as well--really offers them to us. If we will only be dishonest, we can get something we couldn't otherwise get. Maybe that's true. Maybe we could really get away with it. Jesus said that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. If one is wise as a serpent but not harmless as a dove, one may do better than all the doves.

I don't imagine many of us feel anything like a direct temptation to bow down and worship Satan in exchange for earthly rule. But in any life there are temptations to gain earthly advantage by less-than-noble means--lying, fudging, faking, cheating, or even bullying and manipulation come to mind.

It's almost frightening to reflect that for a time, maybe even a long time, these techniques might really work. The Devil is far more likely to promise, and give, tangible success than God is. And the worst of it is that once one has been getting away with something for these many years it becomes extremely difficult to back out of it, especially if other people are involved.

Well. None of this is our business for anyone but ourselves. But it's worth reflecting and asking God to help us hear in the misleading thoughts that occur to us the voice softly whispering, "All these will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me..."


William Luse said...

Nice. Scary but nice.

Alex said...

It's little studied these days, but in Milton's Paradise Regained, Satan is given some good arguments on behalf of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Among the most potent of Satan's temptations are the promises of knowledge suffused with the ancient wisdom and philosophy of Greece, and earthly fame and glory. In these lines (Book 4, 163-169) Satan makes his final offer that tests the divine resolve of the Son of God:

The Kingdoms of the world to thee I give;
For giv'n to me, I give to whom I please,
No trifle; yet with this reserve, not else,
On this condition, if thou wilt fall down,
And worship me as thy superior Lord,
Easily done, and hold them all of me;
For what can less so great a gift deserve?

Jesus rebuffs Satan:

......Wert thou so void of fear or shame,
As offer them to me the Son of God,
To me my own, on such abhorred pact,
That I fall down and worship thee as God?
Get thee behind me; plain thou now appear'st
That Evil one, Satan for ever damn'd.

There's lots more I could quote, but I suspect you might be more familiar with Paradise Regained than I am.

Lydia McGrew said...

I _used_ to know _Paradise Regained_, but that was long ago. A poem that varies a lot in strength, more so than _Paradise Lost_, as I recall. Difficult to tell from the passage, but I think Milton is implying that the kingdoms of the world are Jesus' own in one sense and Satan's in another.

Alex said...

Satan's temptation of Jesus is a puzzling bit of scripture. Not least since there's nothing that the Son of God could possibly desire either in this material world or in the kingdom of heaven. Even the vanity of human wishes isn't a pertinent consideration under the aspect of eternity.

Milton makes clear that Jesus rejects Satan's offers of the kingdoms of the world - not only because, in a sense, they already belong to Him, but also because He is utterly impervious to temptation of any kind. Only human beings can be tempted - especially to do something wrong or unwise. Yet the preternaturally cunning and intelligent Satan behaves as if it's possible to beguile Jesus. This doesn't make obvious sense: there must be an emblematic meaning.

So what lesson is the temptation of Jesus meant to teach us?

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, I think when it comes to the question of what the temptation of Jesus was like for Jesus, we have to admit that we don't know. The prayer in Gethsemane shows that it was possible for Jesus to experience emotions like hope and fear and even apparently not to know what was going to happen. (He asks the Father "If it be possible, let this cup pass.")

Does this mean that it was possible for him in the wilderness to have the subjective experience of desiring to do something Satan asked him to do? We don't know. Imaginatively, I find this most plausible in the case of making the stones bread. After all, Jesus was hungry. I can imagine his feeling an impulse to turn the stones into bread once the suggestion was made. But we don't actually know if he felt that way.

Of course, the best Scriptural gloss on this is in Hebrews: "He was in all points tempted like as we are yet without sin." On the face of it, one would normally take this to mean that Our Lord really _did_ experience temptation as we would use the term "temptation"--i.e., the subjective desire to do something which one knows to be wrong. How this is compatible with Jesus' being God is something I don't think we have full information on.

Kristor said...

It cannot be that only humans are temptable. How could Satan come to his decision to Fall, unless he had been first tempted thereto?

And, unlike Lucifer, Jesus _is_ a human being, and thus according to Hebrews 4:15 was tempted _in every way_ as we are. Indeed, if he could not be tempted, then the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness would not be called by that name. If he had not been tempted, Jesus would not have reacted to Satan's impudence with such wrath; rather, Satan's importunities would have been beneath his notice. Furthermore, there would in that case have been no point to his fasting, for it could not have operated to any effect in him.

It is quite possible that Jesus could desire sublunary things, such as, e.g., the salvation of human souls or the establishment of His Kingdom on Earth. Given his desire for these goods, it would be natural to his humanity to consider the option of a utopian dictatorship, with himself at the helm.

It is true that the discarnate Logos is not subject to temptation. But the incarnate Logos _is_ thus subject; temptation goes along with participation in a world, for it is nothing but a creaturely reckoning of the goods really potential to various alternative courses of action, and an apprehension of their allure. One aspect of our LORD’s redemption of the world was his rejection of all lesser, worldly goods – despite his exhaustive recognition of their benefits, which combined the concrete immediacy of a creature’s feeling of their allure with his complete omniscient divine understanding of their consequential depths – in favor of the Good itself. Knowing all the options for himself in the same way we do for ourselves, but to a perfect degree, he consistently chose the Good itself, even though it entailed disaster for his body – for his human being.

The lesson for us, then, is to imitate him: to seek to ascend to his heavenly perspective, even here on Earth - not by trying, to be sure, for that would be the Gnostic heresy of Babel, and Pelagius, from which he turned – but by prayer, fasting and supplication allowing the influence of the Paraclete to pervade and correct our understanding and our will. We are to keep Lent. We are to turn with Him from the world, and open our eyes to see that we stand already in the High Place with Him, and so participate in His Royal Priesthood.

Alex said...

Matthew 20:17-19 : And Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside along the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify Him. And the third day He shall rise again.

Such prescience of His fate doesn't seem consistent with the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. As a human being, he naturally feared the manner of his death and hoped it could be avoided. As the Son of Man, he knew his sacrifice was inevitable.

This brings up the difficult question of whether Jesus had knowledge and constant awareness of his two natures or had faith, as Christians do, that it is so. Was he always conscious of being the Son of Man? Alleging, let's say, that he was only intermittently conscious of his divine nature leads into some sort of heresy, I think.

(I understand the epithet "Son of Man" to mean the Messiah of the Hebrew prophecies and saviour of mankind.)

Milton's account of Satan's fall, in Paradise Lost, attributes it to the sin of pride.

....The infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed, and, with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire......

Maybe this suggests that something like human weakness was intrinsic to Satan's nature and therefore he was susceptible to temptation at the time when he fell from heaven like lightning.

Kristor said...

"This brings up the difficult question of whether Jesus had knowledge and constant awareness of his two natures ..."

Difficult indeed. Was Jesus aware that he was the Logos when he was asleep? Or when he was groggy and befuddled, as he must have been on the Cross? If he was identical with the Logos, how not? If he was a man, how possibly?

Perhaps we could say that when Jesus was "fully himself," fully "in his right mind" - not, e.g., stunned by hitting his head in the shop, or exhausted and nervous in the wilderness, etc. - then he knew without hindrance from his body just who he was. So, when he was most fully and completely man - i.e., most fully and completely expressing the essence of man, the _rational_, _intellectual_ essence of man - he was also most fully aware of his divinity.

Tony said...

There are a number of theories about these, but some of them are precluded by sound theology, I think. For example, Jesus was truly tempted, but the temptations that we experience contains an internal part and an external part. The external is from Satan or another source presenting a good as if it were a true good instead of only an apparent good. It is necessary, from the Gospel, to admit to the external part happening to Christ, but it is not necessary to submit that Jesus suffered the internal part of the temptation. For Adam and Eve, as well as for Jesus, having no interior defect of mind or will, they could not begin to experience the internal fight of a temptation without the external pressure of a Satan to begin to present the false good as a true good. (Which is unlike us whose minds and wills are defective, and whose passions are not ruled absolutely by our wills). It is perfectly possible that Christ felt no inclination whatsoever toward Satan's offers.

Second, there is nothing definitive in Scripture that says that Satan knew Christ was actually divine, I believe. It is, also, suggested from private revelation from more than one saint that the Devil didn't know for sure that Christ was the One He could guess it and be reasonably confident of the probabilities, but he could not ascertain it directly, and one of the things bothering Satan was that inability to be certain, which is why he attempted the temptation. And, not even slightly accidentally, Christ rebuffs the temptations without ever adverting to the fact that He is God.

As to Christ's knowledge, we will never really understand the hypostatic union, but IMO what little we do grasp seems to preclude that Christ was ever in doubt about Himself, or about anything. He was already Divine, and then took on a human nature. While the human nature could mature and develop, the Divine could not. And the human intellect and will were always in perfect conformity to the Divine. I would suggest, then, that when Christ was humanly sleeping his Divine intellect was still in perfect omniscience, when Christ was awake his human intellect operated in conformity with a perfect human nature subdued by direct union with the Divine nature, and when Christ was suffering torture the imperfections of the physical organs were superceded by the Divine power, so that He knew at all times exactly who He was and what He was about. (It is also respectably believed that Divine aid strengthened his body so that it could survive the sufferings He was put through, for otherwise He would have died much earlier. Under this belief, He was also strengthened in being able to remain clear in the mind throughout, because this completed the measure of suffering from all those tortures. If he were insensate during some part of it, what point allowing that to be imposed?)

As such, then, even in His human nature and intellect, He could never have been subject to the kind of internal doubt and the betwixt-betweenness we experience while we are undergoing temptation and not, for the moment, simply defeating it outright. That moment when we really consider doing the wrong thing requires of us a moment of permitting our attention to focus on a good that (somewhere else, in the back of the mind - were we to only pay attention) we are capable of discerning as the lesser good that is undue, inappropriate; a too-narrow focus that tends to exclude the due, proper good. And this defect would not have been in Christ, because his human intellect was always perfectly attuned to the Divine intellect. This is, at least, the view of St. Thomas and many other theologians.

Lydia McGrew said...

I understand the point of all that you're saying, Tony, but the Hebrews passage does sit rather oddly with that. After all, saying that we have a high priest who can be touched with "the feeling of our infirmities" because he was "in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" ends up sounding like a cruel bait-and-switch if one is then told, "Oh, did you misunderstand? I didn't mean that Jesus ever _felt tempted_ at all. He's totally unlike you, so he didn't experience in any sense whatsoever the _internal_ part of temptation." I mean, on the face of it, that's exactly what the passage is saying Jesus _did_ experience.

Alex said...

I'm not up to speed on the theology of the hypostatic union. However, one point in Tony's lucid commentary that I hadn't properly considered before, is that Satan did not know Jesus was divine. Had the Devil known this for certain, then the futility of the temptations in the wilderness would have been apparent.

There is a verse in Genesis 3, after Satan's successful temptation of Eve, where God says:

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

A possible inference is that Satan was given cause to expect, one day in the fullness of God's time, to confront the Son of Man himself - a descendant of Eve. Unless God is referring to the Virgin Mary who is often depicted in Christian iconography, as crushing the head of a serpent.