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The Devil's Bargain
Reflection on the First Sunday of Lent
With the beginning of Lent, one passage from the Gospels is often on my mind: after His baptism by John in the Jordan River, when Our Lord left for the desert to be tempted by the devil. For 40 days, He ate nothing. When those 40 days were up, He was hungry and the devil came and tempted Him. This passage marks the first Sunday in the traditional calendar, and interpretations abound as to the meaning of the three temptations.
First the devil tempted him to prove who He was, and to use his powers to satisfy mere bodily desires: “If thou be the Son of God, say to this stone that it be made bread” (Luke 4:3). Again, the devil tempted Our Lord to prove who He was with other visible signs, and, taking him to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, said to Him, “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence. For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee” (Luke 4:9-10).
Venerable Fulton Sheen suggested that the first temptation should be seen as a temptation for Our Lord to win men to Him, not by being a savior of their souls, but by being a filler of their bellies. Forget their souls, the devil said, in effect, and become a social reformer, ending world hunger. The next temptation, Sheen suggested, could be seen as the temptation for Our Lord to win the world to Himself through signs and wonder and more still, represented the temptation to test God Himself, to demand the God show signs and wonder and prove Himself to us.
But what has struck me most this year is the final temptation. There Satan took Our Lord to a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “To thee will I give all this power, and the glory of them; for to me they are delivered, and to whom I will, I give them. If thou therefore wilt adore before me, all shall be thine” (Luke 4: 6-7).
The temptation may startle the reader. As Sheen asks: did the devil really have the power to offer the world? Our Lord did indeed call Satan the “prince of the world,” but it was not because the devil owned the world by natural right, but only because man, by sin, had surrendered himself to the devil. Hence, Venerable Archbishop Sheen and the Church fathers say that it was not really true that the devil could turn the world over to whom he pleased.
The devil proves here what we already know: that he is a liar. On one occasion speaking to the crowds, Jesus said exactly this of the devil: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof” (John 8:44). And so, here, in the desert, when the devil offered Our Lord the kingdoms of the world, we know that he was lying.
Not only was he lying, he was offering “the devil’s bargain.” The offer of the whole world was meant to appeal to pride and ambition, ultimately to sabotage Our Lord’s mission: the redemption of the souls of men. Satan would have “allowed” Him to be a social reformer, to bring world peace, to enact social justice. He offered to allow this on only one condition: that Our Lord would fall down and worship the devil. And Our Lord would not take the bargain. Sheen imagines the meaning of His reply, “Satan, you want worship, but to worship you is to serve you, and to serve you, is slavery.” (Life of Christ). Furthermore, the Lord responds that the devil ought to get behind Him: for Christ Himself is God, and it is absurd that the devil should demand worship from the One God responsible for his very existence.
The devil offered Our Lord the whole world and all kingdoms and all men within, if only He would worship him. Yet, had Christ done so, He would have fallen for the devil’s bargain, giving up on His divine mission to redeem men from the devil. Of course, Our Lord, because He is God, was not intrinsically tempted by Satan’s attempts. It is true that He was tempted, as Scripture says, but He was tempted only from without.
Yet we, however, are not God. And so we too are often tempted by the devil and the bargains he offers. We, unlike Christ, are tempted from within and without. In a host of ways, we risk giving in to the devil’s offer to help us avoid suffering, loss, unhappiness, if only we will serve him. And in serving him, lies only slavery and, in the end, only unhappiness. This is the bargain the devil offers.
I do not wish to belabor the point, but I cannot help but think (being in the education field) how Catholic schools have too often been tempted by a kind of devil’s bargain. If only we follow the state standards, common core stands, the state curriculum, a secular model, then we will have worldly success. We will be giving parents and students what they want; the state will give us state money; we’ll score well on standardized tests, and we will be successful.
That is all and always has been a lie; that is too clear to deny. Generations of watered down Catholic education, schools that are little more than “common core plus religion,” have not thrived. When one’s faith is confined to a school subject, and subject to the rules of the world, it does not flourish. Indeed, many (if not most) Catholic schools have been unfaithful to their calling and divine mission, and most have not even the little comfort of achieving worldly success.
They must hope and try for something better, higher, and holier: the formation of children into the Church Militant, future saints… even if that way is the opposite of that which offers worldly success.
Not only Catholic schools, but we too, must often shun the way that seems to offer worldly success and choose the harder way: the way of the desert, and the way that leads to the cross. For if the devil seems to offer power and success that ends only in slavery, then the opposite is true of Him Who was tempted in the desert. His way seems to offer suffering and a cross, but ends in an everlasting crown.