Denying the Devil Gets Him His Due

A sermon based on Matthew 4:1-11
given at Mt Vernon, Ohio, March 5, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A Sunday school teacher asked the class if anyone knew what a sin of omission was? A student’s hand shot up and she said “I know, I know. It’s the sins we should have committed but didn’t get around to!” 1.

Today’s text has Jesus being tempted to sin. As we begin our forty days and nights of Lent our Lectionary lesson has Jesus taken by the Holy Spirit for forty days and nights into the wilderness specifically to fast and then be tempted by the devil. There in the wilderness upon completion of the forty days the temptations to sin occur.

The New Revised Standard Version we heard Kasie read lays out a translation that captures pretty well in English what the author of Matthew literally wrote in Greek, but some of what is going on is missed by modern audiences. The devil is thrusting and Jesus is parrying as they duel with scripture in ways that are eerily like what today’s Christians do in argument.

Of course, in the lesson Jesus’ parrying is brilliant and effective. The devil’s sins – like many combatants in theological struggles– includes the sin of omission of governing scripture. The devil leaves out what Jesus quotes, quotes that fend off the evil and sin the devil uses scripture to promote. This duel by Jesus with the devil is remarkable. So I looked around and found that the paraphrase of this text in The Message actually lays out the verbal battle so we can better hear what Matthew’s community would have heard, Jesus out dueling the devil with scripture.

Here is how Eugene Patterson paraphrases the story in The Message:

Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. Jesus prepared for the Test by fasting forty days and forty nights. That left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger, which the Devil took advantage of in the first test: “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.”
Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”///

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. He sat him on top of the Temple and said, “Since you are God’s Son, jump.” The Devil goaded him by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you so that you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone.”

Jesus countered with another citation from Deuteronomy: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.” ///

For the third test, the Devil took him to the peak of a huge mountain. He gestured expansively, pointing out all the earth’s kingdoms, how glorious they all were. Then he said, “They’re yours—lock, stock, and barrel. Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.”

Jesus’ refusal was curt: “Beat it, Satan!” He backed his rebuke with a third quotation from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

The Test was over. The Devil left. And in his place, angels! Angels came and took care of Jesus’ needs. 2

This story is about a clash of empires, as God’s vs Satan’s. 3 There are these two usually hidden forces at work, what last week I referred to in creation story terms, good and evil. The devil’s first temptation, to make loaves of bread is evil because it suggests using God-given gifts to make loaves, way more than is needed, when a single loaf would more than satisfy Jesus’ hunger. Indeed a loaf alone might make him sick after such a long fast– but the evil one suggests he make loaves far more than Jesus could ever need or use alone in the wilderness. We can hear that this first temptation is a call to Jesus to the evil of abusing power to get more than is needed. It’s a make and take, just to make, and just to take, have and horde sin. Using power selfishly for greed well beyond need.

And keep in mind God’s Holy Spirit set up these tests, meaning they are a part of our existence and so are always here for all of us . . . using God’s given power for greed for more than we need is a constant temptation. And food is the very first and basic need we have for well being. 4. But even in dire hunger Jesus refuses to abuse power to act greedy toward the one material thing he needs food. Instead he knows food alone will not sustain him, he knows, he like we, need God’s presence. God’s continually spoken word.

And making lots of loaves with God’s power is something we know that Jesus does later –at God’s behest not the devils– when Jesus miraculously feeds thousands with a few loaves and fish.

The second temptation by the devil focuses on the need for security when we find ourselves vulnerable 5. Jesus is taken very high up in the Temple and told to jump and abuse power. The devil asks Jesus to assure himself that God’s going to magically come to rescue when risks appear, especially ones we create by choosing to recklessly throw ourselves, as Jesus is asked to, into danger. Security is a basic need for well being, but not one we should be reckless about. The devil’s test here is calling Jesus to test God, not trust God.

Later in the gospel account Jesus, of course, rescues others from death and is himself resurrected by God from a cruel crucifixion that was of the devil’s making though Rome, not through Jesus’ recklessly–and selfishly– tossing himself into danger at the devil’s request, but loving exposing himself to danger for God and humanity’s sake.

The first two temptations are about the two basic needs all humans have, that is, for sustenance and security and how we must not abuse power from God to get them or test them.

The third temptation is about something well beyond needs, it’s about obtaining domination and prestige. 6 For the low, low price of giving into evil Jesus is offered “all the earth’s kingdoms.” “They’re [his]—lock, stock, and barrel” all he need do is kneel and worship the devil. All power is Jesus’ if he gives up on following God and instead followers the devil. It’s classic good vs evil . . . God vs Satan. And of course Jesus flat our rejects it saying, “Beat it, Satan! . . . “Worship the Lord your God, and only [God]. Serve [God] with absolute single-heartedness.”

Later God provides Jesus all the universe’s kingdoms and powers – and heaven’s too– not through Jesus self serving homage to the devil, of course, but through self-less homage to God.

Since we are talking about the devil I think it is important to point out that your pastor does not put much stock in the devil as a real being. I am an atheist to the existence of a divine, immortal being who opposes God. Satan does not exist as a god-like being in my theology. That’s me. You can decide for yourself. At this church we do not require anyone to check their brain or theology at the door –as long as we remain respectful of others.

While no one has to agree with me in denying a supernatural devil exists. It is okay to agree. Christianity has a long history of claiming to believe in one God. One deity. One supernatural being. Yahweh. God. Lord. Love. I believe in God, but I do not believe in a lesser evil deity because I am a monotheist. I have one God, not one big God and a pesky slightly lesser one who wreaks havoc and runs amuck in creation.

Those who believe in the devil or Satan tend to understand him as a dark sinister supernatural being who is able to control us and makes us sin, and move away from the Light that is God. This belief in my view contradicts monotheism–the belief in one God. Not everyone agrees. Many Christians believe in an otherworldly power that creates and controls evil.

I do not begrudge anyone that belief, but I do have a problem with the all-to-common side effect of that belief, the ugly practice of claiming those who disagree with their views are somehow in line with the devil. Even worse is that when we blame a supernatural being for the evil in the world it takes the HEAT off of humans. When in truth all the evidence points to humans as the ones who do and bring evil in the world; slavery and racism and sexism and heterosexism and poverty and torture; Hitler and Stalin and the annihilation of indigenous peoples and other tribes and profound disrespect for other religious groups and all other oppressions are evils brought about by people acting of their own accord not under the spell of a supernatural being. We – WE– are responsible for those evils and any and all that loom large.

Evil is defined by The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms as “That which opposes the will of God. It is both personal and structured oppression that takes shape in society . . . [,] the absence of good.” Sin is, as we have discussed before, an archery term that means failing to hit the mark, the mark God aims us at. Sin is not per se evil, we all miss the mark from time to time.

It becomes evil when our missing the mark is an intentional move in opposition to God’s call. This most often happens when it serves either personal or corporate gain to the oppression of others. Oppression is injustice, it’s unrighteous and unloving conduct. While I personally deny that the devil exists, I am quite certain that evil exists. I accept that we as humans, and through human institutions, can be sinister devils, metaphoric Satans that call us to evil and even control us and lead us to sin– that’s the devil that temps us.

And if unlike Jesus in our story, we choose wrong and oppose God’s call it will move us away from the Light that is God. Evil choices can and do do that. But I do not believe a non-human devil deity is literally lurking around conniving and concocting ways to make us do it. ///

In seminary I took a wonderful course on Judaism and learned that the way Judaism typically understands sin can help us avoid the devil-made-us-do-it excuse. Judaism considers sin to be the violation of God’s law. The consequences of sin are that the community suffers. When we do something wrong everyone suffers. The remedy for sin is atonement. 7 We are in the season of Lent. That is also what Lent is about. Atonement means working to be at-one with God. At-one-ment. Atonement.

And that is Jesus’ answer in all three of his temptations in the desert. His answers have him at one with God. In response to being tempted to use God’s power to get more than he needs, he turns to God’s word. In response to being tempted to put himself in danger, he chooses not to temp fate, God. In response to being tempted to use power to get more power he chooses to completely chase that temptation away–and as a result evil’s influence, named in the story as the devil, flees.

And all the types of things Jesus was tempted to abuse power for, for devilish reasons – that he rightly turned down when it was selfishly for him at evil’s request– all of them later happen when the power of God is properly used for Godly reasons. When Jesus is at one with God he feeds thousands, heals others, IS resurrected, and he is given all power in the universe after a life lived as the incarnation of God, not evil.

Lent and our recent lessons are about choosing good over evil. The latter– evil– is the devilish call to abuse power for self and wickedness. The former is God’s call to use power for others and benevolence. May we choose to answer God’s call. May we choose good. May we choose God and good not just for our self, but for all creation and God within and above it.


1. This story is a slightly modified version of the one found at page 357 in Michael Hodgin’s book 1001 Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking.
2. Paterson, Eugene, The Message, Matthew 4:1-11.
3. New Interpreters Bible Commentary, on Matthew, p 162.
4. Feasting on the Word, year A, vol 2, p 49
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. These are from my class notes on Judaism taught by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky an adjunct professor at Eden Theological Seminary in a course called The Impact of Judaism on Christianity, Spring Term 2005.