When I was young, I was frightened by people who were homeless. I can remember when I was in Sixth grade and on a trip to Washington, D.C. with my family. We were coming up the escalator of the subway, when I saw homeless man begging on the street. The way we all were situated, I was going to be the one closest to him when we passed. And so my immediate reaction was to quick move myself to the other side of my mom and dad, so that they were between me and that man.
As I grew older, I think the fear mutated into more of a moral argument – well should I give this person money for food or will they just go spend it on drugs and booze? And so I usually would still try to avoid those situations. But then, a couple of years back, I read an article. It was a story in the Star Tribune on the topic of the homeless who panhandle on the streets of Minneapolis. And that article changed my life. The article interviewed a handful of Minneapolis’ notorious homeless, the ones everyone knew. The interviewer asked the typical questions – why are you homeless, do you want food or do you want money? That sort of thing. What was great about the story is that it seemed that the people were honest. Some said they simply wanted money so that they could buy some alcohol. Some said they needed the money so that they could buy their much needed insulin. But the common thread that each of them mentioned was that when they are out on the streets asking for money, the only thing they are really looking for is for someone to look them in the eyes. For someone to look him or her in the eyes as if to say, “I see you. You exist. You are not invisible to me.” They said that you don’t have to give them money, but what they desperately want is to be noticed.
Later that year, while on a camping trip as a youth director, I made a commitment -signified by this leather rope around my wrist – a commitment to not be afraid anymore of the homeless people I encounter on the street. To look at them and to see them, and maybe even to introduce myself to them.
But you know what? Even though I made that commitment, I still carry that fear around with me. Every time I drive up to a traffic light and see a person standing there, holding a sign that reads, “Really hungry. Need food. Please help” – every time I see that, I have this internal battle. What should I do? Should I look at her? Do I have any money to give? Maybe I should roll down the window and say hi? Oh wait, it looks like the light is turning green, maybe I won’t have time to do anything. Can’t hold up traffic. It’s this tugging and pulling on my heart. Do this….no, don’t do that. Say something…no don’t say anything. It is like the Holy Spirit and the Devil are having it out with me…the only problem is that their voices sound the same. They sound just like mine.
Maybe that’s how it was for Jesus in this story…maybe the voice of the Holy Spirit and the voice of the devil were too much like his own voice and the two were having it out with him. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he wanders for 40 days without food, during which the devil tempts him. The devil says to Jesus, “Well if you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread and you won’t be hungry,” but then the Spirit whispers in Jesus’ ear, “But one does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil says, “Look at this glorious kingdom of mine, if you worship me, I will give it all to you,” and, again, the Spirit whispers, “Worship and serve only the Lord your God.” Finally, the devils says, “Throw yourself off the top of this temple. Don’t worry God said his angels will protect you,” but the Spirit says, “Do not put God to the test.” Back and forth, back and forth, Jesus has this internal battle between the Holy Spirit and the devil for forty days.
I think it is a battle between a life focused on one’s self versus a life giving one’s self up in love. That’s what Jesus’ ministry was all about, self-giving love. But even Jesus knew the temptation of focusing on his own needs instead of the needs of others. I imagine Jesus thinking to himself, “You know, I could probably do better than a carpenter from Nazareth spending time with the poor. I could have some power in this place.” But then from a place deep within comes a voice that says, “Power and control will not feed your soul.” Or maybe Jesus thinks to himself, I could rule over this land. People would worship me like they worship Caesar.” But then that voice creeps into his heart and reminds him, “Only God is to be worshiped and served.” Or finally, perhaps Jesus thought to himself, “I am invincible. Scripture says God will protect me at all costs.” Once again, a place from deep within whispers, “Do not test God. God works differently than that.” Back and forth, back and forth. Do this….no don’t do that. Say this…no don’t say that.
It is about the battle between a life focused on the self versus a life of self-giving love and Jesus knew that battle so well, because this is a battle Jesus fought throughout the rest of the gospel. Only perhaps the voice of the devil wasn’t always be his own voice. The devil shows up in the very next chapter when the people from Jesus’ hometown try to throw him off the cliff. The devil shows up in Peter when, after Jesus’ transfiguration, he tries to set up camp and prevent Jesus from going back down the mountain and into his ministry to the people. The devil shows up in the Pharisees when they try to accuse him of breaking the law when he heals a man on the Sabbath. Back and forth, back and forth.
So many of us wonder and ask about who the devil is. Perhaps the devil is our own voice or the voices of those around us who try to keep us from doing what we know leads to the fullness of life, which is giving of ourselves to others in love. I know that my soul will be fed if I roll down my window and greet the homeless person on the street and I know that 9 times out of 10, the person’s face will light up with a smile as they greet me back. I know it, because so often I have felt the sting of not doing it. So many times I have given in to my fear. Perhaps the devil tries to keep us focused on ourselves by teaching us to fear the world.
I just recently saw this fear on a TV show called Law and Order, of which I have a minor obsession. The episode was about this mother who, for the protection of her own children, kept them home-schooled, never let them outside the house really so that had no concept of friends or how to make them, and then she convinced them that the world was an evil place and that they must fear it. All of this she did because she thought she could protect her children and keep them alive, and yet, in the end, it was actually suffocating the life out of them. Her own fear of the world and need to protect her children from it was the killing agent on her sons’ spirits. That’s the devil talking. Telling us we need to fear this world.
Jesus knew that voice so well. And actually it is a really good thing, because I don’t know if we would have trusted him when he tried to show us the way of self-giving love. It is hard to trust the advice of someone who hasn’t walked in your shoes, right? We needed someone who knew intimately the battle between selfishness and selflessness before we would listen to what he had to say. And what he has to say is this: love your neighbor, forgive your enemies, care for the marginalized, bring peace wherever you go. When you do this, Jesus says, it is like watching Satan fall from heaven – a tyrant falling from the throne. For in that moment, Satan loses the battle.
One time, I met this guy named Mike, who was begging on the side of the road. He told me that his birthday was in a couple of days. Well a couple weeks later, I ran into him again at the same intersection, and I asked him about his birthday. In that moment you could see his eyes just ignite with a light of joy and, I swear, that off in the distance, I could see a small figure falling heaven. For in that moment, Satan loses the battle.
Even when you are on the receiving end of such love, it is one of those things where you know it when you see it. You know it when someone has given himself or herself up in love. It’s like when at the moment of death a loved one casts the most memorable smile your way. Suddenly your heart starts to burn, as you realize the holy and sacred has drawn so close that you think you just caught a glimpse of it. In that moment Satan loses the battle.
So maybe that’s what this text is about. The inner battle that each of us knows so well. That constant churning inside of us over which path God is calling us towards. The path of action or inaction. The path of peace or violence. The path of self-giving love or self-serving. One artist describes the battle as being out amongst the waves. He writes:
If not for love I would be drowning,
I’ve seen it work both ways, But I am up
Riding high amongst the waves
I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved
If it weren’t for love, we’d be drowning. Jesus’ whole ministry was about moving us towards a place of giving of ourselves up in love and the only way he could convince us towards that path is if he knew that strong and seductive pull from the devil. And the reality is, the devil won’t always lose. The devil may win at times, but the grace of God is that every moment of our life, we are given another opportunity to stand and face the devil one more time.