Get behind me, Satan! As we begin Lent and accompany Christ into the desert, the first encounter we have is with the Tempter. Wielding the Sacred Scripture as His shield, Jesus deflects each of the devil’s offers that seem to be good things in themselves, but when linked to their costs are obviously no good deal.
As I write this, my stomach rumbles with the first fast of Lent on Ash Wednesday. My habits lead me to reach for the fridge or treat cabinet, or maybe just pop open a Diet Coke – but as I self-consciously strive to push things away from, rather than into, my mouth, I explore the most basic meaning of temptation.
Not all temptations are as simple as the cookie jar or as clearly poisonous as the proposals of Satan to Christ in the desert. Sometimes the temptation is simply to reject another person with whom we disagree, or who has done something to anger or inconvenience us. It seems easy and reasonable to decide he is stupid, or crazy, or evil.
Every one of us has been or will be confronted by a teacher who reprimands us; a boss who gives us an assignment we do not want; a president whose policies are odious to us; a writer who infuriates us; and maybe, possibly, even a priest who rankles us. The temptation is to condemn the person, rather than the action. We do this by attributing motives (She hates me. He hates women. He is paranoid. She is evil.) and by categorizing people (He’s a Nazi/Commie. She’s a whack job on a power trip.).
We are being led down this road by tempters – people who make it seem effective, attractive, or just acceptable to treat people this way. Media figures do it, television, radio, and print, often as commentators, but also seemingly sober newscasters. Political figures do it. Labor and management do it. We see it on the internet, in official web sites and personal blogs – and especially in the comments boxes. People who disagree savagely and coarsely attack the people with whom they disagree – rather than their statements, actions, or ideas. These used to be easily recognized by their Latin name: ad hominem attacks; against the man. They were unprofessional and unacceptable; but no more.
It is always appropriate to judge actions, but we are unable to examine, much less define and judge, the person’s motives. Similarly, it is imperative to judge ideas – ideas have consequences. But the one who writes or speaks of the ideas is a child of God just like you and me and deserves to be treated in a manner fully consistent with his human dignity.
Get behind me, Satan. One might overlook that Jesus said that not to Beelzebul in the desert, but to Simon Peter, his friend and disciple, whom He had just entrusted His church. (Mt 16:23). What had Peter done to deserve such a harsh response? He suggested that Jesus need not undergo His passion.
It is better for us to endure evil than to fall into sin. It’s not always easy to offer people charity, that is, human respect and Christian love, since they so rarely do what we want, when we want it. But Jesus teaches us what to say when we have the opportunity to condemn or hate another human being -- Get behind me, Satan!