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On the first Sunday of Lent, it’s traditional to study the story of “the temptation of Jesus,” most familiar from the versions found in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. In thinking on that story in preparation for preaching this year, it occurred to me that the second temptation in Luke (the third in Matthew), is the only one in which the devil makes a promise.

In the temptations to make bread from stones or to gain instant popularity with a flying leap from the “pinnacle of the temple,” the devil simple tempts Jesus to do the wrong thing. In the other, however, the devil claims to have dominion over the entire earth — and promises to give that power to Jesus — in return for Jesus’ service.

Was Jesus really tempted? If old Scratch really could deliver control of all things to Jesus, it would certainly offer Jesus a convenient shortcut to success, albeit in a way antithetical to God’s plan. There is no certainty, however that the temptation was even legitimate.

Whether we think of the devil in the dualistic sense of a powerful and evil spiritual being who opposes God’s purposes, as the dark side of our own psyche, or as something in between, the thing we must remember is the simple and obvious truth that the devil, by definition, is a liar. Jesus, in John 8:44, called him not only a liar, but the father of lies.

Thinking of the devil as an honest broker is a mental oxymoron. Evil offers nothing, no matter how appealing, that does not have a rotten core.

I remember a day when I rode with a group of Baptist newspaper editors through the rocky, dusty lands of northern Jordan, an area known in the Bible as Gilead. Near the top of a tall hill, we stopped for lunch at a rather ramshackle restaurant with a majestic view of the Yarmuk River valley. Meals in that part of the world always come in several courses, and just before dessert they often serve a plate of fruit. On this day I noticed some beautiful figs on the platter, and I love figs.

These figs were particularly interesting to me because they were fully ripe, but still green on the outside. I bit into one, and it was delicious, so I quickly finished it off. I then picked up a second fig and took a bite, but it didn’t taste right, so I put it down. As I paused and chewed and managed to swallow the top half of that fig, I noticed that the bottom half, the one I had put back on the plate, was moving: it was filled with maggots, and I had just eaten a whole bunch of their brothers. When I think of the devil’s deals, I think of that fig.

If it’s not too near mealtime, you might want to remember it, too.

[Top picture: “The Second Temptation,” by William Blake, from blakearchive.com. Green figs photo from www.spicelines.com (nothing wrong with these!)]

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