When I was a kid, I always pictured Jesus as a sort of “superhero” type. Here was a man that cured illnesses, cast out demons, walked on water, fed thousands of people, suffered unimaginable pain upon the cross and then rose from the dead. When I pictured God the Father, I saw an old man with a beard sitting on top of a golden throne, lightning bolts clutched in His hand. When I pictured the Holy Spirit, I would imagine a small flame that would gradually grow into a blazing bonfire, but when I pictured Jesus, I would imagine Him wearing sandals that matched some sort of intense cape whipping in the wind (because it totally makes sense that if Jesus can resurrect from the dead, then surely He can fly!) And what could the “God-man!,” the newest superhero ranked amongst Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and Ironman, actually do? What COULDN’T He do – that’s the better question! Blind people could see, lame people could walk and became instantly cool, defeating lameness on both levels! The dead were resurrected, demons were banished, the raging sea was calmed. Jesus Christ was powerful beyond belief…powerful as only God is powerful. This power can surely defeat anyone or anything standing in the path of Christ, and it was nothing but a comfort to know that the Lord of Heaven and Earth wanted to use that power on my behalf, fighting (and winning) for me as only He could. Best. Superhero. Ever.
This weekend’s Gospel is not one I would usually think of when imagining “superhero-Jesus.” I’d always picture His miracles of healing or His teaching the large crowds some profound truth, not Jesus going off into the desert to be tempted. What kind of a superhero lets Himself be lured in by the bad guy? What kind of a superhero doesn’t prove His power when given the chance? Superman wouldn’t go play cards with Lex Luther…Batman didn’t go have tea with the Joker! So why is Jesus allowing the Spirit to lead Him into the desert to be tempted by the devil? This doesn’t seem like superhero behavior, and yet, it’s exactly what must be done to show us how we are supposed to live. This is exactly what a superhero is supposed to do: be the model so that we have an example of how to defeat our enemies, and then defeat that enemy alongside us! So, as only the God-man can, the King of Light goes to battle with the Prince of Darkness! Here we have the most epic showdown between Good and Evil the world has (literally) ever known.
The devil tempts Jesus with the three most attractive things he can find, and the three things that are usually most tempting to us. He appeals to a desire for comfort and pleasure, he plays on a desire to be recognized and acknowledged, and he shows the potential for greatness and power. And isn’t this what we all desperately want…? Don’t we all want to be satisfied? Don’t we want other people to know who we are, and don’t we want some sort of control and influence? The devil dangles this all in front of Jesus’ face, waiting for either His submission and defeat or His angry response. The devil is attempting to trick Jesus (and all of us) into selfishness…
“Do these things that are good for you and you alone”
“Look out for number one, and ignore everything you know to be right and true.”
“What do you want? What are your desires?”
“What will satisfy you at the expense of everyone else?”
The devil, who we sometimes picture as this cartoonish horned villain carrying a pitchfork, is actually very clever – he knows what to say and how to say it to garner our attention. He knows exactly what appeal to make, and we (sometimes in our foolishness) think it takes some grand gesture to defeat him. We picture lightning bolts and thunder clouds and a great storm that sweeps the devil up and throws him further into the pits of Hell…and we think that we are capable of casting him off all on our own. I’m going to defeat this temptation – I’m going to win the battle over my selfish desires – I will be victorious in the fight for my own soul!
But how does Jesus defeat the temptations Satan casts upon Him? As only a true superhero could, Jesus employs the greatest of all His powers to defeat the devil. Not with lightning bolts of vengeance or x-ray lasers of pain, but with a simple understanding of the will of His Father, Jesus defeats the temptations of the devil with humility. Rather than making an appeal to His own strength or power, the Son of God turns to His Father. Every temptation is answered with a reference to Scripture – Jesus does not use His own wisdom, but relies on the revealed Word His Father spoke generations before His Incarnation. In a twist of theological irony, this actually is Jesus fully relying on Himself, because Jesus is the Word. This is the Word made Flesh speaking the Word revealed long before His earthly arrival, and in so doing, refuting each temptation thrown His way. Jesus soundly defeats the devil not by making a great show of power, but by a quiet show of submission to the will of His Father. What has been written before is what Jesus appeals to now, for it is the will of the Father that is primary. What’s been revealed, through the will of the Father, is the foundation upon which Jesus stands as He says, again and again “…for it is written…” Jesus makes this same appeal to His Father’s will when he agonizes in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He dies. Jesus prays then, “…not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). This appeal to the power and will of the Father is what makes Jesus successful in defeating temptation, because He relies upon divine strength to defeat a powerful adversary. The question we have to ask ourselves is simple: Do we do the same? Do we rely upon Divine strength or do we rely only upon ourselves?
The devil tempts us, day in and day out, with the chance to be selfish. That’s all sin is: it is the nonsense choice of “myself” over the Creator of the Universe that truly knows what is best for me. In these moments of temptation, when the devil is working his hardest, we have to do as Jesus does…we have to rely solely upon the will of the Father, trusting in His strength rather than our own. Our own will never be enough…the world will always be attractive, that sin will always seem like a good idea to us. It is only through the strength of the Father, when we submit ourselves to Him and Him alone, that we will defeat the enemy and win the battle for our soul. The answer we have to give is “Not me, but You! Not my strength, but Your strength!” Victory is won only when we rely upon the strength of the Lord, and to submit to His strength rather than rely upon our own is an act of humility. The God-man shows us how to defeat the enemy and empowers us with His strength so that we are able to, making Him the greatest superhero of them all (no cape necessary).