If You Love Anything, Look Out!
As “Master of the Way,” Jesus teaches us above all how to love. The greatest temptation against love,
however, is love itself. Once people have begun to love in any measure—love the world, love other people, love God—the love they have can be used as a lever to pry them off of their adherence to love that is authentic, total and pure.
The third temptation in the desert is at one and the same time the most straightforward and the most deceitful of all the temptations of Jesus. And no one is subject to it in its full force and subtlety except those who have learned to love. Christ's response to this temptation teaches us how to love God with an undivided heart.
Anything else is idolatry.
The devil took Jesus up “a very high mountain and displayed before him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” (Matthew 4:8). He then said to Jesus: “I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms; the power has been given to me and I give it to whomever I wish. Prostrate yourself in homage before me, and it shall all be yours” (Luke 4:6-7).
This is a straight deal. In the first two temptations the devil was being deceitful. He was quoting Scripture in a false but believable sense, trying to make falsehood appear as truth and the lesser good appear as the greater. But in the third temptation he is being honest. He is saying, “I will help you achieve the very real and tangible good that you desire—any world order of peace and justice, any economic arrangement, any cultural environment of right attitudes, values and behavior; any 'kingdom of heaven' that you desire to establish on earth—if in return you will do just one thing: acknowledge that sometimes people have to do a little evil for the sake of a greater good.”
It is good to worship God. Of course the Father comes first. We just have to give the devil his due.
All Jesus has to do to win Satan’s support is accept that under certain circumstances we don’t have to obey the Father absolutely. The Father is all Good. But this world is not. It is unrealistic to think that in the world as it is we should always even try to be as Good as God.
If Jesus will accept that sometimes evil can be good - or that an evil means can sometimes be justified for the sake of a good enough end—then the the devil will put at his disposal for the establishment of the Kingdom all the power and wealth that he controls.
It is an honest offer. The fact is—to all appearances, at least—the devil does exert an enormous influence over the use of power and wealth in this world.
If that statement sounds extreme, let us just say that, although much of the power and wealth of the world are put at the service of authentically human values (approximately 26% of our national budget goes to health services, including Medicare and Medicaid; and 25% goes to Social Security) a significant amount is simply dedicated to maintaining wealth and power or shaded with some moral ambiguity (16% percent of the national budget, amounting to $605 billion, was devoted to armed defense and security-related international activities in 2016). Are we spending a proportionate amount to eliminate the injustices and oppression that are causes of war throughout the world?
“Ah, but we kill to save lives!”
There you have the problem—and the temptation—in a nutshell. A human value measured against a human value. The infinite value of God is not in the picture.
Another example is the power of the media industry. The very fact that the performing arts are now looked upon as an “industry” gives the whole game away: the growing goal of movie and television productions is neither “art for art's sake” nor art for the sake of benefiting humanity in any way. What determines the content of the shows is not “the good, the true and the beautiful” but the ratings. Shows are produced to make money, and those who produce them are guided more and more by what will sell. The immeasurable power of the media industry is put at the service of money, and those who have the money wield the power of tube and screen in every neighborhood and home.
This same analysis could be applied to business after business, industry after industry. In the measure that profit as such becomes the ruling goal of a business, that business is falling away from the service of humanity as its primary reason for existing. We can be grateful that not all businesses are ruled by profit motivation alone. But in whatever measure a business makes profit its practical god, the devil can say of that business, “It's power has been given to me.”
In this temptation the devil offers to put at Christ's service all the influence he exerts through playing on people's desire for power and wealth. He will move people to use all their resources to help establish any social order, religion, cultural reforms, government or society Jesus asks. He will support any human value Jesus asks, if Jesus will just compromise a little on the infinite value of God. This is a deal that is meant sincerely. It is a straightforward trade-off, with no deception behind it.
The temptation to idolatry is by its very nature the most subtle and seductive temptation human beings are subject to.
“Idolatry” to us means “worshipping idols.” We think of uncultured savages bowing down before grotesque sculptures and assuaging their god's thirst for blood with superstitious sacrifices. Idolatry to us means something primitive, unenlightened and naive. But the best-known idolaters in the history of the world were those who produced “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Culture is a breeder, not a dispeller of idols.
In reality idolatry just means letting any value that is less than God determine the direction of our lives. When we have such a deep appreciation for any human value that in practice we let it become the focus of our energies—at least of a major percentage of our energies—then we have fallen into idolatry.
We Americans do not consciously erect statues to our gods. But without knowing it, we do exactly what the ancient Greeks and Romans did: we inevitably and spontaneously, because we are human beings, pay homage in graphic, pictorial form to the values our society is most conscious of. Our city streets are lined with images of Venus. Billboard after billboard proclaims our nation's devotion to sex. Our public rituals pay homage to the same goddess. Young girls are sought out whose bodies are capable of presenting in most enticing form the attractions of sexual delight, and they compete for the honor of appearing at parades and games and festivals dressed as maids and priestesses of the cult.
For those who know how to read them, our society abounds in status symbols which identify the devotees of the god Mammon. Devotion to Vulcan, the god of technology, is evident everywhere. And Aphrodite/Venus, as the goddess of fertility, is worshipped by our society as she has never been by any society before us: not—in our times—for the sake of increasing the birthrate, but for the sake of controlling it. Each year over a million babies in the United States alone are sacrificed, in the cold, silent ritual of abortion, to the goddess of planned population.
This is idolatry. It is, in everything except the name we give to it, indistinguishable from the worship that pagan civilizations gave to their gods and godesses. Those deities were nothing but symbols and personifications of the various values a particular society identified as its own. The pagan rituals we look down on with such superiority were in reality a more conscious, sophisticated celebration of values than the unwitting liturgies of sex, power and fertility control that we engage in. At least the pagans knew what they were doing!
We have to keep in mind that idolatry as such presupposes the recognition of real human values. It takes an appreciative person to be a devout idolater. This is what makes idolatry so deceptive. Devotion to any false god, be it money, sex, power, fertility control, technology, or even to revelry (represented by Bacchus) has as its core of truth and goodness the recognition and appreciation of some real human value.
What makes idolatry evil is not appreciation of the human value, but non-appreciation of the transcendent value of God. The only reason not to put our lives at the service of some authentic human value is the realization that we are called to put them at the service of the uncreated God. And therefore anyone who does not know God, and who at the same time is not an idolater, may be just a slob!
Now we see the mind-shattering impact of the First Commandment on human thinking. When God thundered from Sinai: “I, the LORD, am your God ... You shall not have other gods besides me,” He was striking at the very core of idolatry. Idolaters recognize many values as worth living for; they use now one, now another to determine the direction and orientation of their lives. But idolaters accept no one value, no one reality as being great enough to claim anyone's exclusive devotion. The respect given to one value must be tempered by the respect owed to others. Uprightness is a matter of maintaining a just balance. And God, or religion, is just one value among others. The First Commandment makes that an abomination.
This is the uniqueness of Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism. It is one thing to acknowledge that God is God, and the greatest of all values. It is quite another thing to say that there are no other gods—no other life-directing values—besides him. Yet this is what the First Commandment calls upon us to do. And it is re-emphasized in the formula which became the watchword of God’s People:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
The third temptation of Jesus is forthright. It is a naked matching of the immediate, obvious, created good against the remote, intangible and abstract-sounding good of “God's will.” It is the ultimate test of faith, hope and love. Jesus will confront this temptation again—many times, in fact—until He overcomes it for the last time by letting go of life itself on the cross.
To the devil's proposal in the desert Jesus offers no argument. To argue about ultimate loyalty to God is already to lose. As “Master of the Way” he responds to this temptation with a simple reaffirmation of the rock-bottom reality, the fundamental principle and first rule of all human action on earth: “You shall do homage to the Lord your God; him alone shall you adore.”
This is the absolute love for God which frees us to be authentic in all our other loves. When we accept Jesus Christ we accept to love God absolutely and everything else only in relationship to him. Since everything else exists only through its relationship to God, this is the only love which is true to the reality of created people and things. Acceptance of Jesus, then, is a commitment to love God and all else that exists with an unfragmented heart.
Question: What do my choices say I live for? What ideals do I compromise in order to keep my job, my friends, or my marriage intact? Are my compromises idolatry or enlightened prudence?