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How Evil Works

March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11
Fr. George Smiga

Today’s gospel is the only story in the four gospel stories where the devil speaks. As such, it can prove a help to us as we examine our own struggle with evil. The temptation of Jesus tells us two things about evil: How it works and how we might overcome it.

How does evil work? By illusion. The devil never tempts us by presenting something before us that looks bad. What the devil does is take bad things and present them under the guise of something good. The devil tells Jesus, “Turn these stones into loaves of bread.” That action on its own would be a good thing. Bread can feed Jesus and many other hungry people. But what makes the devil’s invitation wrong is not the good action but the motivation behind it. It is an attempt to have Jesus worship and commit himself to the devil’s authority.

T.S. Elliot has said, “The greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Therefore, the devil twists things that are bad, to give them the appearance that they would be for our benefit. The devil says to us:  If you choose to lie or cheat, just think how much more money you would have. Wouldn’t that be a good thing for yourself and for your family? If you decide to put someone down because of their race or their culture, wouldn’t that make you feel important? That be a good thing for your own sense of worth? If you cheat on your spouse, wouldn’t that be exciting? It would make you more free than being faithful to a person who doesn’t understand you and often does not say how wonderful you are? The devil consistently takes things that are harmful to us and presents them as something of a benefit. It is an illusion. They will hurt us nonetheless. That is why the devil is called “the father of lies.”

So how do we overcome evil? The simplest answer is to see through the illusion, to realize that what is presented to us as something for our benefit will really harm us. But Jesus shows us two other things we can do to defeat evil. The first is that we should never engage with evil. As the devil poses temptation to Jesus, Jesus never takes up the devil’s temptation on its own terms. Instead, he quotes the scriptures. Jesus stands apart from the devil and refuses to dialogue with him on his own terms. In the same way, we should refuse to feed the temptations that are offered to us. If we keep thinking about how much money we can make by cheating or lying, sooner or later evil will win. If we keep replaying in our minds the scene in which someone has hurt us, sooner or later we will strike back. If we keep fantasizing about how attractive another person might be, sooner or later we will be unfaithful to our spouse. The devil’s temptations are dangerous. That’s why we should not engage them. We should simply dismiss them as the illusion that they are.

The second thing Jesus shows us is that in temptation we are not alone. The reason that Jesus can defeat Satan is because he knows that God is always with him, and God’s power is stronger than Satan’s power. So as soon as Jesus claims the power of God, Satan’s power is depleted. This is why Jesus can tell Satan, “Get away,” and Satan goes. We can do the same when we call upon the power of God.

This gospel reminds us that evil is an illusion. It calls us not to feed our temptations and turn to God for protection. and ask God’s power to protect us. If we do this, we can defeat the devil and expose him as the liar he truly is.

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