The Temptations

In the Wilderness: Satan speaks

And so Jesus struck north, alone, without his disciples, into the uninhabited lands between the two countries where only outlaws and wandering people scratched out a precarious existence, led by the Holy Spirit, his only companion besides me, the tempter.

Note, please, that: I didn’t lead him there. Every day people pray not to be led into temptation, and I wonder how many of them have wondered what sort of God it is that needs such a prayer. And here was Jesus, the sinless wonder, submitting to the drive that sent him right into my arms, where he’d be most defenceless.

It was all part of the plan, no doubt, because for ever after men and women could look to Jesus, not seeing him so high and mighty that he was never tempted, but as someone as vulnerable as they, subject to the same whims and fancies, especially when fasting had made him light-headed.

It’s a dangerous game for humans, fasting, because it puts them in touch with the visceral reality of their own bodies. People who’ve never done it think it’s an immensely spiritual practice, transcending the grossness of material being, and it’s true you can feel as if the earth you’re touching is as insubstantial as a dream and there’s the same sort of lightness of being you can get with good grass. But the body gets more real as the days go by, not less. Your senses sharpen up. And as the days go by, not eating becomes as obsessive as eating once was, even when the hunger pangs lessen as the belly shrinks and you start digesting your fat.

This gave me my first entry point for the duel to come, and I used it.

It was a dry place, stony ground like a sinner’s heart, and Jesus was sitting there looking at the scorpions in the dust. I knew he was thinking of food, so I put into his mind the fancy that he could turn the stones to bread. Fine, fresh-smelling bread they could be, still warm from the baker’s oven, the crust crisp and hot to the touch, the crumb white and moist, gently steaming in the early morning dew. My own mouth fairly watered at the thought.

And Jesus thought of Elijah, in the desert and praying for death, and the angel that came and fed him, a cake baked on the stones hot from the sun, and a cold jar of water drawn from the depths of the earth to slake his thirst.

And he thought of the children of Israel, wandering lost, tested three hundred times more than he himself was being tested, but rewarded with a holy food from the most high.

And he thought of Moses, who went up in the mountain and fasted for as long as Jesus did, so’s he could be ready to receive the commandments from God, engraved in stone that they might never be broken.

And I realised I would never trap him with such a temptation, for he knew that his sustenance came from the mouth of God.

So we wandered further, up the sides of a hill to the very summit. A clear day it was, and the horizon shimmering in a heat haze far into the distance, where the smoke of villages and even towns could be seen. It was so clear, you felt if you could get high enough you could see the whole round world orbiting the sun, and the sun a weak yellow star on the farthest edge of its galaxy, the galaxy on the rim of the universe, and all of it in turmoil because of me.

And I showed him the way the world wags, the compromises and machinations you have to accept to make it work, the politics of statecraft and religion, men and women struggling for survival like ants scurrying over each other as they feed.

Then I told him: this is my way. Holy thoughts will not avail you in a wicked world. You have to get down there in the muck and soil your hands with the filth of reality. Follow my guidance and you can make it all OK.

Naturally, it was a trick, and I wondered if he would fall for it. The power I have over the ways of the world is a thing given, by one whose control is ultimate, and supreme, and who lay there human and hungry, thirsty and tormented in the desert before me, and I could not truly give him something he already had.

We’re talking God the traffic cop, of course, holding up his mighty hand, making it all right.

But he wasn’t having any.

He thought of the children of Israel, brought out of bondage, inheriting a land they had not tilled, living in houses they did not build, taking fruit from trees they had not planted, and the source of all this goodness cried out to be acknowledged, even here in the desert lands, and it seemed I was just a shadow between him and the light of God, and he looked past me at its radiance and was content.

So I took him higher, to the very towers that men build, Babel-like, to poke erectile into heaven, and I showed him the vertigo that makes men want to cast themselves to their deaths. And I reminded him that he was the son of God, who would surely protect him from all harm.

We were both thinking of what was to come, the suffering and torment of the tree where he was to die, and it seemed a great obscenity, a denial of the very love that sustained him thus far. And he writhed in the agony of doubt, for surely such a sacrifice was unnecessary, to a God who had only to say that a thing should be, and it was so.

And he thought again of the children of Israel, thirsting almost to death in the desert, so that Moses struck his rod against the rock and made the waters flow, and the anger of God at their lack of faith.

And he looked deep into his heart, in the place where I dwell, and he saw that it was another test, and he would play the game no longer. And he banished me and my doubts.

So I left him there in the wilderness, with angels ministering to him, and awaited for my next time, which would surely come.

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