Not once or twice but three times Jesus flunked the Devil’s tests. He received three great big red “F’s” on the trio of Satan’s SATs. A “flunking Jesus” is not how we usually describe the outcome of the wilderness tests in Luke’s gospel. But viewed from the Devil’s perspective, Jesus failed miserably. He was too attentive to God’s Word and too indifferent to the Tempter’s taunts for evil power. Attentiveness and indifference were the incorrect answers to Satan’s suggestions in the desert landscape of Lent. Jesus exemplified a “wilderness wakefulness” and a “desert detachment” worthy of the Messiah who would serve only God.
“In December of 1935, Antoine de Saint Exupery, on a mail flight between Paris and Saigon, crashed in the Libyan Desert west of the Nile. It was in the same vicinity to which the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century had withdrawn to seek the face of God in a landscape of emptiness. Saint Exupery’s story of survival, in his now classic Wind, Sand and Stars, evokes the same desert discipline practiced by those who had preceded him there centuries earlier. No one lives for long in the desert without acquiring its crusty virtues of attentiveness and indifference. It was only because of these that Saint Exupery survived.
“Over a period of three days he walked 124 miles without water through desert sands, stumbling at last, half-dead, into a remote Bedouin camp. He has been told that no one could survive more than 19 hours in the desert without water; the eyes then fills with a ghostly light and death soon follows. What saved him were two things. First, he was meticulously observant of his surroundings, noticing an unusual northeast wind, full of moisture, retarding the dehydration of his body and bringing a light dew he could collect on parachute silk. Secondly, he remained stubbornly indifferent to the panic, pain, and despair which preyed on his mind. Learning to be fiercely attentive, he learned also not to care — to ignore everything that was unnecessary, everything unrelated to the primary task of staying alive.” (Cross Currents, pp. 193-194)
Lent is the season where we practice the primary task of “staying alive” in our Christian wilderness journey. The more intentional we become in our spiritual discipline, the more intentional the devil becomes in testing. Jesus is “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness where He is tested by Satan’s questions: What kind of Messiah will you be? Our Lenten questions are on the same evil exam! What kind of Christian will you be? Who will you follow? Jesus knew when to pay attention and when to be indifferent.
The first test began with a reference to the words addressed to Jesus after His baptism, “if you are the Son of God…” (Luke 4:3) The Devil drew attention to the real possibility of Jesus using his power to feed Himself and others. After all, the people of Israel had cried for bread and God supplied manna. Even King David took holy bread when he and his troops were hungry. “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread” (Luke 4:3).
But Jesus answered the Devil in an indifferent manner: “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). He was indifferent to everything that was not primary to His call. Even though the Devil drew attention to bread, Jesus responded indifferently by pointing out that He would not seize authority or misuse His power. He would listen solely to God’s word. So, the Devil marked an “F” on the first exam.
The second test drew Jesus’ attention to all the kingdoms of the world. “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please” (Luke 4:5). The Devil would give all this to Jesus if he would “recognize his supremacy.” But Jesus responded indifferently, seeing through the lies of the Devil’s claim. Jesus said, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him'” (Luke 4:8). The scriptures long ago revealed that all other “gods” are subordinate and Jesus recited Deuteronomy 6:13; a basic text of Israel’s catechism. With that, the Devil marked an “F” on the second test.
The third test heightened Jesus’ attention to the scriptures. Here, the Devil dared Jesus to jump off the temple in order to prove His messiahship. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone'” (NRSV). The Devil quoted Psalms 91 as a proof text.
But once again Jesus’ attentiveness to God’s word was balanced by his indifference to temptation’s attractions. He was aware that Psalms 91 speaks to the faithful one who trusts in God and cleaves to God in love. Jesus was the one being tested, not God. All other interpretations were unimportant unnecessary and indifferent to his call to serve. So Jesus answered “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12).
The Devil marked his third “F” and decided that next time he would send a take home exam over supper with a man named Judas. “When the Devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).
During the Lenten season, we are called to examine our own spiritual testing endurance. How can we develop the disciplines of “attentiveness and indifference” when we work regular jobs, raise our families and live in Normal Town, USA? Most of us don’t spend 40 days in a desert or spar with the Devil on a regular basis. Yet we all have a sense of a “wilderness” within and we all have experienced certain times of “testing.”
Paying attention and being indifferent are the opposite poles of the spiritual life: when to pay attention and when not to; what to consider and what to ignore; what to carry and what to leave behind. T.S. Eliot, in his poem “Ash Wednesday,” prayed for both extremes when he said “Teach us to care and not to care.”
So how can we learn “attentiveness”? We can start by doing a simple exercise. Go into your yard and look carefully at everything: the grass, the trees, the bike, the broken toys, the grill, the bird’s nest, etc. This may sound silly and irrelevant but few of us ever pay close attention to anything. The naturalist Lewis Agassiz once said he had spent the summer traveling, only to get half-way across his back yard. The early church called this “agrumpia,” the spiritual discipline of “wakefulness,” of being aware and paying attention.
The opposite spiritual pole is “indifference”: when to ignore the unimportant and what to leave behind after the “attentiveness” of life’s gaze. Our lives are so cluttered with TV, newspapers, ads, meetings, time deadlines, and activities. Indifference, named by the early church fathers and mothers as apatheia, is the spiritual discipline of “detachment” or “dispassion.” This is the practice of apathy with regard to things of unimportance. It is an intentional ordering of your desires under the call to follow Christ.
How can we learn indifference? Visit with the dying and the terminally ill and listen. They will teach us about what’s important and what’s not important in our life’s journey. As we continue through the season of Lent, ask yourself, “Where is the desert for me?” “Where is my testing terrain?” Perhaps, you might volunteer at a soup kitchen or work among the AIDS community. Volunteer at a nursing home or hospital! What about service in your church: teaching, visiting and calling.
Brothers and Sisters: the church is the place of our spiritual training where we can begin the growth of “attentiveness and indifference” in our Christian journey. It is not glamorous or easy. Yet because of our Lord Jesus Christ who resisted the tests of Satan, we are empowered to do the same.