The Difference Between Jesus and the Devil

This comes from Robert Farrar Capon’s take on evil, found in The Third Peacock. He […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.8.13

This comes from Robert Farrar Capon’s take on evil, found in The Third Peacock. He is talking about Christ’s Temptation in the Wilderness wherein, according to Capon, Satan’s requests aren’t all that silly:

In any case, the clincher for the argument that the Devil’s ideas weren’t all bad comes from Jesus himself. At other times, in other places, and for his own reasons, Jesus does all of the things the Devil suggests. Instead of making lunch out of rocks, he feeds the five thousand miraculously–basically the same trick, but on a grander scale. Instead of jumping off the temple and not dying, he dies and refuses to stay dead–by any standards, an even better trick. And finally, instead of getting himself bogged down in a two-man presidency with an opposite number he doesn’t really understand, he aces out the Devil on the Cross and ends up risen, ascended and glorified at the right hand of the Father as King of Kings and Lord of Lords–which is the best trick of all, taken with the last trump.

Reid-temptation-in-the-wildernessNo, the difference between Jesus and the Devil do not lie in what the Devil suggested, but in the methods he proposed–or, more precisely, in the philosophy of power on which his methods were based. The temptation in the wilderness is a conversation between two people who simply cannot hear each other–a masterpiece of non-communication. If you are really God, the Devil says, do something. Jesus answers, I am really God, therefore I do nothing. The Devil makes what, to him and to us, seem like sensible suggestions. Jesus responds by parroting Scripture verses back at him. The Devil wants power to be used to do good; Jesus insists that power corrupts and defeats the very good it tries to achieve.

It is an exasperating story. Yet, when you look at history, Jesus seems to have the better of the argument. Most, if not all, of the mischief in the world is done in the name of righteousness. The human race adheres devoutly to the belief that one more application of power will bring in the kingdom. One more invasion, one more war, one more escalation, one more jealous fit, one more towering rage–in short, one more twist of whatever arm you have got hold of will make goodness triumph and peace reign. But it never works. Never with persons, since they are free and can, as persons, only be wooed, not controlled. And never even with things, because they are free, too, in their own way–and turn and rend us when we least expect. For a long time–since the Fall, in fact–man has been in love with the demonic style of power. For a somewhat shorter time, he has enjoyed, or suffered from, the possession of vast resources of power. Where has it gotten him? To the brink of a choice between nuclear annihilation or drowning in his own indestructible technological garbage.

However we may be tempted, therefore, to fault the Divine style of power–however much we may cry out like Job against a God who does not keep hedges around the goodness he delights in–however angry we may be at the agony his forbearance permits, one thing at least is clear. The demonic style of power, the plausible use of force to do good, makes at least as much misery, if not more. The Devil in the wilderness offers Jesus a short cut. Jesus calls it a dead end and turns a deaf ear. The great, even well-meaning, challenge to the hands-off policy comes and goes, and God still insists on running the world without running it at all. The question is put loud and clear: Why in God’s Name won’t you show up? And the response comes back as supremely unsatisfying as ever. To show up would be to come in your name, not mine. No show, therefore. And, of course, no answer. (43-45)