In St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 4: 1-11), after the baptism by John, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4: 1). There, in the midst of loneliness and extreme hunger, He was confronted by Satan. Jesus then experienced three temptations, and in homilies we have heard the priest explain them to us and their basic meaning. The first temptation was that Satan wanted Jesus to prove that He was the Son of God by turning stones into bread: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The ordinary explanation is that Jesus was hungry, but He was fasting. The devil wanted Him to break His fast of forty days and nights in a prideful way to demonstrate His divinity. Jesus, of course, refuses.
Then Satan takes Him up to the pinnacle of the Temple, saying: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Mt 4: 5-6). Jesus responds that one must not temp the Lord your God. This temptation is usually explained as a temptation toward pride in Jesus by Him showing that He had almighty power.
Lastly, the devil took Jesus took Jesus to the top of very high mountains and “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them . . . ” (Mt 4: 8). And the devil said to him: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Mt 4: 9, my emphasis). Jesus responded, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall your serve’” (Mt 4: 10). This last one is an overtly blatant temptation to power by having Jesus sell His soul. It is not for nothing that we sometimes say, usually only in a metaphorical sense, that someone sold their soul for some benefit. This means that they “sold out.” They traded their principles for some material or political benefit. The recent “Louisiana Purchase” might be an example of this phenomenon.
Now let us take a deeper look at these temptations. To see these temptations in a purely individualistic manner is to miss part of the boat. The first temptation, the one to turn stones into bread, actually came up again in the feeding of the five thousand people in the desert. Here, “[w]hen the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself” (Jn 6: 14-15). Jesus “ratted out” their true motives when the people He had fed found Him on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn 6: 25-26). This reveals that the first temptation was a temptation to become a “bread king,” that is, one who will give the people food without them working to provide it. The parallels with socialism are obvious here. The difference is that the socialist leader cannot just create bread, but has to take it from those who produce more bread. This king then gets the support of the masses against the wise, disciplined, moral and productive people, who are in the minority. Meanwhile, this action provides a disincentive to the productive minority who feel that since the fruits of their labor are taken from them and given to the non-productive majority, they might as well get on the bandwagon and stop working as well. This puts the nation in a decline.
The next temptation, where Jesus was supposed to throw Himself off of the pinnacle of the Temple, is not only a temptation to show His divinity by signs and wonders, but to get a following this way. In other words, Satan would not care if Jesus had political followers who were “ooh’d and ah’d” by signs, even if these signs did not feed them as in the first temptation, if only this would deflect His message, which transcended earthly things. If Jesus submitted to this temptation, people would follow Him waiting for the next “trick” but would not listen to a word he said. If you go to a circus, do you remember what the ringmaster said, or do you remember the acrobats, etc.?
This second temptation also came up again in the case of Simon the Magician (Acts: 8: 9-24). People were amazed by the magic of Simon. I doubt that his magic was the “pull the rabbit out of a hat” kind, but was of a preternatural type, done with the aid of evil spirits. Simon heard the Apostles preaching and, like so many others, came to believe in Jesus Christ, and was baptized. Later on, when he saw how the Holy Spirit came down visibly upon the people the Apostles laid hands on, he was impressed. He offered the Apostles money in exchange for this power, “saying, ‘Give me this power, that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8: 19). St. Peter was not pleased, to say the least: “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money” (Acts 8: 20). Peter upbraids him, and it is clear why: Simon, the magician, wanted this power, like all of his other powers—for show. Because he already had a great reputation for this magic, this power would make him more famous. In the end, Simon repented by asking St. Peter to pray for him that all of the things that St. Peter predicted about him would not come to pass (Acts 8: 22-24).
But it is the last of the temptations which is important for this discussion. In this one, the devil says to Our Lord: “All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” St. Luke’s Gospel is even more emphatic: “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will” (Lk 4: 6). First of all, if God actually worshiped anyone, He and everything would go out of existence. God cannot do evil; it is against His very nature. Even worse, worshipping Satan was the devil’s desire all along. St. Michael’s name means “Who is like God?” The answer is only God is like God. Satan in his pride wanted to be like God, and his fallen nature is forever stuck, frozen in this desire, which he relentlessly pursues through the ages.
But, what did the devil mean by “All these will I give you”? And, “[A]ll this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.” One cannot give away what one does not own. I cannot say legitimately, “I will give you Bob’s pen.” Only Bob can give you his pen. If, on the basis of what I said, you expected to get Bob’s pen, you would be sadly disappointed when Bob says: “No, chance; you can’t have my pen.” Satan is saying that he possesses all the kingdoms of the earth! Now there are two caveats here. First, Satan is a liar, but he tells half-truths. He doesn’t tell whoppers because people would see through them (see, for example, Gen 3: 1-7). Half-truths make the lies more believable to rational but weak creatures so that they will fall for them. Now, since the other kingdoms of the earth were composed of rulers and their cronies who not only worshipped false gods, whom the Fathers of the Church considered demons, and also did whatever they could get away with, so that they were an easy prey to Satan’s influence, there is a great truth to his claim that he did own these kingdoms.
But does this apply to today? Are all those people who put their faith in governments and their policies missing something? St. Thomas argued that government was good. God Himself gave us a natural need for some to organize the society. We call that government, and since God created that need, in itself, government is good. But St. Thomas is approaching it as a metaphysician. A metaphysician looks at the nature of something. The nature of all things is good, because all things are made by God. Evil does not have a nature; evil is bereft of something it should have, which is why it is an evil. Also, St. Thomas, in his naming the five types of law (eternal, natural, Divine positive, human positive), includes “fomes” as the fifth type of law. This word in Latin means tinder wood, and what does tinder wood do? It flares up very hot and very quickly when lit. The fomes is a reminder that every human being (with two notable exceptions) has a tendency, due to their fallen nature, to allow their passions to flare up, overcoming their reason. It is a major error, and a foolish one to boot, to think that once someone gets into public office, the fomes goes away. The good nature of government aside, it is populated by imperfect people, many, many of whom do not have the grace, never had the grace, or have rejected the grace, to do what is for the common good, but, on the margin, do what is good for themselves. (See my blog entry, “The Economics of Politics.”)
St. Augustine understood this well. Cicero had written many years before that Rome was not a real empire because it was not just. Augustine replies that, yes, Rome was unjust, and he spends a lot of pages showing that this was so. But he says that Rome was definitely an empire, and everyone admits it. Justice cannot be expected from government. Government is run by the citizens of the Earthly City. The main job of government is to keep the citizens of that City of Man or the Earthly City from overwhelming the citizens of the City of God. Now, you may reply, why would rulers from the Earthly City want to protect the citizens of the City of God? It is in their interest to keep the two sides apart. If they do not, they might be overthrown. The rulers’ object is civil peace, not justice or goodness. Why peace and not justice or goodness? Because government attracts those who like earthly things, like power, etc. Since that is the case, how can we expect goodness or justice from people who have no intention of providing it? St. Augustine does say that once in a great while you do get a good and just ruler. History certainly bears this out. But sooner or later he dies or is killed, or retires (voluntarily or not), and it is back to the same old unjust and/or non-good rulers, who are merely interested in peace so that their money and power can keep rolling in.
In my blog entry on Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, I pointed out that political power had become his god. He was willing to lie about his affairs and illegitimate child to the public, rather than give up the possibility of becoming president. Power was his real god, and that is idolatry. He is not the only one. Power tends to attract those kinds of people. While not all public officials are power-hungry idolaters, one good viewing of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” staring Jimmy Stewart, which I believe reflects much of reality, should persuade you that Lord Acton’s expression that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is true. The next time you look to government to solve society’s problems, remember this blog entry, and think it out.