Christlike Unsuccess

By Fr. Stephanos Pedrano, O.S.B.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I’ve awakened each morning wondering if a World War III began while I was asleep.

I want the success of every effort to achieve peace, wisdom, justice, balance, freedom, and humanitarian welfare.

And in the Gospel reading this last Sunday, the devil offered Jesus different ways to have success in being The Christ, the Messiah, the one whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit to be the world’s savior.

But Jesus said No to every offer, as if success were mere ashes.

On Ash Wednesday, we took blessed ashes upon us to begin the season of Lent.

And this season ends when we take Holy Water upon ourselves at Easter, either in receiving Baptism or renewing our Baptismal promises.

So, the season of Lent and its sacrifices ready us to make or remake the promises of Baptism.

Jesus had received a different kind of baptism from John at the Jordan River.

And then he went right into the deserted wilderness for forty days.

That’s where this past Sunday’s Gospel reading began.

  • The Holy Spirit had led Jesus into the desert.
  • Jesus spent forty days there.
  • At the end of those forty days, the devil, Satan, came to tempt Jesus.
  • The devil lost.
  • After this, Jesus went to Galilee to begin his mission of public preaching and healing.

The Gospel spells out three temptations that Satan tried on Jesus.

They were worldly ways for Jesus to succeed in his mission as the Christ.

But such success would have been ungodly.

We follow the Christ, Jesus, who wants us to carry on his mission.

And so we also must not fall for what the world and the devil would reckon as success.

Let’s look first at the one tempting success that we might be able to hide from others.

The devil said to him,

“If you are the Son of God,

command this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered him,

“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”

This is Luke’s Gospel, but Matthew’s Gospel recalls Jesus saying a little more.

One does not live on bread alone,

but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

Whatever abilities, roles, or payments— successes— we might receive in living and working as Christians, we must not use them to meet our bodily needs alone without also feeding more eagerly on all obedience to God.

The two other devilish temptations of success are more dangerous in that they touch directly many other lives on earth.

Then he [the devil] led him [Jesus] to Jerusalem,

made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,

“If you are the Son of God,

throw yourself down from here, for it is written:

He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,

and:

With their hands they will support you,

lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

Jesus said to him in reply,

“It also says,

You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.

This is the temptation to act as if God would do our will at our convenience, so we could succeed by showing off that God is on our side and works for us.

But Jesus never worked miracles to show off, but only to help the suffering.

Even when he rose from the dead in supernatural success, he did not show it off to the priests, the religiously self-righteous zealots, the legal authorities, the governing elders, King Herod, or Pontius Pilate.

Before they finally killed him, he had given them his word, his message, asking them to believe it, and they would not.

He simply did not achieve success in convincing and converting them.

And after he “succeeded” in rising from the dead, he let them see nothing of that “success.”

Rather, he let his scoffers and killers see nothing and hear nothing but the word, the message, of his disciples, who likewise asked them to believe it.

We, disciples today, are still to testify by word and example, not by clobbering the crowds with triumphal shows of wonder, might, and success.

And now let us look at the most dangerous of the three devilish temptations of success.

The devil took Jesus up…

… and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.

The devil said to him,

“I shall give to you all this power and glory;

for it has been handed over to me,

and I may give it to whomever I wish.

All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Jesus said to him in reply,

“It is written:

You shall worship the Lord, your God,

and him alone shall you serve.”

To have power over kingdoms, political power, social influence, fame— success— is to risk turning from God to worship the devil.

The successful, the famous, the socially influential, and the politically powerful can worship themselves, and that is as bad as to worship the devil, because worship belongs to God alone.

Success, fame, influence, and worldly power fall easily into the hands of the devil, because, as Jesus has said, the devil is the ruler of this world [Jn. 12:31, 14:30, 16:11].

We have seen Christians, clergy and lay leaders, become blind to the seductions of their own vanity and fame.

They end up twisted and fallen like the devil.

So let us mark well the only time Jesus let crowds treat him like a famous, conquering, successful king.

It was Palm Sunday.

He paraded that day into Jerusalem so he could receive not success, but judgment and death as a criminal.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the devilish temptation of success through social and political might with fame and popularity got a harsher answer from Jesus than did the other temptations.

“GET AWAY, SATAN!

It is written:

The Lord your God, shall you worship

and him alone shall you serve.”

We read in the book of Genesis that Satan, back in the Garden of Eden, had tempted humankind to grab at being as successful as God and needing God no longer: “you will be like God” [Genesis 3:5].

Success was the bait, and with it Satan fooled them to grab and swallow falsehood and death.

That ended with humankind forced by its own choice to GET AWAY from Eden.

But, in the fullness of time, God in Christ, as the new genesis and Eden of humankind, spurned success as the world weighs success.

And instead he took on worldly failure in dying as a wrongdoer on a cross.

Death is human life’s consummate failure.

Consummatum est— “It is finished.”

But sin was also finished, having then used up all its possibilities: God in Christ and humankind in Christ both died.

There was nothing worse left for sin and Satan to succeed in doing.

Satan’s ultimate success was the end of his success.

Humankind was now free in Christ to rise from the ashes— but to rise truly in God’s success that Satan had tried to get humankind to grab at for itself.

So now in Christ, humankind ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

Thus, the very reality Satan succeeded in tempting humankind to attempt by itself alone and for itself alone, God and humankind have done together and for each other in Christ: “you will be like God.”

And so at Mass on Easter the Church invites us to rise from death, whether we are receiving Baptism or renewing our Baptismal promises.

Do you renounce Satan?

And all his works?

And all his empty show?

Satan and his versions of success, his works and their successes, his empty show and its successes are all less and worse than ashes.

Cherishing and plunging into the Holy Water of our Baptism into the death, the failure, the unsuccess of Christ that was faithful in love to the end, let us rather believe and obey Love, God— the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

After spurning Satan’s temptations to success, Christ left the desert and began his mission of calling out to the human race: Repent, and believe in the gospel.

Sin— unlove— against God, against neighbor, and against self can turn our freedom into ashes.

But swimming in the Baptismal Water of the Godly Love that is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, let us live, let us repent, and let us believe in the Gospel!

Turn. Love. Repeat.

Fr. Stephanos O.S.B.

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