Historical Cultural Context

The Devil Made Me Do It!

Now when the voice from heaven identified Jesus at his baptism as “my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22), all the spirits heard this compliment.

Every Mediterranean native knows what must and will happen next in Jesus’ life. Spirits will test him to determine whether the compliment is indeed true, and just in case it might be true, the spirits will try to make Jesus do something displeasing to God.

It is no surprise, then, that the very next scene in Jesus’ life that Luke presents is “the temptation.”

Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. He was led by a good spirit into the wilderness, the normal habitat of spirits, where he did battle with an evil spirit, the devil. 

Three times Jesus is tempted to do something that would make him a displeasing son. Three times Jesus replies with a quote from Scripture (Deut 8:3; 6:13; 6:16) to vanquish the temptation.

The devil also quotes Scripture to Jesus (Ps 91:11-12, the Responsorial Psalm for this Sunday) but still does not succeed in tripping him up. Jesus wins the contest, and the devil leaves him “until an opportune time” (see Luke 22:3).

Clearly, the story of Jesus’ victory over the devil is not intended by Luke as a model for baptized Christians who also have to battle against evil spirits. No Christian possesses the powers that Jesus is being tempted to misuse.

Luke’s purpose in this temptation story is to present Jesus precisely as the kind of person John the Baptist predicted: the “more powerful one” (Lk 3:16).

Indeed, later in this Gospel Jesus will describe himself and his activity with the same phrase: only a “more powerful one” or “one stronger” than the devil can cast out demons (Lk 11:22).

Those among Luke’s first readers who asked, “why should I believe in Jesus?” are given culturally appropriate answers.

Jesus displays an extraordinary degree of control over life and nature. He possesses an ability to safeguard and maintain his honor and avoid shame.

Until his arrest, trial, and death, no one—human or spirit—succeeds in shaming him, tripping him up, or causing him to fall from his stated position and goals.

He is indeed a “more powerful one.”

Americans in general do not believe that spirits cause them any problems. This cultural conviction is what made the comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, a number of years ago, so amusing as often as she resorted to her favorite excuse: “The devil made me do it!”

But Americans do understand power. They especially understand and resent abuse of power by those who should wield it for the benefit of others.

Viewed from this perspective, the story of Jesus’ refusal to abuse the power he had offers Americans something very relevant to ponder.

John J. Pilch

John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson