Get Thee Behind Me, Power and Wealth

Vasily Surikov, Temptation of Christ (1872)

 Spiritual Sunday

Today’s Gospel reading contains Jesus’s famous rebuke to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” I find it interesting that, when Milton employs the line in Paradise Regained, it is not metaphorical. Jesus directs it literally to Satan.

That being said, however,I’ve long seen “Satan” as a metaphor for our dark desires. I read the desert temptations as an internal dialogue with Jesus, having just had a revelation thanks to John’s baptism, try to figure out what it means. What is involved with being the Son of God?

Does it mean the ability to perform miracles? To defy death? How about achieving worldly wealth and power. Ultimately, he concludes, it means bringing God to earth so that God fills all of humanity.

Peter, expecting to reap the rewards of a worldly messiah doesn’t get it. In fact, he won’t until after the crucifixion. Jesus, however, has planted the necessary seeds, first by the rebuke (which gets Peter’s attention) and then through a series of apparently contradictory statements:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Paradise Regained, like Paradise Lost, was written after Milton had witnessed the collapse of the Puritan republic, which he had hoped would bring God’s kingdom to earth in a literal sense. I think of those Trump-worshipping evangelicals who see their idol doing the same, some of them applauding a golden statue of Trump wheeled out in this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Milton’s passage begins with Satan’s offer:

“All these which in a moment thou behold’st,
The Kingdoms of the world to thee I give;
For giv’n to me, I give to whom I please,
No trifle; yet with this reserve, not else,
On this condition, if thou wilt fall down,
And worship me as thy superior Lord,
Easily done, and hold them all of me;
For what can less so great a gift deserve?”
   Whom thus our Savior answer’d with disdain.
“I never liked thy talk, thy offers less,
Now both abhor, since thou hast dared to utter
The abominable terms, impious condition;
But I endure the time, till which expired,
Thou hast permission on me.   It is written
The first of all Commandments, Thou shalt worship
The Lord thy God, and only him shalt serve;
And dar’st thou to the Son of God propound
To worship thee accurst, now more accurst
For this attempt bolder then that on Eve,
And more blasphemous? which expect to rue.
The Kingdoms of the world to thee were giv’n,
Permitted rather, and by thee usurp’t,
Other donation none thou canst produce:
If given, by whom but by the King of Kings,
God over all supreme? if giv’n to thee,
By thee how fairly is the Giver now
Repaid?   But gratitude in thee is lost
Long since.   Wert thou so void of fear or shame,
As offer them to me the Son of God,
To me my own, on such abhorred pact,
That I fall down and worship thee as God?
Get thee behind me; plain thou now appear’st
That Evil one, Satan forever damned.

For too many self-proclaimed Christians have been falling down and worshipping power and wealth as their superior Lord. We know what Jesus would say to them.

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