The old man and the cats…

The Whiff of Brimstone: A Sermon on Luke 4: 1-13

When did you first meet the devil?

My first meeting with him —and by far the most enjoyable—was when I was 13 years old, shortly before Christmas, 1979.  Faithful Catholics that my parents were (and still are), they knew that Manhattan was the best place to meet the devil. 

Granted, they cordially loathed Manhattan (at least with kids in tow; they had no objection to a civilized play occasionally, but traffic was and is the bane of their existence).  But once a year, a few weeks before Christmas, we would leave behind the mundanity of Long Island and our parents would take would take my sister and me into the City (it was like Hamlet’s Undiscovered Country for us) and they would let us buy ourselves whatever we wanted within a set amount of cash.  This meant that I ransacked the Strand Bookstore (or the Barnes and Noble Sales Annex before it disappeared). 

My sister Karen would pillage the City’s record shops, and add to her already impressive Rock and Heavy Metal collection. After the book run, the record shopping and dinner (at which the equally important book and record gloats over our treasures would take place).  

In 1979, though, we had dinner early, and afterwards went to a play at the CSC Repertory on East 13th Street.  The play was Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus

My cousin, the Shakespearean actor Robert Stattel, played Faustus with all his arrogance, his foolishness, and ultimately, harrowing terror.

Yes, the grandaddy of the “deal with the devil” genre, the play that inspired Goethe’s masterpiece, Thomas Mann, and, somewhat less fortunately, Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves.  

The production began with Faustus in his study, seeking to find a field of scholarship worthy of his great—supernal, even, talent.  He considers and rejects, one by one, Analytics, Medicine, Law, and finally considers Divinity—that is, theology.  But then he reaches for his Bible and reads that “The wages of sin is death,” and bursts out, “That’s hard.”

But the more he thinks about it, the worse it gets.  Quoting John’s Gospel, he reasons, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us.  Why, then, belike we must sin, and consequently die:  Ay, we must die an everlasting death.  What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera?”

With relief, he casts away Divinity, and embraces magic—that is, necromancy, dark magic meant to control the physical universe—and perhaps more—for his own power and profit.  He concludes that “A sound magician is a mighty God; tire thy brains Faustus to gain a deity.” Let’s be clear—he doesn’t mean to use magic to draw close to God—he means to use it to become God.

Faustus learns magic from his friends, but realizes that their magic is weak—he wants more, more power than they can give him.  So he calls upon Mephistophilis—who appears, but in a form so horrible that Faustus orders him to return in the form of a Franciscan friar.  He does so, and Faustus preens himself on the power of his magic—“how pliant is this Mephistophilis!  Full of obedience and humility!” 

He’s wrong, of course—Mephistophilis is baiting the trap, and Faustus blithely walks into it.  Mephistophiles urges him to not bargain his soul away, warns him of the pangs of Hell—mainly the loss of Paradise, and the nearness of God—and Faustus tells him to learn from his example of courage.  Mephistophilis even explains to Faustus that he is one of those “unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer/Conspired against our God with Lucifer/and are forever damn’d with Lucifer.”   

Mephistophilis is even worse off, as wherever he goes, even on earth, he always remains in Hell–banished from the presence of God and all its joys.

Faustus signs the contract, and Mephistophilis is his servant for 24 years.  

At first, Faustus seeks knowledge for its own sake, and seeks for a wife, which hell cannot give him.  But ultimately, Faustus spends those 24 years years chasing pleasure, mocking the Pope, Amusing the  Holy Roman Emperor, and giving in to his carnal lusts.  Again and again, he is given opportunities to repent, but he cannot bring himself to do it.  

Faustus can never bring himself to repent, to beg God’s forgiveness—and, on the last night of his life, the old magician begs for extra time before his soul is forfeit at midnight, struggles to find some gleam of humility in his soul—and fails.  His final scream for mercy is directed to, of all beings, Mephistophilis.  He is lost.

Today’s Gospel, tells a very different story.  Jesus does not blaze arrogance in all directions—he does not invoke his at-one-ness with God.  In his passage of arms with the Devil, Jesus first refuses to “prove” that he is the Son of God by turning a stone into bread.  He answers, quoting Scripture, that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.

He’ll do more than this in the very next chapter, for the benefit of his disciples, and later on, in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will feed five thousand hungry people with five loaves of bread and two fish. 

But he will not do it to show his Sonship with God, to prove his power.

Then the Devil changes his ground, takes Jesus to a mountaintop, and, in the twinkling of an eye, shows Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world, which Satan declares he has the power to give as he chooses—and offers them to Jesus, if he will worship Satan.  Jesus doesn’t dispute the Devil’s power to give him these kingdoms; he simply quotes Scripture again, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and shall serve only God.”

Satan’s not done yet.  He brings Jesus to Jerusalem, to the pinnacle of the Temple, and says to him, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, and prove the Scripture correct that God has given angels charge of him, to protect him, and that they will bear him up, and not let him dash his foot against a stone.  Jesus retorts with another line from Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

And the Devil leaves.

Doctor Faustus, like most of Marlowe’s plays, is a rumination on hubris, on pride—when Faustus makes the Seven Deadly Sins appear to him to amuse him, the very first to appear is pride.  But the play is also an inversion of today’s Gospel.  Jesus is tempted by Satan, but doesn’t give an inch.  Is it because he’s immune to temptation as the Son of God?  I don’t think so—in the Garden of Gesthamene, Jesus asks God to spare him his ordeal leading to the Cross—but only if God so wills it.   

No, in his encounter with Satan, Jesus, unlike Faustus, does not allow Pride to influence his actions.  He rejects the Devil’s repeated invitations to prove his specialness, his uniqueness.  Jesus will not make the story of salvation about his power, his majesty, his uniqueness.

He leaves that sort of self-aggrandizement to the Faustuses of the world—the men and women who care more to be noticed and admired than to put their God-given gifts to the use of others.  

The musical “Pippin,” is a less overt retelling of the Faustus story in which the theatrical troupe entertaining us has a darker purpose, and slowly entices a young man, who feels that he is “very, very extraordinary” to turn away from love, and light, and life to burn himself to death in the Grand Finale of their circus.  

The troupe, especially the charming “Leading Player” lead Pippin, like Faustus, through a review of the major experiences in life—youthful self-definition, war, politics, sexual pleasure, and romantic love—and yet, all of these are presented in such a way as to be unfulfilling, at least for someone as extraordinary as Pippin assumes he is.  

He realizes the trap just in time, and turns to the flawed woman he loves and who loves him, and to her endearing, annoying son, ruining the finale and the show.  So the troupe turns to the audience—us—and the Leading Player invites anyone who is truly extraordinary to join them, promising that it’s easy—why, we’re right inside your heads, the Leading Player reassures us, hoping to entice us to the flame Pippin has escaped.

The Gospel story is one in which Jesus steadfastly refuses to take the bait, and to allow pride to poison his ministry and his soul.  Faustus, of course, does just the reverse, and damns himself despite the many opportunities he has to retrieve his spiritual health, to end the contract, and use his genuine gifts to good purpose.

Pippin, falls in the middle. He’s a model of the lesson that pride kills and humility saves.  But humility isn’t the grotesque self-abasement of Uriah Heep, the villain of Dickens’s David Copperfield. Humility, it turns out is simply learning to see himself as he truly is, right-sized, neither bigger nor smaller than life. And that’s possibly all we need to turn down those temptations that could lead us to a false life, and the loss of what in us really is special.

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