The drama of this Gospel story hinges on Jesus’ encounter with Satan, demons, and unclean spirits. In our own time and place, these “evil spiritual realities” are largely relegated to Hollywood and to children’s fantasy literature such as the Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. We are products of the Enlightenment, so-called, a culture not schooled in the discernment of good and evil. And yet, you can hardly turn a page of the Bible without encountering the battleground of spiritual forces. Saint Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but… against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[i]
The early experience of monasticism in the Egyptian desert gives repeated accounts of the monks being in constant battle between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. The fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, gave the warning: “Stay watchful of gluttony and desire,” he warned, “and the demons of irritation and fear as well. The noonday demon of laziness and sleep will come after lunch each day, and the demon of pride will sneak up only when you have vanquished the other demons.”[ii]
If I were to show you a drawing of a person with a tiny angel perched on one shoulder and a tiny devil perched on the other, I’m sure would recognize immediately what the picture was trying to convey. Temptation is a universal phenomenon, isn’t it? All of us know what it is to be tempted. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t had the experience of being torn between the desire to do good and the desire to do evil, between the impulse to help and the impulse to harm, between the wish to speak and act kindly, and the urge to be hurtful and cruel. We know what it is to have the devil whispering in one ear and an angel whispering in the other.