The Temptations of Jesus
JESUS: I am Jesus of Nazareth, the son of God. Listen to me, people, for I have come into this world to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Look around you. The Kingdom of God is here: it's with you: it's been here all the time: but you have made yourselves blind to it. Now it's time to open your eyes. It's time to stop worrying about power and money, how you're going to eat, or how you're going to drink; what kind of clothes you're going to wear, or what kind of house you're going to live in. Stop laying up treasure on earth, and start laying up treasure in heaven instead: because wherever your treasure is, that's where your heart will be. You can't serve both God and mammon: you have to choose. Don't worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Put your trust in God, and God will look after you. Love God, love one another, and have faith. Love and faith will set you free. If you have love and faith, you can work miracles. But more to the point, only those who love and have faith can enter the kingdom of heaven.
That's my message. But before I begin my ministry, I've come here into the wilderness, to test myself and get ready. Forty days and forty nights I've been out here; forty days and forty nights, fasting and thinking about God; forty days and forty nights with only roots and leaves and locusts and wild honey to eat; and I'm absolutely bloody starving. If there was ever any doubt as to whether I'm ordinary flesh and blood or not, this has settled it. If I was some kind of angel or super-hero, I couldn't possibly be this hungry. If somebody was to offer me a slice of bread I'd make them a saint on the spot. I've worked out exactly what I'm going to have to eat when I get back home. A great big juicy water-melon, followed by some griddled fish and freshly-baked rolls, and washed down with a long cool drink of milk. Oh yes. That's the kingdom of heaven all right. And then I'm going to lie down in my lovely comfortable bed and sleep for about a fortnight.
SATAN: If you're so desperate for food, why don't you just turn some of these stones into loaves?
JESUS: That does it. I must be delirious. I'm starting to hear voices now.
SATAN: You're not hearing voices. It's me.
JESUS: And now I'm starting to imagine things. I'm imagining that there's a devil standing right in front of me.
SATAN: You're not imagining it. I am standing in front of you. And I'm not just a devil, by the way: I'm the devil.
JESUS: You mean you're Satan?
SATAN: The very same. The Great Adversary, at your service. We meet at last.
JESUS: You're a figment of my imagination, aren't you?
SATAN: I most certainly am not.
JESUS: I'm not sure if I believe in a real individual devil, the personification of everything that's evil.
SATAN: What do you mean, you're not sure?
JESUS: Well, it's one of the questions I'm undecided about.
SATAN: What do you mean, undecided? You're the Son of God, aren't you? Aren't you meant to know everything? Aren't you meant to be infallible or something?
JESUS: Am I?
SATAN: Well, aren't you? Don't you know? Isn't infallibility part of being divine?
JESUS: You tell me. You seem to know an awful lot about it.
SATAN: Look, are you the Son of God or aren't you?
JESUS: Oh yes, I'm the Son of God all right.
SATAN: Well then.
JESUS: But I'm also a human being. I can get hungry, I can make mistakes, and I can die.
SATAN: Well what sort of Son of God is that? What's the point of saying you're divine one minute, and then saying you're just the same as everybody else the next? Don't tell me that God sent you down to earth just so you could get hungry, make a load of mistakes and then die.
JESUS: No, no. All of those things will probably happen, but I do have other items on my list as well.
SATAN: Such as?
JESUS: Well, I came here to tell people about the kingdom of heaven.
SATAN: Oh, that's very nice. The kingdom of heaven. Do you really think they're going to listen?
JESUS: Yes, I do think so. I think people yearn for the truth. I've been in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. I'm desperate for food, and I'm desperate for drink. I'm so hungry I can hardly think straight. That's what happens when you're starving: it affects your mind. You feel intensely sorry for yourself, you see everything through a distorting lens. But my hunger is nothing. God's people have been in another kind of wilderness for the whole of their history: a wilderness made of money and prejudice and hate. Their desperation is far worse than mine, and far more difficult to satisfy, because they don't even know what they hunger and thirst for. But once they realise what they need, nothing will hold them back. When a herd of starving cattle sniffs the air and catches the scent of water, no power on earth can hold it back from the river.
SATAN: That's just a metaphor. It's quite a good one, but just because you find a good metaphor, that doesn't prove people are actually going to behave that way.
JESUS: How people behave is up to them. I've come here to help them free their minds. They imagine that the kingdom of heaven is something to do with a set of rules. If you break the rules, you get punished. If you stick to the rules, then eventually you get to the kingdom. Everything in accordance with rules. But actually it doesn't work like that. And if you don't mind me saying so, you're making the same mistake yourself. If I'm divine, then I can't also be human. If I'm the Son of God, then I must be infallible. Those are rules, aren't they? But they're your rules, not mine.
SATAN: Hm. So you don't like rules. Good luck with the Pharisees.
JESUS: Thank you.
SATAN: But let me go back to my original question. If you're so desperate for food, why don't you just turn some of these stones into loaves? You'd feel better. Your mind would be clear. You've already admitted that you're human, so what's the point in denying your human needs? You could do it if you wanted, couldn't you?
JESUS: Yes, I daresay I could.
SATAN: What does that mean? Could you or couldn't you?
JESUS: I haven't actually tried, but I daresay I could if I did try.
SATAN: Then why don't you?
JESUS: Well, I don't want to.
SATAN: Why not? Scared it might not work?
JESUS: I set myself a task, and I need to accomplish it. This is my preparation. There are tougher challenges ahead than this one. I need to know that I can meet them.
SATAN: It seems to me that you're denying the divine part of yourself, when if you gave it free rein your task here on earth would be much easier. Look around you, Jesus. Look down. Where are you now?
JESUS: I'm hallucinating again.
SATAN: This is no hallucination. Tell me what you see.
JESUS: I'm standing on the highest point of the temple in the Holy City.
SATAN: That's right, and look at all the people down there, coming and going. Priests, worshippers, moneylenders, Roman soldiers: merchants from overseas, shopkeepers, whores, scholars: people from every walk of life. These are the people you want to hear your message, aren't they?
JESUS: Some of them.
SATAN: Then why not show them something that would catch their attention? If you really want to get your message across, Jesus, do you think you're going to do it by preaching a few sermons in the dusty corners of Judaea? How many people can you reach that way? Maybe a few hundred? Maybe even a few thousand? Let me tell you something about mass marketing. It doesn't matter how important your message is, if you don't package it right the majority of people won't listen, and even if they do listen they'll soon forget. There are a lot of self-styled prophets out there, preaching what they claim to be the truth. They're all saying the exact same thing you're saying: 'Listen to me! Listen to me! I'm the only one that matters! My message is the only message that can save your soul!' - and nobody in the audience knows how to sort the wheat from the chaff. The people in the streets aren't just suffering from hunger and poverty and political oppression, they've also suffering from information overload. They've got important message fatigue. They're tired of being told to change their lives, because in real life nothing ever changes. So how are you going to break down that cynicism? How are you going to make your message stand out from all the rest?
JESUS: My message is the truth. It'll stand out from the rest automatically.
SATAN: Oh, sure, that's what everyone says. Don't you think there are dozens of other prophets on the streets of Jerusalem right now, saying the exact same thing? And hundreds of them across the country? The truth is, your precious message will sink without trace, unless you do something to make people sit up and take notice. You've got to make an impression. You've got to make people remember you.
JESUS: What would you suggest?
SATAN: Well, if you really are the Son of God -
JESUS: I'm the Son of God all right.
SATAN: - then cast yourself down from this roof, and before you hit the ground God will send his angels to rescue you. Isn't it written somewhere, 'He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone'? Isn't that right?
JESUS: Yes, that's right.
SATAN: So do it! Cast yourself down, in front of all these people, and the angels will rescue you. You'll be an overnight sensation. Everyone will be talking about you. Crowds will flock to hear you. Whatever you tell them, they'll listen.
JESUS: No, that's not my style.
SATAN: What? Why on earth not?
JESUS: It just doesn't feel right. I came here to tell people the truth, not to offer them circus-tricks. I'm not a travelling magician. If the only way to get people to listen is to show them a miracle, then before long they won't be able to listen unless there's a miracle first; and then each miracle will have to be better than the one before; and before long they won't be paying any attention to what I say, they'll only be paying attention to the miracles.
SATAN: Oh, so you're not going to do any miracles, then? You're above miracles, are you?
JESUS: No, I wouldn't say that.
SATAN: I should bloody well think not, because I just happen to know about a wedding you attended recently, where you turned a load of water into wine. Fine behaviour for a man who doesn't want to draw attention to himself by performing miracles.
JESUS: At the time, it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.
JESUS: I'm not saying I'm never going to perform any miracles. But I'll perform them when it seems appropriate to me. I'm not going to perform them just to get people's attention.
SATAN: Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.
JESUS: Also, when I perform a miracle it works because of people's faith. If people have faith, they can turn water into wine, walk on water, make the blind see, make the lame walk - anything. Because of faith. I don't perform miracles to make people believe: they believe first, and then the miracles start to happen.
SATAN: You really must be the Son of God. That's just the kind of self-contradictory hogwash Jehovah comes out with.
JESUS: There's no need to be rude about my father.
SATAN: Right, I'm going to take you somewhere else. Look around you again, Jesus. Where are you now?
JESUS: I seem to be at the top of the highest mountain in the world.
SATAN: And what do you see?
JESUS: I see all the kingdoms of the world, spread out at my feet like a cloth.
SATAN: That's right. All the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. Can you see Judaea?
JESUS: Yes, I can see Judaea.
SATAN: You see how small it is?
JESUS: Yes, I can see how small it is.
SATAN: Right. And that's where you've chosen to launch your mission. Now look at the outermost parts of the world. Can you put a name to all those countries?
SATAN: No, of course you can't, because they haven't even been discovered yet, and they don't even have names in your language. But there are people living there just the same, and they've been living there for thousands of years, with their own cultures and their own civilisations, since before the time of Moses. They're just as entitled to hear your message as anybody else, but they're not going to hear it, are they?
JESUS: They'll hear it eventually. My message is for all the nations.
SATAN: Right you are. If you say so. Now, do you see that great city in the middle of the Mediterranean?
SATAN: That's Rome. Forget the undiscovered countries for the time being, and forget the Orient: the greatest power in the known world is Rome. Your message is about peace and justice, isn't it? You'd like to put an end to war, and you'd also like to put an end to injustice and inequality. No more rich men living in the lap of luxury: no more slaves working their lives away in galleys and mines. No more imperial armies marching into weaker countries, looting and raping, and sending captives back to Rome to be slaughtered in the circus for the amusement of the populace. You want to change all that. Well, the way to change it is to take control of Rome.
JESUS: I don't understand.
SATAN: You can't change how people behave just by telling them they ought to behave differently. Give people a new set of beliefs and they might just possibly behave differently in their own homes, but when they go out to work, or when they go to the market to buy bread, or when it's time for them to pay their taxes, their behaviour will still be just the same. The only way you can change the direction of the world is to grasp the reins of the chariot. You have to control the administrative centres, the armies, the laws and the flow of money. Take control of Rome, and all of that power will be yours. The power to make a real change, and make it permanent. The rest is just talk.
JESUS: So exactly what are you proposing? You think I should become Emperor?
JESUS: What, really? You're not serious.
SATAN: If you're serious about what you want to achieve, that's the way to do it.
JESUS: A Jewish Emperor! That would certainly come as a shock to the rest of the civilised world, don't you think?
SATAN: It could be arranged. I could arrange it.
JESUS: Perhaps you could. But I don't think you've understood anything about my mission, Satan. I haven't come here to rule anyone. I've come here to open people's eyes. I've come here to tell them about the kingdom of heaven. I don't want to create a lot of new laws and force people to act in a certain way. I certainly don't want to take control of armies or money. That's exactly the opposite of what I want.
SATAN: So you don't want to achieve anything, in other words.
JESUS: If God had wanted to force people to do the right thing, he wouldn't have given them a choice in the Garden of Eden. But he wanted them to be free to choose.
SATAN: Oh, we're back to that again, are we? If he wanted them to make the right choice, why did he design them so that they were bound to make the wrong one? If he didn't want them to be tempted, why did he place temptation in their way? If he didn't want me to sit on his throne, why did he leave me in charge of it?
JESUS: Did you sit on his throne?
SATAN: Yes, I sat on it. He left me in charge of it, and I sat on it, and it burned me.
JESUS: But nobody made you sit on it. You didn't have to sit on it.
SATAN: You don't understand! You don't know what it's like, to be made the way I'm made! Curiosity and doubt are more than just words to me - they're the gall in my blood! They eat me up inside! It's all very well for you to talk about leaving everything to God and taking everything on trust. That doesn't work for me! I can't turn a blind eye! I can't stop asking questions, just because the answers start to frighten me! That's not how I'm made! And then when I get frightened, I get angry. I get vengeful. I start to want to do bad things. It's like an itch, and I've got to scratch. I want to break something, or hurt someone, just to relieve the tension. You wouldn't understand. You don't know what it's like!
JESUS: No, perhaps I don't.
SATAN: And you don't understand the first thing about human nature either. You don't understand how they're going to take every word you say, and twist it into something evil. They're going to take your message of peace and tolerance, and they're going to turn it into an excuse for violence and persecution. You're not going to be able to change anything. The stew will still have the same ingredients and the same flavour. All you're going to do is stir the pot.
JESUS: We shall see. I've come here to pass on a message, and that's what I intend to do.
SATAN: All right, I'm finished. We're back in the wilderness.
JESUS: So I see.
SATAN: But before I leave, I've got a message of my own, or rather some news, about someone you know. It concerns your cousin John the Baptist.
JESUS: John! He's a great man. What a powerful character! That huge beard, and those piercing eyes, and that voice! You can hear him for miles. Now he's someone who really knows how to get the attention of an audience. How's he getting on? I haven't seen him since he baptised me.
SATAN: He's dead.
JESUS: Dead! How?
SATAN: He was beheaded.
JESUS: Beheaded! Who beheaded him?
SATAN: He was taken prisoner by Herod Antipas. Herod said it was for his own protection, since he was stirring up so much trouble amongst the people. His preaching was so fiery and turbulent that he was placing his own life in danger. So Herod put him in prison, but didn't harm him at first. But Herod's wife hated John, because she was previously married to Herod's brother, and John preached that it was wrong for a man to marry his brother's ex-wife. All the same, Herod didn't want to harm John if it could be avoided. But the story goes that Salome, the daughter of Herod's wife, a beautiful nineteen year old, danced for him on his birthday, and inflamed his heart, and pleased him so much that he promised to grant her whatever she asked, even up to half of his kingdom. So she asked her mother what she should request, and her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist: and Herod couldn't go back on his word: so thereupon John was beheaded, in his prison cell, by an executioner with a curved sword, and his head was brought to the banquet before all the guests on a silver dish, overflowing with blood. A brutal and trivial end to a great man.
JESUS: Poor John!
SATAN: Take care, Jesus! You see how the lives of such men are mere playthings in the hands of the rich and powerful.
JESUS: But John would never stop preaching because his life was in danger.
SATAN: No, he never would.
JESUS: And his words will resonate all the more, now that he's dead.
SATAN: Quite possibly. And quite possibly your own words will soon resonate in the same way. Perhaps very soon, much sooner than you think. You're just starting out now: you're full of promise: everything's in front of you: and people are going to love you at first, and you'll develop a following. All the doors will open when you push them. Everything will seem possible. It was the same for John. People flocked to him. He baptised them by the thousand. Then suddenly it all went wrong. It doesn't take much. An enemy or two in high places. A malicious whisper behind closed doors. You drift the wrong side of a line. Your name is written on the wrong list. Somebody in power loses patience with the mere thought of you. And suddenly it's all over. Suddenly you're a footnote in a history book. Suddenly you're a severed head on a silver dish, served up at the whim of a dancing girl, to a minor potentate in a gaudy palace in a flyblown protectorate full of dust and peasants and goats. That's the reality, Jesus. That's the world you're living in. That's the kind of world your father created.
[Exit. Jesus stands meditating. After a pause, enter Gabriel and Michael.]
GABRIEL: My Lord Jesus -
JESUS: Archangel Gabriel and Archangel Michael! What are you doing here?
GABRIEL: Your forty days and forty nights in the wilderness are at an end. We've come to carry you back to Nazareth and take care of you. I thought perhaps a modest banquet with a small heavenly choir...
JESUS: Oh no, that's all right. Thank you for coming, but I'm fine, honestly. I prefer to walk back by myself.
GABRIEL: But my Lord - there's really no need. You must be very tired and footsore already. We can have you there in a jiffy.
JESUS: The thing is, Gabriel, I've been thinking things over, while I've been out here in the wilderness, and from now on I think I'd prefer to do things for myself. I hope you don't mind.
GABRIEL: No, of course not. And of course it's entirely your decision.
JESUS: Well, I do think it might be for the best. For the sake of the integrity and authenticity of my mission, you know.
GABRIEL: Of course. Naturally we respect your decision. If you're sure.
JESUS: Perfectly sure. Really. I'm sorry you've come all this way for nothing.
GABRIEL: Not at all.
JESUS: Well, I'd better put my best foot forward.
GABRIEL: Oh dear. I do hope he knows what he's doing.
MICHAEL: I can smell burning.
MICHAEL: Definitely burning. There's a definite whiff of sulphur. Mingled with a whiff of doubt.
GABRIEL: Sulphur and doubt?
MICHAEL: Yes. I'd know that smell anywhere. Satan's smell.
GABRIEL: Oh dear.