Many decades ago, a company wanting to impress us with its customer service launched an ad campaign centered on an interesting expression to reinforce the fact that they would do just about anything to make their customer happy. “No Ifs, Ands, or Buts!” they asserted. Ifs, ands, or buts. Three words that are known as conditional modifiers.
If you’re something of an English grammar nerd, as I am, you know that these words known as conditionals are powerful little things. They can turn a statement from an absolute – “you are a fool” – into something more tame – “you are a fool, but I still love you.” They can reframe something as a possibility rather than a fact: “if you are a fool, I don’t want to hire you” is quite different from “You are a fool. I don’t want to hire you.”
In today’s Gospel, Luke uses one of these conditional modifiers to powerful and subtle effect. In the passage we just read, the shortest word – one of those conditional modifiers - is the most powerful one.
If you are the Son of God.
If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread.
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off this building.
If you are really who you say you are, prove it to me.
I wonder if there is a hidden challenge here…not just prove it to the devil, but prove it to yourself. If you are really who you say you are, test it out so you can be really sure. After all, it might just be your imagination that you think you are God…it might just be a delusion.
That devil, that tempter. Always looking to make trouble.
Jesus doesn’t rise to the bait, of course. He is clear about who he is, and what he is supposed to do, even after 40 days of near starvation out in the desert. He has nothing to prove, to this devil or to the Pharisees or to his disciples. He simply has to be utterly himself, and the rest of his work will speak for itself.
No ifs, ands, or buts.
But the devil, limited in his tools of persuasion, thinks differently. He thinks that Jesus is, in fact, subject to the same human failings as the rest of us, pride and self-doubt being foremost among them.
And so he couches his temptations with that “if,” hoping to get Jesus, in his weakened state, into a place of questioning who he really is and why he is embarking on this task that will only end in misery and pain. He wants Jesus to give up on the task of saving us. The devil, of course, would like nothing better than to cut off the possibility of improvement of the relationship between humankind and God, and what quicker and more efficient way than to disarm the one who was sent to repair that relationship?
“If you are who you say you are, prove it.” A schoolyard taunt, designed to get Jesus to respond “I am too!” But Jesus is not to be drawn into a debate with a lesser adversary. Even this prince of devils cannot get him to make a misstep.
But - here comes another conditional – but when the devil is unsuccessful in tempting Jesus, what does he do? Does he slink off, defeated, never to be seen or heard from again? No…Luke tells us “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
It is the devil’s job, of course, to tempt humanity into sin, so just because it didn’t work then didn’t mean it might not work in the future, or it might not work on human beings. To put together a few of our conditional modifiers, you might say “if Jesus was God and man, he had the power to resist such temptations. But mere humans did not have such power, it seems.”
And there is the heart of what Lent is about. We are not so good at resisting temptations, especially some of those that the devil tried to use on Jesus with that little word “if”: pride and self-doubt.
Pride and self-doubt are two sides of the same coin. If we are prideful, we think we are more important than we really are, so we boast or are arrogant. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, remember the last time you laughed at those silly rednecks when you watched “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo” or smirked at the feckless Guidos and Guidettes of “The Jersey Shore.” We are so much better than them, of course…we don’t take our little children to kiddie beauty pageants or worry about our tans. Right. We have other things, more important things to worry about, like whether our child is doing better in his school than our friend’s child, or whether we can beat out our co-worker for a promotion.
And what about self-doubt? It’s that old feeling of “am I good enough?” Good enough for what? A good enough employee? A good enough parent? Compared to what? Honey Boo-boo’s mom and dad?
Here’s the standard that we forget when we are lost in a morass of pridefulness or self-doubt. We are beloved children of God, made by our Creator to love God and love each other. We are beautiful in God’s eyes.
Sort of takes you out of the realm of Snooki and Honey Boo-Boo, doesn’t it? Makes all of our wonderings if we are good enough, and all our judgments about others not being as good as us, seem a little misguided.
And this is where the gift of Lent can be so powerful. When we get all caught up in the idea that the ifs, ands, or buts matter, this season of Lent says, “Stop. Wait a minute. Think about what you’re doing here. Do you measure yourself by the standards of the world, or by how well you live into the person God created you to be? Do you think of yourself as better than everyone around you, or not good enough? Do you remember that God wants nothing more than for you to be who you are, beloved and loving?”
In this season of Lent, we take our own measure, not to compare ourselves with others, but to see how we have lived into God’s vision for us. That is the only measure that truly counts. No ifs, ands, or buts.