Faust considering the offer of Mephistopheles (the devil)
One of the greatest works in the history of German literature is the play Faust, written by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Goethe worked on this play on and off for 56 years. He started writing it as a young man of 27 years old, and did not finish it until just before he died in 1832 at the age of 83. It is a long and complex work, getting into deep discussions of science, religion, psychology, philosophy, history, and more. It is not easy reading. But the play’s setting for all those deep discussions is a simple and thought-provoking old German legend about a man who was tempted.
The story begins with a conversation in heaven between God and the devil, much like in the story of Job. The devil makes a wager with God, betting that he can steal away from God the soul of a good man, a brilliant scientist named Dr. Faust. Determined to win the bet, the devil goes to work on Dr. Faust. The devil knows what Faust loves, what he wants in life, and what his frustrations are. After a lengthy discussion of all this, the devil makes his move. The devil offers to serve Faust, giving him everything he wants for his entire life, on the condition that when Faust’s life is over the devil may have his soul in hell for all eternity. Dr. Faust, desperate to have everything he wants, and to achieve all his goals, agrees to the offer. After all, he was just a young man, and old age and death were a long ways off.
God agreed to this testing of Dr. Faust’s faith and goodness. I do not know what originally inspired the telling of this old German legend, but it could have been inspired by story of the temptation of Jesus by the devil in Matthew 4:1-11. There is no talk of a wager there, but verse one says, “Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Led by the spirit, to be tempted by the devil. Then, the devil tempted Jesus three times, each time offering Jesus what he would want and need most of all– on the condition that Jesus would serve and obey the devil and not God. The story continues (verses 2-11):
After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Jesus had been fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, so he would have been hungry; and the first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Jesus could have done this. He would in a few months miraculously feed 5,000 people with just a couple loaves of bread and a few fish. But Jesus refused to do this at the devil’s command, saying, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
In the second temptation, you need to imagine the human side of Jesus. Jesus is just beginning his ministry and might be wondering about this call by heavenly Father into this work. The devil told Jesus to jump off the temple and let the angels take care of him. It is as if the devil were saying, “Maybe you ought give this religion business a little test. Go ahead and jump, and make sure that God will be taking care of you.” Again Jesus refused, saying “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” As with Faust, there is a test going on here. But the human Jesus knows that he is the one being tested, and it is not for him to decide to switch roles and start testing God the Father.
Then came the biggest temptation of all. Jesus was here to save the world, and the devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus would fall down and worship him; or, sell his soul, just like what was offered to Dr. Faust. Again Jesus refused, saying that the Lord God alone should be worshiped and served. The devil then left Jesus.
This story not only teaches us about Jesus, but also about ourselves; we who also face tests and temptations every day. And one of the things we learn here is that we must not give in to the temptation to allow the little things in life draw us away from what is most important. Jesus did not allow even the temptation to take charge of the whole world draw him away from God. Later on he would say to his disciples, “What good is it if you gain the whole world and lose your own soul?”
Goethe made this clear in his play when Dr. Faust was nearing the end of his life. Life has indeed been full and good. The devil has fulfilled his promise and given Faust everything. But now, life will soon be over and Faust had long ago signed away his eternal hope, and he is in deep despair. The deal he made as a young man was a bad one.
There is a caution here for everyone. The Bible’s emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness and grace is wonderful, but it must not blind us to the fact that the Bible also speaks of life as a test and a challenge and filled with many temptations. Even Jesus faced such temptation. And although the Bible says God’s compassion and grace is boundless, it does not say that grace is automatic. The Bible says we must resist the devil, fight against temptation, stand firm, and not fall away. Surely, as Faust learned too late, there is no greater loss than to lose one’s eternal salvation. Goethe’s long story shows that nothing in life, nothing in the whole world, is worth trading in for that. Any reader will, at the end of the story, see that Dr. Faust made a very bad bargain indeed. We must not make that mistake. (continued…)
Lord God, our strength, the battle of good and evil rages within and around us, and our ancient foe tempts us with his deceits and empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your Word, and, when we fall, raise us again, and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship (#25)