The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
A few years ago, when I was convalescing from surgery, I found myself unable to read. Between the trauma of the wounds and the medications I was on, focusing on the written page was difficult and made me dizzy. So, I turned to television as a source of entertainment and low and behold, discovered the hit Showtime and Amazon Prime program, Billions. Have you seen Billions? It’s a captivating drama about billionaires and what they do to increase their already obscene wealth. And trust me, at least according to the writers, there is absolutely nothing these billionaires will stop at to get richer and more powerful.
In the first few seasons of the show the primary billionaire was Bobby Axelrod, a hedge fund manager worth upwards of $10 billion. Money and power mean everything to Bobby and nothing, not even his wife and two sons, or his self-respect, or his standing in society, will deter him from attaining them.
His chief protagonist is United States Attorney, Chuck Rhoades, who is obsessed with bringing down Bobby and his many shady, if not outright illegal financial dealings. Chuck is obsessed on bringing Bobby down. Like with Bobby his marriage and family suffer for it. While initially he appears to be a good guy, Chuck is manipulative, controlling, and unscrupulous, stopping at nothing to destroy Bobby.
There’s a great cast of characters, mostly employees of Axelrod’s hedge fund and employees of the US Attorney’s Office. The plot twists and turns are incredibly cleaver and engrossing with the over-arching theme being the battle for supremacy – or maybe better put, destruction - between Rhoades and Axelrod.
The fuel that drives this battle is temptation. Over time each and every character in the show – even the ones you think initially are good and on the side of righteousness, to the degree that Billions can be righteous – end up falling for the seductive lures of temptation: the temptations of money, power, sex, and control.
I keep on hoping that one character will be a savior figure who will resist the incredible temptations dangled before them daily. I had great hopes in new billionaire who was added to the show two seasons ago named Mike Prince. Mike appears to be a good billionaire with high-minded values. In fact he comes off as being so good, that he’s almost saintly, so much so that Bobby derisively calls him Mike Thomas Aquinas Prince. Prince talks a good game about clean finances, above board hedge fund practices, and social justice investing, but sadly, (spoiler alert!) he too ends up caving into his lusts for more money and power and the elimination of his nemesis, Bobby Axelrod.
While entertaining, Billions reveals the monstrous, demonic behaviors of not only the billionaires and the US Attorney, but all those who get co-opted into their orbits. And on Billions apparently that’s everyone.
All these characters make Faustian bargains with the devil, selling their souls in return for worldly pleasures.
In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus’ temptations by the devil in the wilderness. When Jesus successfully resists those temptations we are told that, [the devil] “departed from him until an opportune time.” The devil doesn’t give up . . . ever. In Billions every moment of every day is an opportune time for the devil to take control of people’s souls. Billions is the devil’s sandbox.
It’s tempting – pun intended – to look down at the characters on Billions as they submit to all these temptations and see them as morally and ethically lesser than us, well lesser but with mansions, yachts, servants, ski vacations to St. Moritz, private jets, and unlimited French champagne! I know I do.
I find myself being like the Pharisee in the parable where the superior Pharisee arrogantly looks down his nose at the inferior tax collector and prays, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” My prayer is similar: God, I thank you that I am not like these people on Billions, who sell their souls to the devil for every temptation dangled before them. I certainly have much stronger morals and ethical values than they do.
In much of life we are tempted to believe we are morally superior to others, successfully resisting the devil when he figures out our weak points, and tries to seductively lure us with financial gain, power, control, sexual pleasure, holding out a cornucopia of worldly pleasures before us.
Our struggles during Lent to successfully deny ourselves caffeine, chocolate, pastry, adult beverages, or whatever we have given up, tells us otherwise.
We are not stronger or superior to the characters on Billions or anyone else for that matter. To believe that is to fall for the temptation of hubris, which is sinful. Temptation is a universal human experience. Falling for them equally so. We all encounter temptations great and small every day. And when I say all, I include Jesus.
Jesus had to be sorely tempted by the offer to turn stones into bread when he was famished, or submitting to the devil in return for authority over the world’s kingdoms, or tempting God by throwing himself off the Temple.
Christian theology states that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Which means we believe that being fully human Jesus experienced every single human emotion, feeling, desire, and lust that we do. If he had not been tempted he would not have been fully human. Because he was, Jesus had to have struggled with whether or not to cave in to those temptations the devil offered.
But we also believe that, as it says in the letter to the Hebrews and in our proper preface for Lent, that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin.” In other words, Jesus did not make a Faustian bargain with the devil.
What gave the human Jesus the where-with-all, the strength, to resist the temptations he was offered?
A commentary I read believes that in resisting the devil in the wilderness Jesus fulfills the command that is central to Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5) This is the Shema, the foundational statement of faith of Judaism and the first of the two great commandments that Jesus offers us.
Jesus declines the temptation to make bread to meet his physical cravings, because it would have meant turning away from loving God and submitting to the devil. He rejects the temptation to compromise his devotion to God so to rule over all the earth’s kingdoms, gaining mammon and power, because it would have meant he was not worshipping God with all his soul. And finally, he refuses to put God to the test to deliberately place himself in danger- a sort of theological Russian roulette - because it would have indicated his lack of trust in God and when you don’t trust, you can’t fully love. In each temptation Jesus focused on loving God with all his heart, soul, and might, which gave him the strength to reject all the worldly pleasures placed before him.
One of the petitions in the Great Litany this morning asked God to save us, from sins of body and mind; from deceits of the world, flesh and the devil.” It’s a bold prayer request, but not an impossible one. Jesus showed us the way to do it. When temptations lure you, remember that you are called first and foremost to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength.
Any pursuit, priority, or preoccupation that diverts from that purpose should be seen for what it is: the devil’s temptation.
Every day we have held before us life and death, blessings and curses. The devil disguises death and curses seductively. It’s easy to fall for them. But never forget, he is a tempter and a liar. God holds out life and blessings and they are always the way of love, because they are from God who is love. My friends, choose life, choose blessings.
In so doing you will finally beat down Satan’s temptations under your feet. And when you do, you may not be a billionaire, maybe thankfully so, but you’ll be rich beyond compare.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.