I rarely watch live TV anymore. Most of the time I will record a show, and when I finally watch it, I will fast-forward through the commercials. Now the only time I actually do sit down to watch commercials is the Superbowl. Hands down, commercials during the Superbowl are just the best. They’re creative, quirky, hilarious, irreverent, and memorable, just everything I look for in a commercial, even if I come away without a clue what they’re trying to sell. The commercials I love best are just very entertaining really. They don’t even have to sell me anything I might actually need or want.
Now I’m probably not anyone’s target demographic anyway—a Catholic priest who doesn’t drink, smoke, or date, and whose idea of a good time is binge watching episodes of CSI and Sleepy Hollow on Hulu while enjoying a bowl of ice cream,—because let’s face it, commercials are made with the express intent to convince me to open my wallet and purchase some service or merchandise. That’s just not how it works with me. When I do spend money, it seldom is a direct consequence of a commercial.
Now a commercial is recognized as successful based on how much service or merchandise it sells. One very desirable residual effect of a successful commercial is that the consumer will recognize and choose their brand based on some past memory. And maybe that’s exactly how they do their best work, when I am least made to think my consumer habits are under the direct influence of anything other than my own free will.
In this age of aggressive advertising, I have noticed some very creepy techniques directed at consumers that strive to anticipate choices based on specific demographic indicators. I suppose there’s a science to all this, that certain specific age groups, in certain specific income brackets, taking into account such indicators as gender, race, and level of education will behave in very predictable patterns. Advertisers will then exploit these patterns to better guarantee that their product will sell. For instance, they will study consumer purchasing habits at the grocery store and online, website visits, foot traffic at the mall, to observe which snack product, which alcoholic beverage, laundry detergent, dog food, fashion accessories, and cosmetics sell better than others. This information then directs advertisers to produce ads in print media and commercials for TV and radio that cater to the consuming public’s specific preferences. It’s no shot in the dark anymore. It’s like they’re telling us they know us too well, so we should just go take their product to the cash register, no questions asked, like we’re on auto-pilot or we’re zombies. They don’t care which one, just as long as we open our wallets.
I find it both amusing and completely alarming that temptation does the same exact thing. Temptation is very specifically tailored to match the individual’s personal preferences. So we seldom encounter temptation we do not find attractive or appealing. It’s as if someone has been watching our behavior, taking note of our choices, studying our patterns of thought and speech, then making every effort to provide what we might desire—usually something inconsistent with our baptismal dignity, and the priorities we profess to uphold—targeted advertising at its best to ensure our spiritual downfall.
The gospel account tells us Jesus experienced temptation firsthand. It seemed the devil had a good idea what he might find attractive or appealing. And that was exactly where temptation went—right for the jugular. After he had spent 40 days in the desert, Jesus was hungry. How hungry? 40 days hungry. So the devil offered him food, but at a price. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” It sounded completely innocent. If he had power to turn stone into bread, what’s the big deal? “You don’t have to live like an ordinary person, experiencing human trials and tribulations. You are the Son of God! You can eat better than most, if only you put your divine powers to selfish use. Do it for you. You say you came to do the will of your heavenly Father? But if your heavenly Father isn’t at all concerned that you starve in this desolate place, why bother doing his will? Do your own will.” And Jesus chose to stick with his heavenly Father’s love, and remain faithful to his calling.
“If you worship me,” the devil tried to sweet-talk him on another occasion, “I shall give you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish.” Who would not want what temptation had to offer—earthly wealth and influence, material possessions, fame and fortune. That’s exactly what temptation offers us today all the time. “If you worship me”—that was the condition, the requirement temptation demanded. And by the looks of it, many take him up on his offer. They do not hesitate to turn back on their heavenly heritage as daughters and sons of God. Instead, they surrender their birthright to glory that fades, and their allegiance to the ruler of this age. “You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Jesus does not waver. He had his priorities right. He had no use for earthly power and glory. What he already had was infinitely better still.
“If you are the Son of God …” It was a familiar refrain. Somehow the devil was convinced his pride and sense of self-importance would get the better of him. Being the Son of God had many potential advantages. Why couldn’t he just cash in on it every once in a while? It would be such a spectacle, such a display of singular privilege and brilliance. “Throw yourself down from here.” The devil had taken him up to the high wall of the temple, presumably where such a gesture would garner the most attention. “If God in heaven is indeed your shield and defender, ‘he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you … [and] with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” But Jesus was not interested in such displays of divine intervention. It did not fit into his understanding of what the Father had sent him to accomplish—that he proclaim a message of repentance and reconciliation. It’s possible. If he had displayed pretentious extravagance to draw attention to himself, people might be better disposed to hear his message. But then again, such a display would more than likely hinder his mission instead. “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Temptation is that aggressive and accurate target advertising that strives to convince us to seek our own selfish ends, and to ignore the dignity to which God has called us. Yet Jesus embraced in his own flesh what we experience in ours. He knows our trials and our struggles well. And he firmly believed his life and ministry were not about himself. Throughout our lives, temptation will find ways to draw us from God, from our baptismal dignity, and from the mission Jesus entrusted to his church.
The first reading from Deuteronomy gives us a summary of Israel’s story, how even in her struggles and trials, God was always by her side. And St. Paul affirms for us that for those who proclaim faith in Christ Jesus, “the Word is very near to you, it is on your lips and in your heart.” God does not leave us to face our trials alone. God is in this fight on our side. The devil may know well how to sell pleasure that passes and glory that fades. Don’t be fooled. Don’t buy any of it.
Rolo B Castillo © 2016