To understand Satan’s strategy when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness, it helps to have a working knowledge of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which he first proposed in a 1943 paper entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow’s theory was that human needs were organized into a hierarchy, usually depicted as a pyramid. Our most basic physiological needs (food, water, sex, etc.) are at the bottom, followed in ascending order by security, love, self-esteem and self-actualization. According to Maslow, we are able to focus on higher-level needs only after more fundamental wants have been satisfied.
When Satan set about to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he started at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid and worked his way up. Knowing that Jesus had been fasting for 40 days, Satan suggested that if he were really the Son of God, he should command stones to become loaves of bread. When this gambit failed, Satan placed Jesus at the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and insinuated that if he were really the Son of God, he could throw himself off and angels would come to his rescue. Again, Jesus refused to bite. Finally, Satan offered to give him all the kingdoms of the world if he would switch allegiance to the devil, but Jesus stood firm.
Many years ago I worked with a former New York City cop who told me he always refused freebies offered by neighborhood shop owners when he was out walking a beat. “Every man has his price,” he said, “but I wasn’t going to sell out for a cup of coffee.” How many of us can say the same? Not many would have the presence of mind to recognize that the devil, in whatever form, will not promise you all the kingdoms of the world if you can be had for the price of a cup of coffee (which sold for about 10 cents in those days).
Advertisers all have a working knowledge of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and are expert at working up and down the pyramid to make a sale, often cleverly packaging love or self-esteem with baser needs. This is especially true when peddling big-ticket items like automobiles, which are commonly marketed on the basis of their purported status, sex appeal and fuel economy, all in the same ad. It is no surprise that consumers are often depicted as nitwits in TV and radio commercials, since this is exactly what advertisers think of people who are so easily enticed into buying things they don’t need and often can’t afford.
It is worth noting that the word “consumer,” which dates from the 16th century, was originally a pejorative term meaning “one who squanders or wastes.” There is something subtly dehumanizing about being addressed in junk-mail salutations as “Dear Consumer,” as if one’s entire identity were somehow subsumed under that designation. When it comes to mindless consumption, one thinks of tapeworms, piranhas, vultures and other creatures lower down the food chain that are able to eat a large potion of their own body weight at one sitting. Is this the company we wish to keep as consumers?
The curious thing about the temptations that Satan dangled in front of Jesus in the wilderness is that there did not appear to be a quid pro quo, at least not with the first two. Command these stones to become loaves of bread. Throw yourself down from here, and angels will bear you up. What did the devil have to gain by egging Jesus on? Just this: Jesus could not succumb without betraying who he truly was. He did not come to be served but to serve humankind. Similarly, we betray who we truly are if we forget we were created in God’s image and try to live by bread alone.