Performance, Popularity and Possessions
’Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards was famished’. (Matthew 4.1-2)
The story which Matthew the Evangelist tells about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is rich with all sort of biblical allusions. But the real power of the story comes when we consider the three temptations faced by Jesus and what they might mean for us. In the first temptation, the tempter says ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’. A book I have been reading recently by Paul Swann(1) suggests that at the heart of this temptation is the idea that we can define our identity by our achievements or our performance. We define ourselves in terms of what we do. The second temptation is when Jesus is invited to perform a great wonder, throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, and impressing the crowds below with a spectacular stunt. We allow ourselves to be defined by what others think. We allow our moral compass to be swayed by the pursuit of popularity rather than the search for justice. The third temptation is when Jesus is taken to the top of a high mountain and the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me’. We define ourselves in terms of what we have. We distract ourselves with material possessions rather than recognising that the pearl of great price is the Kingdom of Heaven.
I am what I do, I am what others think, I am what I have. Do these statements do justice to the mystery of what it means to be human? Lent is a season when we can explore our sense of longing and desire, our hopes and aspirations for the future. We may discover the grace that these things do not depend on our own achievements. Lent is a season when we can reflect on the quality of our relationships and the truth of ourselves - and discover the depths of God’s mercy and our own capacity for forgiveness. Lent is a season when we can free ourselves of the clutter and complexity which fills our lives and search for the truth that will make us free.
(1) Paul Swann, Sustaining Leadership