THE TEMPTATIONS OF POWER
The moment Jesus chose not to become another Saddam Hussein.
Oscar Wilde once said he could resist everything except temptation. As supreme master of the one line quip he put his finger on the frailty of human nature while also contributing to its trivialisation. If you ask most people what temptation is about they usually say sex and chocolate cake. Some people give up chocolate for Lent and recently a comedy was filmed about one young man’s desperate plight to give up sex for forty days after relationship failure. Yet if you take a close look at the definitive story of temptation – the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the desert – it becomes apparent that at the heart of temptation lies the use and abuse of power.
Mark’s Gospel is characteristically sparse in its description of the battle between Jesus and Satan. Mark says: ‘he was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan’ (1:13) and yet within this terse statement lay the battle which shaped the future of Jesus’ ministry. Luke is more forthcoming about it, recounting how Satan tempted Jesus to turn a stone into bread to relieve his hunger; how he would give Jesus authority over the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship him; and goaded him to throw himself off a high wall and watch the angels jump to his protection. (Luke 4: 1-13) What are we to make of these strange temptations?
Most historians would say that politics is about the struggle for power. In the twentieth century the full horror of this struggle was embodied in men like Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. For many people these men remain one-dimensional characters – cardboard cut-out figures with funny moustaches and pock-marked skin. Rarely do we stop to think how they descended to such evil.
I am neither a psychologist nor an historian, but I would guess there are a number of contributory factors. Sometimes there is a brutalised upbringing where the child is abused and must look after itself in a world where adults cannot be trusted, as happened to Saddam Hussein and to a lesser extent with Joseph Stalin. (Stalin, incidentally, initially trained for the priesthood, which may confirm your suspicions over the kind of people attracted to my vocation!) Many people are handicapped by a poor start in life but find a way of rebuilding what was broken, which shows this is only a fraction of the story behind these men. It was the possession of power which enabled them to realise their cruel fantasies.
The anatomy of megalomania runs something like this. First, the leader loses touch with the population and their needs. There is nothing disturbing about this in a democracy because you can always vote someone out eventually – but this kind of evil rarely flourishes in a genuine democracy. The ruler then surrounds himself with a collection of sycophants who can be relied upon to tell him what he wants to hear and with a growing number of loyal bodyguards whose own welfare depends on the ruler staying in power. The leader then begins to amass wealth at the expense of others, saving the best food, palaces and women for himself and his coterie. People from the same region as the leader are appointed to key jobs and are zealous in carrying our purges against so-called enemies of the State. This policy divides and rules, turning one against another. The leader eventually becomes genuinely paranoid – driven by the guilt, fear and superstition that unrepented evil creates within people. He becomes suspicious of everyone – even his own family – and the purges come closer to home. As the leader makes enemies out of familiar faces his power base diminishes until he is overthrown, defeated in war or flees into exile.
This chain of corruption helps us to see the temptation of Jesus in a new light because Satan here was trying to push Jesus down this slope where he would end up a malevolent despot. If Jesus had sold his soul to Satan there would have been unlimited pleasures to enjoy. Perhaps Jesus was ripe for this kind of adventure. After all, hadn’t he got old scores to settle after the early attempt on his life in Bethlehem? And so Satan set to work on him:
If you are the Son of God, prove it to them. You can begin by surrounding yourself with a loyal detail of bodyguards, those angels who will rush to save you if you throw yourself off the Temple. Put a bit of distance between you and the people – those angelic bodyguards will suppress any dissent. And pamper yourself. A king should act like one, eating the food others can only dream of – enjoying limitless resources while others go without. So go on, Jesus, turn those stones into bread. Show them how economic sanctions won’t work against you. Show them you’re different. A king whose powers make others afraid. And do you seriously think people will be impressed when you start preaching about the arrival of a kingdom they can’t even see? I can give you lands Alexander the Great could only have dreamed of. Haven’t you felt the buzz yet when people cringe at the mention of your name?
The way Jesus took on the devil at this point set the pattern for his entire ministry, because he renounces this kind of tyranny with contempt. He had not come to make others cringe before his random terror or gawp at the opulence of his lifestyle. This Jesus would be a servant king who would put aside his ambitions and personal comfort to take the way of the cross. A way of self-denial that would lead to a painful personal death but eternal life for millions.
Once Jesus held fast to this goal, Satan was unable to stop him. I expect Jesus was still tempted to forsake this public duty in favour of private pleasure at other points in his life, but the decisive battle had been won. He would owe Satan nothing. Ironically, like the great despots, Jesus had cause to be paranoid. Not only would he make powerful enemies in the course of his ministry, he would even make them among his friends. I doubt Stalin would have tolerated Judas Iscariot in the ranks. But then Jesus had no interest in saving his own life.
These cosmic struggles may seem above our heads, but they are not. It is in our fallen human nature to struggle for power. This is such a deeply ingrained instinct that we are hardly aware of it. Most of the time we justify our selfish power struggles by claiming there are bigger issues at stake than simply the desire to get our own way. In this way we never really allow God to challenge us. These struggles happen wherever we encounter other people – in the home, the school, the office, the shop, the club, the church. Jesus was perfectly self-aware. He could identify where the challenges lay. He understood what God wanted of him. He had the discipline to resist the selfish power struggle.
In the world around us the quest for power is considered normal. In business and commerce, politics and media – in fact in most spheres of life - it is considered acceptable to enter power struggles with a view to winning them for yourself. In the story of the temptation Jesus renounces the tired and unedifying struggle to be number one and opens up for us a new kind of world where the approval of God is paramount. Today he invites us to join him in it.
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