Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ingenious Temptations

One of my jobs during the week is fundraising for the local community in Darnall where I work. Darnall is a very disadvantaged neighbourhood in Sheffield. It has lots of good causes which require support, it needs money, it needs plenty of it, and it has never seen its fair share. If I could conjure funding out of thin air I would become a local hero. But, of course, I can't.

'If you are the Son of God,' said the Devil to Jesus, 'Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.' [1] What's so wrong with that? I could certainly do with help from someone who could command sheets of paper to become successful funding bids, or piles of earth to become suitcases filled with crisp new fifty pound notes. Isn't the important thing, how you use the money, not where it comes from?

There's a story called 'The Monkey's Paw', written in 1902 by someone called William Wymark Jacobs. An old soldier tells his friends how, while he was serving in India, he was given a monkey's paw by a dying man. It was supposed to have magic properties which meant that it could grant three wishes to its owner, but the soldier has been so dissatisfied with the outcome of his own three wishes that, even as he ends his story, he takes the monkey's paw from his pocket and throws it into the fire.


One of his friends snatches the paw out of the flames and afterwards makes a wish – that the mortgage debt on his house might be cleared. The following evening, while the man is at home with his wife, there is a knock on the door. Someone has come from the firm where their only son works to break the bad news that the son has been caught up in some machinery and is now in hospital, in a coma. The visitor says that the firm will disclaim all responsibility for the accident but, as a mark of their regret, and to help the family with their medical bills, he makes an immediate payment to the family which just happens to be the right amount of money to pay off the mortgage on their house.

In the next few days the son dies of his injuries and is buried. Only after a week or so does his mother suddenly remember that her husband still has the monkey's paw. She forces him to make another wish – this time that their son might be alive again. But, by now, the father has begun to realise just how treacherous these wishes can be and when – after a couple of hours – someone starts to knock frantically at the back door he grabs the paw and makes a third and final wish before his wife can open it.

It's just a silly story, of course, but perhaps it offers us a clue why the power to turn stones into bread is not the wonderful opportunity it first seems, but instead a dangerous temptation.

In Darnall we've had a less tragic reminder that the offer of easy money is not always unalloyed good news. Every year we organise a community carnival, which costs thousands of pounds to run, so you can imagine how delighted we were when a housing developer offered us two thousand pounds towards the cost. Our excitement was somewhat dented, however, when we discovered what kind of houses the developer was planning to build.

There is a new national standard for energy efficiency which grades houses according to how much gas and electricity their owners are likely to use: level one means that the house will be extremely energy efficient; level two means that it will be about average; and level three means that it will be below average but still a little bit more efficient than new houses were even a few years ago, before people started to worry so much about global warming. Anything below level three is, of course, simply unacceptable.

Well I guess you can imagine what standard the developer was planning to work to in Darnall. The houses were going to be so basic that their level of energy efficiency would be at the unacceptable level. The forum members felt that they simply had to complain, and now we think we might have to give back the developer's money because it's difficult to oppose someone, and say that their policies are wrong, when you're accepting their help. We are hoping, however, that the developer might change his mind and upgrade the houses.

Having the power to turn stones into bread seems, at first sight, to be a force for good, but that kind of power can interfere with people's motives and upset their good intentions. Does the way that Jesus rejects the temptation give us a clue, then, as to how we should understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Is that miracle simply about Jesus feeding the hungry? And, if it is, does that explain why some of the people in the crowd immediately wanted to proclaim him as their king? Or is the miracle really about something else – about finding that Jesus meets our deepest needs when he stands among us and breaks, blesses and shares the bread? In holy communion we are reminded that we do not live by bread alone. We need to receive the power and presence of Jesus if we are to discover 'life' in the fullest sense of the word.

We often imagine that the temptation which comes from having money and material things is a problem only for rich or godless people. But it isn't. It's a problem for many churches, too. How many times have I heard church meetings agree to do something not because it was God's will, but because they wanted either to save money or else to make money?

In the second temptation, the Devil offers Jesus glory and authority. Again, it's easy to imagine that this is only a problem for rich and powerful people. Tony Blair agreed to the invasion of Iraq because he dared to think that he and George Bush were powerful enough to make the world a better place just by wanting it to be so. They thought that they would be able to stamp their authority upon Iraq. I don't think they were foolish enough to imagine they could do this just by force of arms. I think they thought that they also had the moral authority to persuade the Iraqi people to embrace Western democracy and create a new kind of Arab and Muslim state which would change the face of the Middle-East and of the whole world. It was a noble idea, but it was also a dangerous delusion.

It is the Devil who offers us glory and authority – who holds out the promise that, if we tell people to do the right thing we can make the world a better place. And not just the world, of course. We all know bosses and managers who believe in telling people what to do. And I guess we have sometimes met church stewards, and circuit stewards, and ministers who were like that, too; people who had the best of intentions, but who mistakenly thought that leadership was all about having authority and being in charge.

And that shouldn't surprise us. One of the astounding things about this temptation is just how widely it is believed. Researchers have found that giving people a job title which makes them feel important is a more effective way to make them happy than giving them a big pay rise. Like the people I knew, from a voluntary organisation in Leeds, who asked if they could all have the word 'Director' in their job title. So the person who answered the phone would become the 'Director of Communications'; and the person who organised the staff rotas would become the 'Director of Personnel'; and the person who did the book-keeping would become the 'Director of Finance'. They said they needed this to happen because it would impress people from the Council. They said, 'When we meet council officers they always have a job title like 'Director of Street Scene Services', so if we have the word 'Director' in our job titles too, we'd be able to make more impact.'

Of course, the management committee agreed to their request, just to keep them feeling happy, but I've been doing a management course designed by the Institute of Leadership and Management, and one of the things it teaches is that Jesus was most certainly right to reject this temptation. The principles of good management and leadership are not a matter of glory and authority. They are about service.

In one of the sessions on the Course we had to list what a good manager must be able to do. And the answer included the following things: a manager must be able to listen; must be approachable and understanding; must be willing to share information and do their share of the most difficult jobs; must accept responsibility when things go wrong; must know when it's not appropriate to tell other people what to do; must be fair; must give praise where it's due; must have their colleagues' best interests at heart; and must lead by example.

Jesus never did a management course, but in one of his stories he commended the example of the shrewd manager as one which Christians would do well to emulate. And, if this list of qualities is anything to go by, it's easy to see why Jesus rejected the Devil's temptation, because he called upon leaders to be servants rather than masters, taking as their example the Son of Man who, he said, was called to be the servant of all. And he not only taught this style of leadership, he also lived and died by it. His crucifixion is the ultimate example of sharing the very worst things that his followers might be expected to endure, such as suffering, death and the consequences of human sin.

One of the most alarming things about the Devil is that he quotes Scripture, which shows that even the Bible can become a source of temptation in the wrong hands. A recent TV programme reminded viewers of a charismatic leader called David Koresh, who convinced his hapless followers that it was right for husbands and wives to stop sleeping with one another, and for the wives to sleep with him instead and bear his children. When federal agents laid siege to their headquarters, and eventually launched an all-out assault on it, he even convinced his followers to perish with him in the flames rather than give themselves up. And, apparently, he did all these things by appealing to – and misusing – the Scriptures, especially the Book of Revelation.

Of course, most of us never misuse the Bible as outrageously as David Koresh, but every preacher and Bible study leader, and every member of the Church who listens to their teaching, needs to beware of the Devil's example. It is almost as easy, unfortunately, to use the Bible to persuade people to stray from the will of God as it is to use it to encourage them to follow God's will. And the same goes for other holy books, of course.

And notice how the Devil uses Scripture to try to persuade Jesus that following God's way can be easy. “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’” says the Devil, “and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

A great many Christians have given in to this temptation down the years. How often we hear people say, when trouble comes, 'Why has God let this happen to me?' The answer, of course, is that God is not in the business of protecting us from all harm and of making sure that his followers never dash their foot against a stone. If that were so, Christianity would be the best insurance policy on the market, and Christians would be the most lucky people in the world.

Sometimes God can protect us from harm. But Christianity is not a benign version of the monkey's poor. It's not a lucky charm, granting Jesus' followers that their wishes will come true. Christians are the most fortunate people in all the world, because we have found the pearl of great price. But, of course, Christianity does not bestow the kind of conventional good fortune which other people are searching for. We are the servants of a crucified Saviour who heals us by being wounded for our sake, and who calls us to heal others by being wounded for him. Our good fortune is to have his presence with us to guide and strengthen us, and his example to follow as he goes ahead of us on the way.

No wonder Jesus rejected this and all the Devil's other enticements. May we be given the grace, and the courage, and the faith to do the same.

[1] Luke 4.1-13

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