Follow the Leader (March 2001)

March 2001


Some of us remember playing “follow the leader” as a childhood game. The more mischievous among us may even recall the “devilish” thrill of leading others through awkward places, such as water puddles or woods thick with undergrowth.

Something in our nature disposes us to follow a leader, even through thick and thin. In adulthood, we often regard this inclination as legitimate. In politics, we call it loyalty; in war, discipline; and in religion, obedience. Loyalty and discipline are regarded as civic qualities; obedience, as divinely inspired virtue.

Yet problems arise the moment we fail to see the precipice that runs along our chosen path. We are susceptible to injurious or even fatal falls the moment we loose sight of the risk of following just any leader.

A good leader guides us safely to our destination over unfamiliar terrain. Without our willing submission to the knowledge and skill of such a leaders, we would surely wander endlessly, all the while risking the dangers posed by elements and predators.

On the other hand, a poor leader – or a malicious leader – guides or lures us away from our chosen course and abandons us in the face of danger.

Spiritual temptation can be regarded as misguided leadership. In the case of directions offered by Satan, the prince of illusion, we find a clear case of malevolent leadership. And we can find no better example of this than in Satan’s temptation of Jesus near the end of the 40-days of recollection in the dessert that preceded his period of public ministry.

The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
– Deuteronomy 26

The three temptations to which Jesus was subjected are significant largely because of their symbolic value. They represent the ultimate risk associated with the life of the body, of the mind and of the spirit.

In the first, according to Luke’s account, Jesus is tempted to end his physical hunger by turning a stone into bread. In the second, he is tempted to prostrate himself in homage to Satan who dangles this claim: “I will give you the power and the glory of these kingdoms; the power has been given to me and I give it to whomever I wish.” Finally, Jesus is tempted to throw himself from the parapet of the temple so that angels might guard him from harm.

In all three cases, Jesus resists.

Against the first, he replies that man does not live on bread alone, pointing out that salvation is to be found from the hands of God and not through the cleverness of man. Against the second, he reminds Satan that only “the Lord your God” is to be worshiped. And against the third he refuses to put his heavenly Father “to the test”.

What fascinates me most about this scene is the frequent and mixed use of scripture as the stakes increase exponentially from one temptation to another.

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.
– Romans 10: 8

In the first temptation, Satan appeals to a normal physical need to satisfy hunger. Jesus replies by quoting the evangelist Matthew: Not on bread alone shall man live.

In the second, Satan tries to persuade Jesus that his mission of redemption can be accomplished by simply acknowledging the dominance of evil in the world. Jesus replies with another passage from the Law of Moses: You shall do homage to the Lord your God; him alone shall you adore. In effect, Jesus refuses to confuse the ubiquitous nature of evil with the ultimate power of good.

Frustrated by Jesus’ unassailable obedience to Scripture, the prince of illusion resorts to a psalm to lure Jesus into demonstrating the glory of God with a flourish of angels: On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. In turn, Jesus replies with another verse.

The last temptation is particularly significant because it reveals the key difference between the good and the malevolent leader. The former is focused on virtue, freedom and life while the latter is oriented toward vice, illusion and death. The first reveals the power of Scripture when interpreted with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love; the second demonstrates how even holy words can be denatured by darkness to suit evil purposes.

These temptations and responses are also significant because they tell us a great deal about Jesus’ life and our own. They show us the degree to which Jesus was in solidarity with all of humanity. He faced the temptations we face in our daily lives in various guises and manifestations.

Who among us has never been tempted to satisfy our physical needs at the expense of our spiritual health? Who among us has never been tempted to capitulate before the awesome presence of death and destruction; of lies and ambition; of selfishness, aggressiveness and competitiveness? Who among us has never been tempted to proclaim the glory of God according to our own agenda rather than His?

Benedictine author Jerome Kodell points out in his commentary on Luke’s gospel that these temptations are “typical of the temptation Jesus faced throughout his life and typical as well of the testing his followers will undergo”.

In fact, the next verse tells us that When the devil had finished all the tempting he left him (Jesus), to await another opportunity. That “opportunity” is revealed at the beginning of the passion account: Then Satan took possession of Judas, the one called Iscariot, a member of the Twelve.

There are two lessons for us here, I think. The first is the enormity of temptation. Under its many guises, evil often lures us off the beatific course. It is the knowledge of this reality that helps us to appreciate the mercy of our benevolent God.

The second lesson is that resistance to evil is most potent when it is rooted in the word of God and in the loving interpretation of God’s revealed truth. It is by deferring to the word and proclaiming it openly that Jesus repelled his tempter. The challenge for us, therefore, is to read and meditate the word, to appropriate it and to wear it as armor against the treacherous enemy.

The word of God enables us to see clearly the choices we face. With the Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment and wisdom, we can apply it each time we face important life decisions. The value of the word is most evident when it steers us clear of bread that tantalize, yet is laced with lethal venom.

For forty days, he was tempted by the devil.
– Luke 4:1

For me, it is reassuring to know that my Lord and brother walked down the same road that I do now. I feel that Jesus knows how I face tough choices in my life and that I need guidance to make right choices. I know that his love for me is expressed as compassion and counsel – merciful and wise.

I also know that his love for me (and for each one of us) is so infinite that he took on the challenges of our earthly journey precisely to show us how to deal with them. In the face of temptation, he taught us a way to respond.

Now let us make no mistake about the authenticity of this gesture. When I was a child, I imagining the devil coming up to Jesus on the 40th day of his fast and confronting him with three questions in rapid successions. I guess I imagined that the whole thing took about 60 second, including the time it took to fly to the top of the parapet from which Jesus was invited to leap.

Sixty seconds, from start to finish. This supposed that Jesus had ready answers and delivered them with the speed and assurance of the proverbial Philadelphia lawyer.

I now imagine the scene quite differently. First of all, Luke makes it clear that “for forty days he was tempted by the devil”. The fact that he recounts three temptations must be because these were not only symbolic but also somewhat difficult to resist, particularly after a prolonged fast.

My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust
– Psalm 91

I now imagine that Jesus grappled with questions like these throughout his period of recollection. But what is most significant is that in the silence of the dessert, he understood that life presents clear choices, a fact that is often obscured by the din of daily living. He saw that the easy road is not always the right road and that the road less traveled, though often the right road, is cluttered with distractions that would incline us to wander off course.

He also rediscovered the wisdom of God’s sacred words and used them ably to combat evil cloaked in expediency.

That is why Lent is such a grace. It affords us a unique opportunity to stand back and take stock of the choices we face in our life. If we give it enough time, we can come to see that the choices are not as complicated as we might have thought.

In the privacy of our heart, we see the hazards of expediency and rationalizing convenient alternatives to virtue, and we hear the divine words as truth and love. In the undisturbed recesses of our heart, we feel the comfort that trust in the source of all life and joy can provide.

In these moments of spiritual lucidity, we know what is right and why following Jesus is the only way to peace and joy. In such moments, we know that the Great Deceiver can make attractive and alluring any option that ultimately diminishes our dignity and destroys our capacity for lasting happiness.

When we accept Lent as a gift, which is both necessary, given our human nature, and fecund, given the fruit that it bears, we know what leader to follow.

“Follow the leader” is not a game; it is the essence of salvation. Our pilgrimage on earth is pointless if we wander aimlessly, and ruinous if we follow the prince of illusion, of frivolity and death. It is beatific, if we follow Jesus.