There’s a fair chance that you are more familiar with the temptation story in Matthew and Luke than with this year’s account in St Mark. Those two writers begin modestly enough with Satan tempting Christ to make bread from stones; then encouraging him to test the swiftness of the angelic rapid-response team by throwing himself off the Temple roof; and to accept his invitation to survey the kingdoms of the world before bowing down to worship him. Each of the temptations is followed by a short burst of Bible-quote ping-pong which remains to this day a game highly favoured by certain individuals.
Mark gives us none of this sense of neat progression. His scheme, quite simply, describes Jesus experiencing Satan’s temptation in the company of ‘wild beasts’, followed by the restorative ministry of angels.
I find that the wild beasts draw my attention to the world of instinct and appetite; to the lower pleasures of a world that is sharp of fang and fleet of foot; that seeks power and domination without limit or mercy, determined to be top dog at the trough and to pass on its selfish genes to generations earmarked by Fortune for global ease and a life of charmed comfort.
Much that tempts human beings in every generation (sin is a leopard that doesn’t significantly change its spots) is a taste for power or pleasure, or a mixture of the two; or the means to fill a gap that we ourselves have created in pursuit of power or pleasure, image or reputation. For creatures with such an endless appetite for novelty, it is astonishing that we allow ourselves to be duped by the same unsatisfying bilge day after day. We know from plentiful experience that saying mean and destructive things (for however great a reward of laughter); or misusing media; or being too dedicated a patron of the hospitality industry; or being too free with friendships or unfathomably fond of financial reward will not make us flourish. We know because we tried them all last weekend or last year — and we were fairly miserable then, too. And yet (O mother Eve, you’re right: we are so beguiled!) we return to these temptations and click on Yes, yes, yes with all the reflective capacity of a somnolent goldfish.
And the endlessly repeated disappointment is so exhausting that we too might gladly opt for a non-corporeal existence and hope that a pure, selflessly angelic love will start to course through our bloodless veins and lead us to an altogether more beautiful life. But we are physical, we do have appetites and we are drawn relentlessly to the quest for pre-eminence by the human condition to which we are subdued. Yet help is perhaps at hand in the form of that disposition which Christ demonstrates in his baptism, now in the temptation, and in all that follows. I refer to the disposition on which we are focusing this half-term at MCS, namely Motivation.
Jesus of Nazareth is motivated throughout his life by an absorbing desire to perform God’s will and to proclaim God’s reign as the ultimate cosmic game-changer and assertion of the deepest possible reality. For us, our motivation may be more modest, yet it will be no less consuming of our attention and formative of our lives.
To give Motivation a chance to do its work with us, I recommend three courses of action for us to pursue this Lent or, if you prefer, until the end of term.
Firstly, believe in the glory of humanity. Whether or not you ‘do God’, please ‘do humanity’, for without a belief in our proper significance and potential we will continue to be easy prey to powerlust and will utterly fail to flourish.
Secondly, devote just 2 or 3 minutes each evening, again whether or not you ‘do God’ or are a Lent-keeping Christian, to an examination of the day. Just look back and see where you experienced joy or consolation, and where there was sadness, emptiness or desolation. Having noted it, ask why it was so, and see what difference this exercise might make to tomorrow.
Thirdly, please dream. Dream proper dreams, not of character-clogging riches or slick beauties who take your breath away as you board the night-flight to Planet Lovely. (For the record, I do naturally hope that you will be swept off your feet at least once in your life, and that it won’t just be your harassed spouse getting handy with the Hoover.) Let your dreams be of a world changed: a world where international aid is neither begrudged nor tainted, but given in generosity and goodness; a world where the orphans of war know peace and love and laughter; where the young people in our cities are kept safe from the danger of knives and any other destruction; and where our old people experience comfort, dignity and companionship. Please dream of a world where we don’t work for just a big house or shiny car, but for a whole world of security, shelter and clean water for all. In short, dream of a world that is as vast and wonderful as dreams should be. Anything duller, smaller or less daring will have no hope of renewing our desires and putting out of reach the fruit of the forbidden tree that causes all our woe.
We will need to help each other to be motivated in bringing any of this about. But in the end there is no reason why we should not be raised to levels far above the brute beasts’, and be made much wiser and more discerning the next time some infernal serpent offers us a dodgy second-hand version of ourselves or our kind. For we have also kept company with the King of the Angels, and we know there is a better way.
Delivered in Magdalen College School, Oxford, Thursday 22 February 2018.