Lent I, 2020
When was your last heart-to-heart conversation with someone? Perhaps it was with a spouse, trusted friend, a child. Today we begin a Lenten series, Heart-to-Heart Talks exploring conversations in the Gospels that prompt questions about our own relationship with Jesus. First up, Jesus and Satan.
Jesus had forty days to get ready for the devil. Led up by the Spirit into the wilderness, he spent almost six weeks fasting. The symptoms of physical hunger start with an empty feeling in the stomach. We start to hear growling. After a time, headaches can develop. A person becomes light-headed, even shaky. Hungry people can be grumpy, or “hangry” as the Snickers ad says.
A person suffering from extreme hunger will grow weak. Jesus is not immune to such struggles. Matthew tells us he was famished. And before he can find a town and ask for something to eat, he meets the tempter. Matthew is showing us that before he can prove his divinity, he shows us his humanity. The man is hungry. Yet that does not get him out of the conversation to come.
Unlike the other conversations we’ll explore in the weeks to come, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Lazarus, this one reminds me of an interview. Or maybe that’s because I have interviews on the brain what with the searches for personnel that we are about this season. Or maybe not so much an interview, as a heart-to-heart evaluation as the tempter tries to sum up Jesus for the task at hand.
In their work on situational leadership, business gurus Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard designed what they termed the “skill/will matrix.” It measures the intersection of two critical qualities: the individual’s ability and motivation to complete the goal at hand. Addressing an employee’s ability is within an organization’s or supervisor’s control. Coaching or training can be offered to a staff member who needs to learn a new skill or process.
Motivation, however, is trickier. Highly skilled staff, who are unmotivated to meet an organization’s challenge, or to change should receive what one supervisor termed, “Freedom counseling.” That’s a euphemism for “fired.” Skills can be taught, will cannot.
In the liminal time between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is preparing for the work of proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. And there, in the middle of the desert, the kingdom of this world draws near. The devil shows up to assess Jesus and his commitment to God’s team and God’s plan for the world.
The devil opens the conversation using the skill/will matrix. First the tempter focuses on God’s ability to meet Jesus’ needs. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Even famished from fasting Jesus knows God’s ability to fill his belly was never in question. Bread can fill the bodies need for food, but true life is fed by the presence of God. So Jesus acknowledges God’s skill to work a stone-to-bread transformation. But Jesus does not have the will to ask.
So the devil moves beyond God’s ability to God’s willingness. God may be able to do the impossible, but is God willing? Jesus is placed on the pinnacle of the temple and asked, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” Surely, God is not only able but also willing to save you. Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He won’t test God’s willingness.
Finally the devil turns away from God’s ability and willingness to Jesus’ own. With a focus on the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain. There he expresses his own ability and willingness to give Jesus all the kingdoms and splendor Jesus sees in exchange for his faithfulness.
We’ve come to the crux of things. God’s ability was never in question for the devil. It is only Jesus’ willingness to shift loyalties that the devil is looking for. Jesus responds that he is only willing to worship God.
Jesus is not a passive participant in this evaluation conversation. He assesses the devil’s skill and will as well. The devil has the skill for faithfulness to God but not the willingness. Perhaps it is this insight that guides Jesus to look for willingness in his disciples. After the devil left him and he returned to society, Jesus calls an inner circle of followers, none of whom rate high in skill, but they all rank in willingness. Jesus will develop their skills on the road.
Jesus’ coaching his disciples is reminiscent of Edwin Friedman’s work with families and organizations. In his last book, A Failure of Nerve, he writes of the need to focus energy on supporting well-differentiated leaders. He recognized the transformative presence such a leader can have on a system. If a leader was willing to be healthy, Friedman could help the “leader become better defined and to learn how to deal adroitly with the sabotage that almost invariably followed any success in this endeavor.”
In other words, clearly drawn boundaries provoke opposition from those with competing goals. That is what Jesus experienced in the wilderness. Facing those temptations was good practice for clearly defining his ministry. A ministry that will be full of opposition and persecution.
Jesus equips his disciples to use the skill/will matrix as well. Later in Matthew, when he sends the twelve out into the Galilean countryside he defines their abilities: heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, and discern willingness. If a household is not willing to welcome them, they are to shake off the dust from their feet and move on. They can control their own willingness to proclaim, heal and teach. They cannot control the willingness of others to receive them.
We follow in the disciple’s footsteps. Our willingness is infinitely more important to God than our skill. God can equip us for whatever God calls us to do. We offer our willingness to follow and we anticipate growing in our abilities to be faithful.
For those unwilling, we state our boundaries and set them free. Only God’s spirit can work on a resistant will. Grace abounds. Which is to say, we trust that angels surround them on their journey.