Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Public Life of Jesus - Lesson 2, Part 1

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Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the second in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the public life of Jesus. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.



The Temptation of Spiritual and Political Leadership (Part 1 of 3)

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.[1]

The Temptation

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Evil Personified is referred to directly by three of the gospel writers and alluded to indirectly by the fourth (John). The event occurred at the very outset of his public ministry. Whether one interprets the gospel writers’ description of it literally as most Christians do who believe in the literal existence of a spiritual being (Satan) dedicated to the destruction of human beings and the work of God, or one only believes that the event described by the gospel writers was some internal struggle that occurred in Jesus’ mind and imagination, the story is immensely instructive to anyone preparing for spiritual or political leadership, especially at the beginning of a public life.

The “temptation” may of course be interpreted as a straightforward attempt by Satan to “get Jesus to sin”—it is therefore instructive on that basis to anyone facing temptation to do something contrary to the revealed will and purposes of God. A more subtle interpretation is that the temptation was a devious and clever attempt by the forces of evil to influence in a very destructive way the entire direction and character of Jesus’ leadership and public influence—to “get him on the wrong track”—at the very beginning of his public ministry. It is this interpretation that is particularly relevant and instructive to anyone contemplating and preparing for spiritual or political leadership today.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Perspective and Interpretation[2]

The interpretation of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness which I (and many others with political interests) have found most illuminating and helpful is that of the famous Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as described in his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born in 1821, nine years after Napoleon’s ignominious departure from Russia. He died in 1881, thirty-six years before the Communist Revolution, the character and evils of which he predicted with great insight. His father was a military doctor and serf owner, extremely cruel and constantly drunk, who was murdered by his serfs when Fyodor was eighteen years of age. Fyodor then joined the army for four years where he acquired many bad habits—in particular excessive drinking, womanizing, and gambling—vices that plagued him for the rest of his life and kept him in constant trouble and poverty.

Dostoyevsky lived at a time of intellectual and political turmoil in Russia. He joined a socialist group agitating for reform and at age twenty-nine was arrested and charged with sedition. He was sentenced to death by a firing squad but at the very last moment the Tsar commuted the sentence to exile and hard labour in Siberia. He spent the next nine years there, mainly in the company of murderers, robbers, and other criminals. As he grew older he was subject to violent epileptic attacks while his gambling and drinking habits kept him constantly on the brink of personal disaster. Some of his best writing was done in a fevered frenzy to pay gambling debts.

For all his character flaws, however, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a literary genius with an extraordinary interest in and insight into the nature of good and evil, especially evil. 

This interest and insight is particularly evident in his four most important novels[3]–-the last and greatest of these being The Brothers Karamazov, completed just one year before he died. It is the story of a dysfunctional family headed by an alcoholic and lecherous father (likely modelled after Dostoyevsky’s own father) who has four sons, all of whom become involved in a murder. The four brothers are Dimitri, who symbolizes the flesh; Ivan, who represents the intellect; Alyosha, the youngest, who represents the spiritual; and Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son who represents the insulted, the injured, and the disinherited.

In a famous chapter entitled The Grand Inquisitor the intellectual Ivan challenges the spirituality and Christian commitment of his younger brother Alyosha by telling him he is working on a poem set in Spain in which Jesus returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. In the poem, Ivan imagines that Jesus is immediately arrested and imprisoned by the Church authorities on charges of heresy—of adding to what he has said of old, which in the opinion of the Church he has no right to do. One dark night, the Grand Inquisitor himself visits the Christ to interrogate and lecture him, arguing that Jesus’ greatest mistake was to ignore the advice of that “wise and dread Spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence”[4] (Satan) when he met with Jesus in the wilderness. If only Jesus had heeded that advice (“the temptation”) and based the direction and tenor of his leadership upon it, the work of the Church would have been so much more successful and mankind would have been so much happier and more fulfilled.

The First Temptation: Give Them Bread

And so the tempter comes to Jesus and says, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”[5]

From Dostoyevsky’s perspective, what Satan is really saying here is that if you, Jesus, really want human beings to give you their allegiance and follow you, you should only appeal to their most immediate and urgent physical needs. Give them bread—real, tangible, edible bread that they can see with their eyes, hold in their hands, and put in their mouths. Do that and they will follow you by the thousands. But don’t go offering them some kind of “heavenly bread,” which it is apparently your intention to do. Don’t go talking to them about deliverance from spiritual hunger and offering them spiritual freedom and nourishment—they won’t have the faintest idea what you are talking about and will reject rather than accept your leadership.

In the picturesque language of the Grand Inquisitor, Satan’s meaning was: “Thou wouldst go into the world …with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand…. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient….”[6] The Grand Inquisitor says, “Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man?”[7]

Jesus’ Response to the First Temptation

So what was Jesus’ response to the first temptation? He did not deny that mankind has tangible and immediate needs that the would-be leader must recognize and address. He himself was deeply moved by human want and acted with compassion when confronted with the needs of the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the sick. He knew all about the need for bread, teaching his disciples to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”[8] In fact, he was several times so moved by the immediate physical hunger of those who came to hear him that he resorted to the miraculous in order to feed them.[9]

But to the tempter in the wilderness, who is seeking to influence the direction and principal thrust of his public ministry at its very outset, he responds by saying: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”[10] In other words, he rejects the first advice of the tempter who would have him focus his public work solely on meeting the most immediate physical needs of mankind by declaring that human beings have deeper, spiritual needs that cannot be satisfied by bread alone, or the products of business and industry alone, or the services of governments alone—important as these may be in their place.

These are needs that the would-be spiritual leader must recognize and address and which the would-be business or political leader must recognize as being beyond his or her ability to satisfy, needs which cannot be satisfied by the products of industry or politics or governments, even if those outputs were supernaturally blessed. These needs ultimately can only be satisfied in a different way and from another source—the full range of grace and truth (“every word”) emanating from God himself. It is necessary that human beings’ need for bread—for the products of industry and the services of governments—be met, but that is not sufficient in itself to give us the abundant life that Jesus came to offer.

The Grand Inquisitor vehemently insists that Jesus made a huge mistake by failing to take this initial advice offered by the “wise and dread Spirit.” “Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone—the banner of earthly bread. And Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven.”[11]

Later during Jesus’ public ministry he encounters this temptation again, this time not in the wilderness but in the public arena, and he responds in the same way.[12] He is teaching on the far shore of the lake of Galilee and a great crowd gathers. He observes that they are hungry (he is not indifferent to hunger) and asks his disciples, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”[13] They protest that it would take eight months’ wages just to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite. But Jesus takes what they have—five small barley loaves and two small fishes which a boy had brought for lunch—and miraculously multiplies these to feed the multitude.

When the crowd realizes what has happened, they react precisely as Satan predicted they would if Jesus had turned stones into bread—they formed the intention to “come and make him king by force.”[14] What is Jesus’ reaction? The disciple John who records this incident says he rejects their advances, withdraws into the hills, and hides himself from them.

When they continue to seek him out he rebukes them, as he did Satan in the wilderness, saying, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs (the work of God) but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man (Jesus) will give you.”[15] Jesus goes on to preach a sermon on “heavenly bread” and does so in language and imagery so repugnant and offensive to his audience that even his closest followers say to each other, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And, John adds, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”[16]

Implications for Us

So what are the contemporary equivalents of this first temptation for would-be spiritual or political leaders today and how would we—how should we—respond to it?

On the religious front, is not one of the modern equivalents the temptation for the would-be spiritual leader to offer people some version of the “prosperity gospel”? “Follow Jesus, and he’ll give you economic prosperity and security here and now”—a very compelling and persuasive argument, particularly when offered to people in desperate economic circumstances as in much of the developing world.

On the political front, a contemporary equivalent is for the would-be political leader or candidate for public office to offer voters only that which addresses their most tangible and immediate needs. “Vote for me and I’ll pave your road, reduce your taxes, increase your benefits….” This appeal can be refined and focused by doing extensive public-opinion polling, identifying the voters’ most immediate and palpable desires or grievances, and then promising to meet those regardless of the appropriateness of doing so or even the capacity of the candidate, leader, or government to do so.

Thus the tempter whispers to the would-be political leader, “Base your appeal exclusively on an offer to meet their most tangible and immediate needs and they’ll vote for you by the thousands. But stray off that message—for example, into challenging them with the responsibilities of citizenship and liberty, or the sacrifices required to maintain freedoms or achieve equality, or the demands of rendering service to others—and they’ll simply reject both you and your platform.”

As a former leader of a political party I have been very much involved in the development of election platforms, based in part on polling and in-depth assessments of “what the voters want.” In a democratic society where the needs and demands of the public are to be respected and responded to by those aspiring to public office, there is a place for doing so.

People do need bread—Jesus did not deny it—and they need jobs, incomes, housing, roads, schools, hospitals, and many of the services of the welfare state. But I think the temptation for us, those involved in democratic politics, is to come to believe that that is all they need, that if we could only satisfy the material and service needs of our electors we will have done all that can and should be done to achieve what the Grand Inquisitor called “the universal peace and happiness of man.”

Perhaps the most important lesson from the first temptation for the would-be political leader is to recognize the limits to what political leadership, legislatures, and governments have to offer mankind. We can offer our people goods and services (and these are important) but we cannot in reality provide them with that which will satisfy their deeper human needs—deliverance from evil in their own lives, forgiveness for the wrongs of the past, the healing of broken relationships, or hope for the future that is independent of their material and temporal circumstances. These must ultimately come in a different way from another source.

It is Jesus’ response to the first temptation that cautions would-be leaders against appealing solely to the immediate and the physical. It reminds us that human beings have basic needs that go beyond the material and the temporal. Jesus alerts us to the limits of what the market and the state can offer and deliver.

How do we—how should we—respond to the contemporary equivalents of the first temptation? The Grand Inquisitor says, “Accept as offered the advice of the wise and dread Spirit.” Jesus says, “Reject it—man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”



[1] Matthew 4:1

[2] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Signet Classics, 1986). In the following section I have relied heavily on the excellent introduction to this novel by the Russian scholar and translator, Manuel Komroff.

[3] These, in the opinion of the Russian scholar and translator Manuel Komroff, are:  Crime and Punishment, dealing with the morality, benefits, and problems of the 6th commandment, thou shalt not kill; The Idiot, in which the Christ-like hero ends up as a wise but loveable fool despite his practice of virtue, self-sacrifice, and saintliness; The Possessed, dealing with the evils inherent in the character of both the ruthless revolutionary and the conservative opponents of revolutionary ideas; and The Brothers Karamzov, dealing with the spiritual warfare between God and the devil, between good and evil, on the battlefield of the human heart.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, 244-245

[5] Matthew 4:3; see also Luke 4:3

[6] The Brothers Karamazov, 245

[7] Ibid., 246

[8] Matthew 6:11

[9] See Matthew 14:13-21 and John 6:1-13 to read about the feeding of five thousand and also Matthew 15:29-38 and Mark 8:1-10 to read about the feeding of four thousand.

[10] Matthew 4:4

[11] The Brothers Karamazov, 247

[12] John 6:1-16; 22-70

[13] John 6:5

[14] John 6:15

[15] John 6:26-27

[16] John 6:60-66

Source: Marketplace Institute



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