One of the truly great inspirational leaders of our time has been Nelson Mandela. Most of us will have seen the film 'Invictus' that is all about him; his early days as President; allusions to his years of imprisonment on Robin Island, and his relationship with the South African Rugby team and how he inspired them to win the World Cup.
Reading into his story we can only imagine some of the temptations he had to overcome before he became the man of greatness and destiny that the world so admired. Before he changed anything he first had to conquer himself, as is true for us all. Remember he spent the best 30 years of his life locked up in a tiny prison cell, a victim of the unjust apartheid regime. What temptation he must have endured not to give in to self-pity. Yet he emerged a man of incredible dignity very sure of his own identity and what he was about. He went in an angry man but his soul became tempered on the anvil of suffering.
What temptation he must have experienced to give in to bitterness, hatred and resentment and yet he emerged with a message of forgiveness, peace and reconciliation towards those who were responsible.
What temptation he must have overcome wanting some measure of revenge on the whites who had oppressed his people for generations and denied them the very basics of human rights. His acid test came when he could have sought sweet revenge and disbanded the all white rugby team who were lame ducks and a symbol of white oppresion. Yet he became their main supporter and was their main inspiration for Winning the world Cup. The great measure of his greatness was that by bringing them on his side he was also gaining the support of their millions of followers. It was a master stroke of genius where his wisdom as a leader and statesman was proved beyond question.
The Mandela story came to mind as I read the Gospel of today, the Temptations of Christ. In each case you will notice that the devil began by trying to throw a seed of doubt in his mind as to his true identity. So he says, ‘If you are the Son of God? First, you would turn stones into bread, which means to go the route of materialism and work on the assumption that by accumulating more and more that you will find what you need. The way Jesus responds is very wise; he quotes the scriptural truth that it is not on bread alone that we can truly live. We can have everything this world has to offer and yet be running on empty and devoid of inner peace. A man who had been quite ruthless in business boasted about having made lots of money to which another replied; ‘Something far worse than not having money is to have nothing but money’.
Next the devil tempts him with power, and the glory that will be his if he is prepared to go down that particular route. All he has to do is put himself first and leave God out of his life. Again Jesus sees through the temptation and answers with, ‘You must worship the Lord Your God and serve him alone’. He knows that to be dependent on others' approval in order to feel good about oneself is itself a form of slavery. In the light of Divine approval we have the ultimate approval. We see this so often where leaders who tried to promote themselves as gods ended up being vilified often with a noose around their necks like Saddam Hussein.
There’s a basic truth that I keep reminding myself of; that what other people think of me is none of my business. To live that truth is extremely liberating because opinions change and to base ones life on the shifting sands of public opinion would be ludicrous. That doesn’t mean never to listen to criticism but rather to learn from it and not be knocked by it. If someone tells me I’m an ass it may well be just a personal opinion. If a few tell me I had better listen and if lots are saying it, I had better get the hay because then I am an ass!
Then the devil takes him up to the high point of the temple and invites him to take the risk of putting on a spectacular show. This would mean putting God to the test, that if he jumped then God would surely have to look after his own and send his angels keep him from falling. Here the temptation is to step out of alignment with the higher purpose for his life. Later God would ask him to walk on water and it would happen but just now he was not being asked to put on a show. Hence Jesus replies, much to Satan’s disgust, that ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’
All the temptations of Christ are really ours as well. They boil down to giving God first place in our lives or not, and living life His way or our way. Abandoning our lives to God is not just one way to live, it really is the only way because in the end of the day we all abandon ourselves to something, be that materialism, the need to be successful, the opinion of others or some form of addiction.
Some years ago when Bishop Brennan was doing Confirmation he gave each child an armband with a very important piece of wisdom that is quite relevant and relates to the Gospel of today. It simply read, ‘Your future is not yet written’. In other words, it’s in your hands. We have the power to make choices that write our future, that either inhibit or enhance our evolution. Every choice we make has consequences not just for ourselves, but also for others, for future generations, and for the world. Our future cannot be told but it is our choice as to how we want it to unfold.
I will conclude by reading the poem by the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley that sustained Mandela as he read it every day for 30 years during his imprisonment
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years Finds,
and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.