The human ego struggles constantly between the authentic self and the false self. The false self is the one which reacts to comments (positive or negative) made by others, and often, will find itself either saying things or doing things that pleases others, so that it receives favourable reviews and opinions of others. The authentic self is the one which is not reactive, but is more centered and stable, not because the opinions of others are not important, but because one knows that one’s deepest value and worth is not first found in the opinions of others, but at the core of one’s being. So, one becomes ‘active’ rather than ‘re-active’. And for Christians who have been ‘Christ-ed’, this core is the identity of being the loved Child of God.
In the gospels, we see many instances where Jesus was tempted to define himself by the opinions of others. The three temptations in the desert are reducible to a ‘test’ of how grounded he was in God as his father. And in today’s gospel text, Jesus is, in another way, also tempted, but by popularity and popular opinion. The opening line gives it away ever so subtly. We are told that the crowds got even bigger.
Isn’t that a great temptation to steer away from the harsh gospel message of the necessity of dying to the self? When the crowds get bigger, when you get a following, isn’t it far easier to give them a message that will either massage the egos, or pander to the crowd’s constant craving for success and riches? Surely, that would increase church attendance, and help one to develop a cult-like status.
But because Jesus was true to himself, he knew that it was because the crowd got bigger, that his platform was now ideal to really convey the message of conversion and repentance. So, to the swelling crowd, he daringly spoke about the wickedness of that generation. He didn’t need to be popular. He knew that popularity was a hindrance to God’s kingdom, rather than something that would enhance it.
So too for us – I believe that in our own ways, we are presented with our own versions of ‘crowds’ getting bigger. It takes a person truly in touch with his or her inner core of godly identity to know that it’s not about popularity, not about success, not about winning, that gives one a real stability in life. But I think most of us struggle a lot with that. When Jesus told that swelling crowd that the only sign it would get is the sign of Jonah, he was being prophetic – speaking the truth despite the consequences that would make him unpopular. But that’s our calling as well, isn’t it? We are, as Vatican II points out, baptized Priest, Prophet and King. Have we been prophetic lately?