One of the readings at Mass yesterday told the story of “The Temptation of Jesus.”
Jesus fasts in the desert for 40 days and the devil makes him three offers.
He asks Jesus to use his powers to turn stone into bread. Jesus refuses.
The devil asks Jesus to jump off the roof a temple so that angels can save him. Jesus refuses.
The Devil asks Jesus to pledge his loyalty to him in exchange for “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.” Jesus replies “Be gone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only you shall serve.’”
The priest gave a fascinating homily about the hierarchy of values that I never would have extrapolated from the reading.
The first point he made is that good people rarely choose between good and evil. If you consider yourself a “decent” person, you don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Oh should I murder someone or go to work instead?”
Most of the time, you are choosing between two or more goods.
The priest made the point that what the devil was offering Jesus wasn’t bad per se. Bread isn’t bad, especially if you have been fasting for 40 days. Having angels save you from a gruesome death isn’t bad or evil, especially if it will give you more credibility in your ministry. Having command over all the kingdoms of the world sounds awesome, especially if it means you will be able to create peace and harmony.
It would have been easy for Jesus to rationalize accepting Satan’s offers.
But Jesus rejected these offers because it wasn’t God’s will.
In this case, he faced a conflict and had to make a choice between two goods, Satan’s offers, and God’s will.
This is where the hierarchy of values comes into play. Values don’t mean anything unless you prioritize them.
Let’s say you value spending time with your family, and let’s say you also value high-paying and rewarding work.
If you have a high paying, rewarding job that lets you go home by 6 PM, it’s no problem. You can have both the job and family time. There is no conflict.
But let’s say you are offered an even higher paying job that you’re excited about that could lead to all sorts of wonderful professional opportunities. The only downside is that you’ll work 80 hours per week.
Now you have to choose between family-time and this new job. You face a conflict. You have to rate one value higher than the other.
For Americans, the most common reaction to this scenario is denial. We think we can have it all.
Sheryl Sanbderg’s book, Lean In, tells women they can have a successful career and a family. She makes the argument that most women leave their careers too early to start a family under the assumption that it would be impossible to do both.
She may be right, and maybe there is a large group of women who can have both but just don’t know it. In that case, more power to them.
But the book is a good example of how uncomfortable it is for us to choose one good over another. We become uncomfortable because once we make the choice, our value hierarchy becomes clear.
Maybe you like to view yourself as a person who values family above all else, but have always taken jobs that decreased the amount of time you are able to spend with your family.
Maybe you think you of yourself as a loving husband or wife, but you like to spend most of your time with your friends.
Acknowledging your hierarchy of values is incredibly frightening. It potentially means you have been lying to yourself about the type of person you are and about the things you truly value or desire.
It’s much easier to try to think you value everything and hope you’re never put in a situation to choose between two or more values.
Clarifying your hierarchy of values, however, can also be a relief. It means when you do have a conflict in choosing between two goods, you can more easily determine which is the right choice.
What religion does well is help you fill your value hierarchy in a way that will help you lead a rewarding and fulfilling life.
In most religions, money and wealth is low on the hierarchy of values. Being loving and compassionate is near the top. Seems like a good formula to me.
It is a non-trivial task to adopt an appropriate hierarchy of values. The correct hierarchy for you is often at odds with cultural value hierarchies, your company’s value hierarchy, and maybe even your family’s value hierarchy.
I’m going to have to do a better job of clarifying what my value hierarchy is, changing it so that I can make better decisions for myself, and finally, practice it.
Here’s an excellent post about the hierarchy of values by one of my favorite writers.