FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
Dt 26:4-10, Rom 10:8-13, Lk 4:1-13, Life Is a Journey. Spiritual Renewal; Prayer, Charity, and Asceticism; Holiness True and False; Jesus Is Lord.
Statements of philosophers about life are interesting. Life is a sexually transmitted disease. You’re a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears (Jas 4:14). Life is a quarry, out of which we’re to mould and chisel character. Life is a cabaret. But for us on this first Sunday of Lent, it’s important to know that life is a journey – a journey that consists in our becoming, a journey toward God, an inner journey. That, and our being pilgrims on this journey, is what Lent is all about. Every Lent is a milestone for us on that journey.
Jesus’ temptations were a milestone for him; they’re narrated in each of the three liturgical cycles on the First Sunday of Lent. His temptations make it clear that he was fully human as well as divine. Temptation is a part of human life. With Jesus as with all of us, temptations are also tailored to our personal condition. His in particular as this time were appeals to the basic drivers within all of us – for security (bread), for power (kingdoms), and for recognition and fame (the Temple).
Today’s Gospel scene is bursting with drama as well as meaning, with the full force of the godhead confronting the world of diabolical power in a battle of cosmic proportions. Human refusal to respond to God’s invitation is described in biblical terms as sin, the misuse of human freedom. One of the ironies about belief in the reality of sin is that it’s tied in with belief in human dignity. For to believe in sin is to believe in human freedom and personal responsibility. Whenever we seek to avoid responsibility for our behavior, we’re trying to give away our power to some other entity, be it a person, or “fate”, or society, or the government, or our boss.
In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New world there are only a few so-called savages who still profess belief in human freedom. They’re quarantined away from the rest of society until they’re willing to adjust to the new order of things. At one point the one in control says to one of the savages, “We prefer to make things comfortable. We give you Christianity without tears.” The savage replies, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God. I want poetry. I want goodness. I want freedom. And I will accept along with these the possibilities of evil, heartbreak and tragedy.” The one in control says, “In fact you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
Contrary to portrayals of the Devil-temper as a grotesque figure in red leotards or as an almost comical businessman wearing a mafia-like hat and dark glasses, the Devil is the serious personification of the evil in the world. In bringing him to the fore, the early Christians were attempting the extraordinary and noble enterprise of trying to make sense of good and evil – a subject of crucial importance to human society. When we speak of the Devil, what there is no doubt about is the power that evil – the abuse of power, cruelty, greed, contempt, malice, envy, and the desire to humiliate and destroy others – holds in the human psyche, and how important it is to deal with that. There, the early Church Fathers thought, is where the Devil enters in: as the antithesis of love. And the Devil is a regular visitor to our world – Auschwitz, the Falls Road, pedophiliac adults, animal torturers, school bullies, youth who burn down churches “for fun” all show how possible it is to lose touch with love.
The Scriptures give the Devil three precise names and functions. He is the one who divides and separates (dia-bolos); he is the one who accuses (Satan); and he is the one whom Jesus calls the father of lies (Jn 8:44). The Evil One surely enters our lives in these three ways, splitting us into warring parts, filling us with negative and accusatory voices, and telling us lies about who we are and who God is. And, for some unexplainable reason, it is usually easier to do his evil thing than the right thing. Why, for example, didn’t they put the vitamins in ice cream instead of in spinach?
Jesus is lead by the spirit into the desert (v. 1) not primarily to be tempted, but for prayerful communion with his heavenly Father. The desert had a strong attraction for the Israelites. They had been close to God when they had wandered through the desert during the Exodus. They had encountered God in the desert around Mt. Sinai, where God had given them their revered Torah. In the desert the prophet Elijah had renewed his faith when he was discouraged. The prophet Amos had never wanted to leave the desert, for he was close to God there. In the desert Isaiah had advised to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist was baptizing in the desert.
And Jesus was “closer” to his heavenly Father in the desert; so it was a time of great challenge. And “challenge” may be a good word for what took place here rather than temptation. These were for Jesus opportunities to grow in grace as well as to lose it – as temptations are for all of us.
There were stones all around that looked like loaves of bread. Surely if Jesus were as holy as his reputation had it, he could command one of them to become bread (v. 3). Just one loaf! And he was famished! The temptation was to apply his power for his own use – not a sin in the usual sense, but unworthy of Jesus. Will he – alone, hungry, and tired – abide by principle and insist on divine ideals? Jesus’ answer was spiritual. One doesn’t live by bread alone (v.4, citing Dt 8:3), a familiar quotation that ended with, “but on every word that come from the mouth of the Lord”. This temptation has equivalents for all of us, one of which applies to today’s over-emphasis on material things for our use as individuals rather than for helping others as well. One doesn’t live by them alone.
That failing, the Devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (v. 5). The fact that it happened in a single instant removes any idea of a physical taking of Jesus up higher by the Devil. It must have happened in a vision. As with all temptations in the mind, however, this temptation is no less real. To have a piece of these kingdoms’ power and glory (v. 6) – the entirety of which the Devil, the father of lies, said were his own – all that Jesus need do was bend a little (v. 7). Become the kind of Messiah that the people expected. They were always looking for signs; why not give them one? Compromise. Make a deal. It is done all the time. This imperfect world is made of gray, not black and white. With that kind of power, Jesus could bring food to the poor, justice to the oppressed, and consolation to the afflicted. Wasn’t that why he’d come? But Jesus showed that he submitted completely to God.
The climax of the temptations was the Devil leading Jesus Jerusalem – Jerusalem the golden; Jerusalem the preeminent; Jerusalem whose Temple was a place of God’s activity; Jerusalem to which Jesus’ entire ministry was a journey; Jerusalem over which, in one of the most dramatic moments described in the New Testament, Jesus wept.
The time of the Devil himself used Scripture, as he frequently does, for his own purposes – here to tempt Jesus throe himself down (v.9) to the Kidron valley from one of the highest points of the Temple, a drop of 450 feet. This was a temptation to fame by giving sensations. This temptation has a peculiar relevance to our times, when the image is everything and the reality nothing, the age of the public relations agent, the age when what you are is much less important than what you appear to be. If you can jump off the Empire State building and land on your feet and walk away, you must be important. Some religious leaders succumb to that temptation, and people flock to them.
But Jesus knew that religious sensationalism doesn’t last. He again used Scripture (Dt 6:10) against the Devil to reject the idea of being a Messiah of the marvelous and the gaudy, even though this is the kind of Messiah many people want. Salvation comes rather by the humble way of faith; Jesus’ ministry showed that the true way to real victory is the way of the cross. The Devil never, either then or now, gives up, and after he had finished with his current temptations of Jesus, he departed for a time to wait other opportunities (v. 13). In Jesus’ life, as in ours, the Devil’s opportunities come again and again.
Because Jesus used the Book of Deuteronomy against the Devil, the Church presents a portion of it in today’s First Reading to say something about how to observe Lent. In directives from God through Moses to the Israelites, Deuteronomy laid down the correct rubrics for approaching God (vv. 4, 10b) and the correct words and gestures (vv. 5-10a). The words form a creed that sums up what God had done for the Israelites throughout their history, but now especially through their harvest, just as our creed sums up all that God gave us in Christ. For all that God had done, they were to make merry (v. 11) through joyful participation in the liturgy – another lesson for Lent, when the gospels of every day’s Mass give us the opportunity to look joyfully at the life of Jesus.
St Paul continues that notion. In his letter to Romans, a part of which we read in today’s Second Reading, he appealed that to put people in a right relationship with God they abandon the Torah’s way of legalism in religion in favour of the inner conviction of the heart as well as external words of the lips.
As Deuteronomy had presented the basis creedal formula for the Jews, Paul presented it for Christians – Jesus is Lord. That word “Lord” is all-embracing. “Lord” is the translation of the Hebrew divine name Yahweh or Jehovah; it was the title of the Greek gods; it was the title of the Roman emperors; and it applies to Jesus a title of respect like the English sir, the German Herr, the French monsieur, the Italian signore and the Spanish senor. To acknowledge Jesus as Lord is central to our lives. And to believe that God raised him from the dead is an essential of Christian belief. One must believe not only that Jesus lived, but that he lives. And instead of hypocritical pious show, our personal adherence to Christ is to be in our heart as well as on our lips (vv 9f.). And everyone shall be rescued who calls on the name of the Lord (the original of J13:5, cited in v.13).
Our life is a journey, and Lent is a small model of life. It’s a special time of reflecting on life. We need that like butterflies need the morning sunshine. At that time they have to spread their wings because the scales on their wings are actually solar cells. Without that source of energy, they can’t fly.
Lent tells us to treasure our basic baptismal values in the face of temptations, as Jesus did. Though tempted to acquire material possessions, he could enjoy the flowers of the field. (His life was constant with the Chinese proverb that says, “That the birds of worry and care fly above your head, this you cannot change; but that they build nets in your hair, this you can prevent.”) Though tempted to associate with the wealthy, he could weep with the broken-hearted poor. Though tempted to consort with the powerful, he could see eternal truth in the face of a child. He could accept the hospitality of despised people and handle rejection from the respected. He could love without being loved, be hated without hating. At the end, when his temptations were especially violent, he died a man of strength and peace.
How do we deal with our personal temptations? Like Mark Twain, who said, “The best way to handle temptation is to give in to it”? This Lent, we should try to find the personal weakness through which we might be tempted. And we should engage in the spirit of this season, penance. This means “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1431). It’s a spirit that’s dynamically oriented toward love on our journey through life. It’s accomplished in many ways, among which are “gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise… of justice…, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, [and the] acceptance of suffering” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1435).