First Sunday of Lent, Year A - March 5th, 2017
Today’s Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Lent immerse us into the depths of the season we are entering. Today’s readings and Psalm 51 sound overtures of the great themes that we will hear and live over the next six weeks. Reflecting on today’s first reading from Genesis (2:7-9, 16-18, 25; 3:1-7), we must take into consideration the literary and theological form of the first pages of the Bible. Like many stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the Eden tale is an etiology – a story that helps to explain important questions about the major realities of our life. Why is there pain in childbirth? Why is the ground hard to till? Why do snakes crawl upon the earth, etc.? Genesis 2–3 suggests that knowledge, a necessity for human life, is something that is acquired painfully. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is certainly not the mark of adult maturity. When human beings finally understand what it means to be fully human, when they have complete knowledge, then the realities of life come into full relief in all of their complexity and difficulty. Knowledge is both enlightening and painful.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness
Today’s Psalm 51 – the Miserere – is one of the most well known prayers of the Psalter and the most intense and repeated penitential psalm. It is a hymn of sin and forgiveness and the most profound meditation on guilt and grace. This beautiful prayer has risen for centuries from the hearts of Jewish and Christian faithful as a sigh of repentance and hope addressed to a God rich in divine mercy.
The Jewish tradition places the Psalm on David’s lips, who was called to penance by the stern words of the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11-12), who reproached him for his adultery with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband Uriah. However, the Miserere was enriched in subsequent centuries, with the prayer of so many other sinners, who recover the themes of the “new heart” and the “Spirit” of God infused in men and women who have experienced redemption, according to the teachings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Psalm 51:10; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 11:19; 36:24-28).
When we confess our sin, God’s salvific justice is ready to radically purify us. The Lord does not just act negatively, eliminating sin, but re-creates sinful humanity through his vivifying Spirit: God infuses a new and pure “heart” in us, namely, a renewed conscience, and opens the possibility of a limpid faith and worship that is pleasing to the One who made us in his image and likeness. In the magnificent prayer of the Miserere, there is a profound conviction of divine forgiveness that “cancels, washes, cleanses” the sinner [3-4] and finally is able to transform him into a new creature, who has a transfigured spirit, tongue, lips and heart [14-19]. Divine mercy is stronger than our misery.
Outmatching the productivity of sin
In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the community in Rome (5:12-19), Paul reflects on the sin of Adam (Genesis 3:1-13) in the light of the redemptive mystery of Christ. Sin, as used in the singular by Paul, refers to the dreadful power that has gripped humanity, which is now in revolt against the Creator and engaged in the exaltation of its own desires and interests. But no one has a right to say, “Adam made me do it,” for all are culpable (Romans 5:12): Gentiles under the demands of the law written in their hearts (Romans 2:14-15), and Jews under the Mosaic covenant.
Through the Old Testament law, the sinfulness of humanity that was operative from the beginning (Romans 5:13) found further stimulation, with the result that sins were generated in even greater abundance. According to Romans 5:15-21, God’s act in Christ is in total contrast to the disastrous effects of the virus of sin that invaded humanity through Adam’s crime. The consolation of the second reading lies in Paul’s declaration that grace outmatches the productivity of sin. Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more. Paul declares that grace outmatches the productivity of sin.
Putting Jesus to the great test
Jesus, proclaimed Son of God at his Baptism, is subjected to a triple temptation in today’s Gospel text for the First Sunday of Lent (Matthew 4:1-11). The “forty days and forty nights” of verse 2 is reminiscent not only of Moses’ fast (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9, 18) but also of Israel’s forty years in the desert. Jesus’ responses to the temptations are all drawn from the book of Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16; 13). The three temptations in Matthew’s account reflect the chronological order of the three tests faced by Israel. Whereas Israel, called “son” by God (Hosea 11:1; Deuteronomy 8:5), failed each of the tests, Jesus reveals steadfastness and perseverance and his worthiness to be the Son of God by responding to the each test with single-heartedness, resolute faithfulness, and fierce loyalty.
The testing and temptation of Jesus after forty days and forty nights in the desert serves a double purpose. First, they are shaped in part from the kinds of testing Jesus underwent during his ministry, illustrating the ways in which the proclamation of God’s kingdom might have been diverted, so that it would have become a kingdom according to the standards of this world. Second, the temptations prepare us for the continued opposition of Satan who regards Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom as a threat to his own power and kingdom.
The Spirit that descended upon Jesus in the Jordan at the moment of his Baptism now leads him into the wilderness with the specific purpose of subjecting him to a real confrontation with the devil. Mark presents Jesus wrestling with the power of Satan, alone and silent in the desert wasteland. In Matthew and Luke there is an ongoing conversation, as the prince of evil attempts to turn Jesus aside from the faith and integrity at the heart of his Messianic mission. The temptations are foreshadowing the eventual victory; for after Jesus has demonstrated that he truly is the Son of God, who totally serves God’s will, the devil departs and the angels immediately come and serve Jesus (4:11). Israel had failed in the desert, but Jesus would not. His loyal bond with his Father was too strong for even the demons of the desert to break.
We do not live on bread alone
The first temptation in Matthew’s account parallels Israel’s hunger before it received the gift of bread from heaven (Exodus 16:1-4). While it is true that God’s grace prevailed over strict justice in the gift of manna, the grumbling of Exodus 16:3 reveals utter faithlessness; God’s son Israel does not trust the Almighty to provide and thus betrays the covenant relationship that requires confident trust in God’s readiness and ability to fulfil his covenant obligations (Genesis 15:6). Yet God’s Son Jesus refuses to give way to mistrust by exploiting the Spirit’s power and thus providing himself with bread from stones instead of confidently awaiting bread from heaven (Matthew 4:4). Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent upon God. We do not possess life by consuming bread but simply and solely because it is God’s will that we live. Those who follow Jesus cannot become dependent on the things of this world. When we are so dependent on material things, and not on God, we give in to temptation and sin.
Putting God to the test
The second temptation has at heart the story of Deuteronomy 6:16: “You must not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” The rebellious people of little faith and trust challenge God to fulfil his obligations of the covenant. Jesus, on the other hand, refuses to demonstrate God’s presence with him by leaping from the parapet of the Temple (Matthew 4:7). Jesus refuses to jump because honouring God excludes every kind of manipulation, including putting God to the test. When we truly honour God, we have nothing to prove to anyone! At the end of the Gospel story of Jesus, the Son of God will truly leap into the abyss of death, because he is absolutely convinced that it is God’s will that he do so (Matthew 26:39, 53; 27:46).
Jesus’ undivided loyalty
The third temptation is all about idolatry: the worship of false gods. Once again this episode closely follows Deuteronomy: “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name. You shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people who are around you” (6:13-14). But Israel did not heed these words and “played the harlot” with other gods (the Hebrew verb used in the Old Testament, as in Hosea 2:5).
The connection between this third temptation and idolatry is difficult for many of us to understand today. First because the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods were considered to be demons by the Jews (1 Corinthians 10:20) and thus Satan’s armed forces! Second, idolatry was a genuine temptation for many Jews who desired to take part fully in the political and economic strata of the Greco-Roman machine. While it is highly unlikely that Jesus would need to be tempted in this way, the first hearers and readers of Matthew’s Gospel were well aware of the compromises required by seeking and holding public office even on the part of those who only desired to do good. The entire third temptation assures us of Jesus’ undivided loyalty. At the very beginning of Jesus’ campaign for this world and for each one of us, God’s only begotten Son confronted the enemy. He began his fight using the power of Scripture during a night of doubt, confusion, and temptation. It will do us well not to forget Jesus’ example, so that we won’t be seduced by the devil’s deception.
Living Lent this week
1) Pray Psalm 51 slowly and carefully this week. Find a word or phrase that catches your eye. Close your eyes and reflect on it over and over again. Use it as an intercession or a blessing for your community, your church, or someone you love.
Do areas of you past continue to bother you? How does the Miserere enable you to walk again toward the future with peaceful hope? Have you ever felt a strong desire to flee from the reality of your life over the past year? Why? Have you ever felt that God had abandoned you? Do you ever cry out to God in distress, begging God for mercy?
2) Read the moving account of Jesus’ struggle with and victory over temptation and darkness in the letter to the Hebrews 4:14-5:10. Here the early Church gives us the model of Jesus, our compassionate high priest, who can help us in the midst of our struggles.
3) Read the Holy Father’s Lenten Message for this year. It is readily accessible online and can be found on the Vatican website.
4) Reflect on your own sense of loyalty this week. Unless we find some sort of loyalty, you cannot find unity and peace in our active living. True loyalty is a positive, wholehearted devotion to those things beyond our own selfish, private selves. It is much bigger than we are and no one can be really successful or happy if he lives only for himself. How loyal are you? Here is a simple test: make a list of the simple things in which nearly everyone believes – family, community, church, country, and employer. Then ask yourself if you have so lived that these five things are stronger, better, finer, because of you. If you can answer “yes” truthfully, you know that you understand the full meaning of loyalty – and, incidentally, the secret of true happiness. It is also the road to holiness.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Genesis 2:7-9, 16-18, 25; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; and Matthew 4:1-11.]
(Image: The Temptation of Jesus by James Tissot)
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