At the beginning of Lent we are summoned to take a serious look at how we conduct our lives. Are we committing the “original sin” of pushing God aside or out of our lives completely? Is He a low priority in our lives and therefore no priority at all? Lent calls us to examine how we are using God’s Gifts. Are we selfish? Do we take advantage of others? Or do we recognize our dependence on God and do whatever we can to serve His presence in others?
Jesus spent forty days alone in the desert and was vulnerable. The number “40” is used throughout the Bible whenever the world is going to experience a major change. There were 40 days of rain in Noah’s time when God gave man a new start. Moses went onto Mt. Sinai for 40 days and received God’s Law for the people. Elijah traveled for 40 days to that same mountain, in his time called Horeb, and restored the worship of Yahweh. We spend 40 days of Lent, not just to complete some tasks, not just to give up things. We spend 40 days preparing to transform our lives so that we might be an Easter People.
While Jesus was in the wilderness the devil tried to allure him with tantalizing temptations. Temptation is an enticement to put our own desires and needs first. Resisting temptation is resisting self-centeredness. Like Jesus, we must choose instead to surrender ourselves to God who alone should be the center of our lives. To make any other choice is to choose a false god. This First Sunday of Lent poses this question: Do we serve god or God?
In today’s Liturgy, the destiny of the human race is told as the tale of two “types” of men—the first man: Adam; and the new Adam: Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:21–22; 45–59). Paul’s argument in the Epistle is built on a series of contrasts between “one” or “one person” and “the many” or “all.” By one person’s disobedience (Adam), sin and condemnation entered the world, and death came to reign over all. But, by the obedience of another person (Jesus), grace abounded, all were justified, and life came to reign for all. This is the drama that unfolds in today’s First Reading and Gospel.
Adam, formed from the clay of the ground and filled with the breath of God’s own Spirit, put the Lord his God to the test. He gave in to the serpent’s temptation, trying to seize for himself all that God had already promised him. But Jesus, in His time of temptation, prevailed where Adam failed—and drove satan away.
During Jesus’ baptism, he had heard his Father say: “You are my blessed son, in whom I take delight!” Those words then formed and defined his self-consciousness. Knowing that he was blessed, Jesus could then look out at the world and say: “Blessed are you when you are poor … and meek … and persecuted.”
Throughout Jesus’ life, he struggled to always believe that he was the “blessed son.” Immediately after his baptism the spirit drove him into the wilderness. Jesus went there to be alone. His task was before him: God had spoken to Him; he must think about the task that lies before Him. He fasted for forty days and forty nights—and then “he was hungry.” What scripture is describing here is not simply physical hunger. Jesus was empty in ways that made him vulnerable to believe that he was not God’s blessed child. Then devil tempts Jesus, wanting him to trade his oneness with God for selfish attention to created things.
First, food. Jesus has been fasting in a major way. Satan says, Don’t worry about it! You are rich! You are equal to God! You can have whatever food you want. For example, turn this rock into bread! Jesus overlooks the flattery. “God’s words are food enough for me,” he says.
Second, if food is not attractive enough, what about honor? You can be the great one who rules everything in sight. Think about how good that would feel. I control plenty of governments in this world, and I can distribute them wherever I want. Side with me! Pledge yourself! OK, technically you would be worshiping me, but if you understand things correctly, you are just taking care of “number one.” Try it! Jesus’ quiet words in reply: “I pledge myself to the Lord my God, not to you. Such ‘honors’ would tear me apart.”
Third, the devil switches to pride. You are God and that means power! You will have no problem with physical dangers. Heaven must do whatever you command. Jump off this temple roof and prove your identity to everyone. Scripture says that angels will rush down from heaven to catch you. Everyone will admire you. Come on, show us what you’ve got! Jesus: “Yes I am close to heaven and to God. But hear this. I choose to let God’s gentle, quiet love be my life, not pride.”
Three temptations and three humble answers. Jesus is listening to his Abba’s words as opposed to the babble of possessions, honor, and pride. He would not desert the great love of his life. The devil had to settle for a triple failure, at least for the time being. He resolved to try again later.
The best way to see what is going on in the three-part narrative traditionally called “The Temptation of Jesus” is to read Deuteronomy 6 through 8—Moses’ reﬂections on God’s testing of Israel in the wilderness “as a man disciplines his son” (Deut 8:5). In these chapters we discover the source of all three of Jesus’ responses to the devil’s suggestions, in reverse order: “not by bread alone” (Deut 8:3); “test not God” (Deut 6:16); “the Lord your God shall you worship” (Deut 6:13). Jesus is clearly being presented as passing the tests that his ancestors failed. The tone for Jesus’ success is established in Deuteronomy 6, where we find what eventually became Israel’s central prayer, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5).
These are what Jesus is telling Satan! “No thanks”, Jesus is telling Satan, “I’m full – The word that proceeds from the mouth of God fills me!” This message to Satan is also for us. Jesus, who is the Word of God, gives to every person who will receive him what they need to live, even if they have no bread. And, then, for good measure, in the Eucharist Jesus gives bread, too. He gives himself as the bread of life.
We Americans sit at our desks working hard, worrying about meetings and deadlines, wondering if we can live up to our own expectations and those of others. We say we have essential work to do. We are important. Everyone needs us. Often we give in to these temptations.
You and I have temptations too! Check them out this Lent. What about possessions? Cars, books, clothes, appearance, and so on. You know the kind of list each of us could make. And eating too much. Buying too much. Holding our tongue when fairness demands that we speak out. Speaking out when we should be quiet. OK, these are human tendencies but they are also traps. “Look away from God,” people say. “He is outmoded anyway. Be interested in yourself. Watch out for yourself, since no one else will.” And honors? Do you ever try to please other people so they will have a good opinion of you (“human respect”)? Or, what would happen if your son or daughter were thrown off the team at school? Rage? And on, and on…
More specifically – how about you? Could this Lent be a good time to unscramble your values? Since God is the most wonderful and loving being anywhere, do you really want to block him out with lesser, undependable attachments that boil down to riches, honors, and pride?
If we are trying to be like Jesus this Lent, we need too re-balance our priorities. Here is the way Jesus recommended doing it: “Love the Lord your God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Each one of us should have a Lenten program. Here are some hints. Call someone who’s lonely and say, “I’ll be over tomorrow to take you to lunch or take you for a walk or run errands.” Go to Confession. Smile more. Read the Gospels. Forgive an enemy. Love someone who doesn’t deserve it. Quit smoking. Stop drinking. Lose weight. Be kinder than is necessary. Exercise. Live one day at a time.
There is the Lenten call to repentance and to our being more prayerful, more generous and more eager to do the works of charity. This is not a dark time or gloomy one as we ponder our failures. Our participation in the envy, greed and pride of Adam and Eve is not ever to be the main picture, dramatic though it may be.
If we keep things straight then this will be a joyful season even when we look honestly at how easily we fall to envy, pride and false identities. To be prayerfully honest does not mean being negative, depressed, or dropping out of the journey.
When Lent is done, we should be more interesting Christians than we are now. Take the time to reflect this Lent. “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan. While Satan is out of style, he is not out of business.” (CS Lewis)