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.
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).
Outmatching the productivity of sin
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
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
Putting God to the test
Jesus’ undivided loyalty
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.