Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
WE HAVE NOW ENTERED the great season of Lent. For those of us who are old enough to remember, Lent in the past was not, in some respects, a time we looked forward to. Fasting and abstinence, not to mention other forms of penance, were in force and it was a serious business. Easter was looked forward to with real anticipation. Our attitudes to Lent tended to be on the gloomy and negative side. Perhaps nowadays we have gone to the other extreme where Lent hardly means anything at all. “You mean Lent has started already? Really, I had no idea! Easter will be on top of us before we know where we are and I haven’t bought a thing!”
Yet Lent has always been one of the key periods of the Church year and it would be a great pity if we were to forget its real meaning. In fact, that is what we ask for in the Opening Prayer just before we sit down to listen to the readings: “Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection and teach us to reflect it in our lives.” Really, the whole purpose of Lent is beautifully summarised in that prayer – to understand the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus and to live that out in our own lives.
An annual retreat
The period of Lent is six weeks to help us do precisely that. The Church provides Lent almost like an annual retreat, a time for deepening the understanding of our Christian faith, a time for reflection and renewal, a time to make a fresh start.
It was a pious custom in the past for people, as part of their Lenten observance to go to Mass every day during this time. This is even more meaningful now since the Second Vatican Council and the reformation of the liturgy, because we are provided with a magnificent set of Scripture readings from both the Hebrew (Old) and Christian (New) Testaments every day during the Lenten season.
In the First Reading of today’s Mass, Moses speaks to the Israelites at the end of their forty years wandering in the desert and he prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land. That is what the Lenten season is meant to do for us also.
Traditionally on this First Sunday of Lent the Gospel speaks of the temptations of Jesus in the desert. Jesus has just completed his forty days of preparation in the desert and he now faces one more test before he begins his mission. This incident takes place between the baptism of Jesus and the start of his public mission, beginning (in Luke’s gospel) at Nazareth.
A time of beginning
In the early centuries of the Church, Lent was seen as a time of beginning. It was – and again now is – a time for forming new converts, preparing them for their formal entry into the Church community by baptism and confirmation during the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Today, in fact, is their day of Election. Our catechumens are entering the last six weeks of preparation for Baptism. Let us pray for them and be in solidarity with them during this time.
For those of us who are already baptised, it can equally be a new beginning. Often we prefer to stay with the known and the familiar, even though it does not give us great satisfaction. We can settle into a routine kind of Christianity that goes on basically unchanged from year to year. It is not very inspiring but we stick with it rather than risk the unknown that radical conversion can bring.
Forty days in the desert
The forty days of Lent correspond to Jesus’ own forty days spent in the desert. For him, it was a period of preparation for his coming mission. At the end of the forty days – as described in Matthew and Luke – Jesus had three encounters with the Evil One.
It might be worth noting that we may not be dealing here with a strictly historical happening, something which could have been video-taped or covered by television. The devil normally does not carry on conversations with people like this. Temptations to evil – and they can be many and frequent – usually come to us in far more subtle ways. (On this, read C.S. Lewis’ marvellously entertaining book The Screwtape Letters – a delightful read with a deadly serious message.)
Rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life.
Some real examples of these temptations can be found in the Gospel accounts: [The Pharisees asked Jesus] “to perform a miracle to show that God approved of him” (Mark 8:11). “Save yourself if you are God’s Son! Come on down from the cross!” (Matthew 27:40). After feeding 5,000 hungry people with an abundance of food, “the people there said, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who was to come into the world!’ Jesus knew that they were about to come and seize him in order to make him king by force; so he went off again to the hills by himself” (John 6:14-15). Clearly, in varying forms, these temptations of Jesus can come into our lives too.
The first temptation (to change stones into bread) and the third (to jump from the top of the Temple) try to turn Jesus away from his role as the Servant-Messiah to become an eye-catching, self-serving superstar. “Follow me because I am the greatest.” The second temptation (to worship the devil who can give power and wealth) tries to entice Jesus away from the true direction of all human living – the love and service of God and his creation. He is being lured from setting up a Kingdom of love and service to controlling an empire of minions.
Luke reverses the second and third temptations from Matthew’s version in order to make Jerusalem the climax of the temptations just as it is the final destiny of Jesus’ mission and the starting point for the Church.
The forty days in the desert eating nothing reminds us of Moses doing the very same. At the end Moses received and proclaimed the message of God (the Law) just as Jesus will go on to make his mission statement in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). Also, the replies that Jesus gives to the Evil One are all from Deuteronomy (one of five books attributed to Moses) and his temptations correspond to those which afflicted the Israelites on their desert journey. The difference is that the Israelites succumbed but not Jesus:
- The Israelites grumbled about not having enough food. “It is not on bread alone that we live but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
- Israel constantly tended to chase after false gods (e.g. the golden calf) but Jesus recognises only one God. “You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.”
- Israel tested God at Massah and Meribah to provide them with water but Jesus refuses to manipulate God. “You must not put your Lord to God to the test.”
All in all Jesus shows himself totally faithful and trusting in God and thus qualified for his role as Messiah. And these temptations are made to sound all the more reasonable because the Messiah was expected to bring bread down from heaven, to subject other kingdoms to Israel and to perform a dazzling sign to prove his credentials.
Most dangerous temptations
When we think of temptations, we tend to think of sexual sins, telling lies, losing our tempers, gossiping about people’s (imagined) faults, getting angry, feeling resentment and the like. But the really dangerous temptations are to want material wealth for its own sake (the ability to turn anything into money [‘bread’]), to want status (everyone looks up to me), and power (I can manipulate people and things for my own ends), things which are seen as going with wealth, power and status.
These are dangerous because they reduce other people and even the material world to things that can be used purely for my personal gain. They are dangerous because they create a world and a society in which everyone has to compete to get as much for themselves as they can. In such a rat race world, a minority corners to itself a disproportionate amount of the world’s goods while the majority is left without what they need. Above all, such people are dangerous because they can create the prevailing creed of the society in which we live. They believe that undiluted happiness comes with winning millions in the lottery. They believe that the ownership of what they have acquired is absolute. But there is no absolute ownership of anything.
Values of the Kingdom
The world, the Kingdom that Jesus came to build, has a different set of values altogether. And it is those values we will be considering all during Lent. Many Christians are chasing the idols of wealth, status and power just as fanatically as their non-Christian brothers and sisters. But, in fact, these are non-Christian, even anti-Christian, ambitions. They are not the way of Jesus, they are not the way of the Kingdom, nor indeed are they the way to a fully human, fully satisfying life for anyone.
This is what today’s Gospel is about. This is what Lent means as a time of reflection and a time of re-evaluating the quality and direction of our lives. A time for reconsidering our priorities both as Christians and human beings. A time to re-affirm our conviction of the equal dignity of every single human person.
Says the Second Reading today: “Those who believe in him will have no cause for shame, it makes no difference between Jew and Greek. All belong to the same Lord who is rich enough, however many ask for his help, for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” It is a scandal and a crime then when some of us actively prevent brothers and sisters having access to the material, social and spiritual goods of God’s creation.
Finally, before we leave today’s Gospel, let us not overlook its final sentence: “The devil left him to return at the appointed time.” The battle with evil was not over for Jesus. It will occur again and again at various stages in his life, right up to and especially at those last hours in the garden and on the Cross.
For us, too, the battle against evil never stops. The selfishness, the greed, the anger and hostility, the jealousy and resentment, above all the desire to have rather than to share, to control rather than to serve will continually dog us. We and our children are caught up in the competitive rat race without even knowing it. Our only success in life can be what we achieve in building not palaces or empires but in building a society that is more loving and just, based on the message of Jesus, a message of truth and integrity, of love and compassion, of freedom and peace.
That is why we need this purifying period of Lent every year. If, in past years, we let it go by largely unnoticed, let this year be a little different. Let it be a second spring in our lives. Let it mean something in our discipleship with Christ.