FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (2019)
Psalms 91:1-2, 10-15
I would like to believe that the reason the church begins the Lenten season every year with a Synoptic account of the temptation of Jesus, is not so much for us to focus on the actual temptation, but rather to give us the opportunity to focus on the triumph of Jesus over the devil. The carefully structured story of Jesus’ temptation in the dessert, gives us an opportunity at the beginning of Lent to realize that as much as the gospel message is always about love, it is also about the possible absence of love, or what we call sin. Let’s face it, no matter how great the sanctity of saints, there are, and will only be, two people who were without sin – Jesus and his mother, Mary. All others laboring under the weight of the human condition, will spend a lifetime battling sin to varying degrees.
For the Christian, Lent is a time to strengthen our resolve to turn away from sin (metanoia/conversion), and the tools of Lent – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – are meant to assist us in our personal battle with the devil. A genuine conversion is necessary for the Christian, during the Lenten season and every day, a conversion which causes us to turn away from sin and change our lives for the better. John W. Martens, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, beautifully describes conversion as “the lifeblood of repentance and the heartbeat of holiness.” Benedictine monks take a uniquely Benedictine vow, “conversatio morum,” in which they pledge, on a daily basis, to turn away from sin and turn toward the light. The only ones who will not be successful this Lent at turning away from sin, are those who refuse to acknowledge their need for repentance. There should not be, however, any illusion that this battle will be easy, for the devil is far more cunning than we often imagine.
Terrance Klein, SJ, in a commentary on this week’s gospel, suggests that far too many people view the devil in a Hollywood kind of way. If we imagine the devil in an easily identifiable red costume, or with vicious fangs and frightening features, we might miss the point of the temptation stories. As Klein states, “anyone can resist an evil that overstates itself, that steps right in front of us, fully decked out courtesy of hell’s costume department.” The devil, the personification of evil, is far too cunning to come to us in an easily recognizable form. The devil’s power “lies in darkness, subtlety and confusion,” and depends on an illusion of goodness which makes our choosing to keep company with the devil appear to be an attractive choice. It is the devil embedded within the human condition (original sin), the “one who wanders your soul, darkening your mind and confusing your thoughts” that should be most feared. That is the devil that appears to Jesus in the desert; that is the devil who tempts us on a daily basis.
Luke’s gospel presents three separate temptations of Jesus, all tempting Jesus to use His godly status for selfish reasons. The first temptation, Michael Simone, SJ tells us, “was not only to make bread from stone, but also to use his authority over creation to sate his hunger.” The second temptation was about “power and glory,” and seeing Jesus’ kingdom in a worldly way. God’s kingdom was not about power and control. God’s kingdom was about sacrificial love and obedience to God’s will. The third temptation, says Simone, “was not just a testing of trust in divine grace, but rather an abuse of God’s favor for Jesus’ own glorification.” Jesus of Nazareth was, indeed, endowed with divine gifts, but those gifts were never meant to be used for spectacle or show. They were meant to be used to establish God’s kingdom here on earth, a kingdom where the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are made well, and those who are hungry are fed.
Jesus’ mission was to save humankind from the darkness of sin and death, and the temptation stories give us a glimpse of His victory over sin and death. It would be unwise for the Christian to presume that the three temptations recounted by Luke were the only temptations in His brief earthly life. Indeed, the gospel even hints at the lifetime human struggle with temptation that Jesus had to face, stating that “when the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Jesus for a time.” The fully human God-man Jesus was surely tempted throughout His earthly life, but unlike us who fail, He never gave in to the attraction of sin and selfishness. Jesus’ triumph over the devil’s temptations in today’s gospel should inspire hope in each and every one of us, hope that we too can be victorious over the temptations that come our way. By conforming our lives to that of Jesus we too can be triumphant in our lifetime battle with sin and selfishness, for as Paul tells us in our second reading, “No one who believes in Him will be put to shame.”
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