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Reflections for the I Sunday of Lent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the sixth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings forcefully instruct us to face our temptations as Jesus faced them and conquer them using the same means that Jesus used.

The central theme: Lent begins with a reflection on the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The Church assigns temptation stories to the beginning of Lent because temptations come to everybody, not only to Jesus, and we seem almost genetically programmed to yield to them. The readings forcefully instruct us to face our temptations as Jesus faced them and conquer them using the same means that Jesus used. 

Homily starter anecdote: From Eve to Buddha, Muhammad & Dr. Faustus: In the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree to become like God. The devil (Mara) came to the Buddha as he sat in contemplation under the Boddhi tree, tempting him to renounce the spiritual enrichment he sought by bombarding his mind with sensual pleasures of this world. The founder of Islam, prophet Muhammad says in the Quran that he took refuge in Allah from evil witches who might cast spells on him (Sura 113:4). Literature and films abound with stories of people who have sold their souls to Satan for temporary earthly pleasures. The classical example is Faustus, treated by Christopher Marlowe in “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus” (1588) and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe in Faust (Published: Part One, 1808, Part 2, 1833). In the early version of the legend, Faust had turned his back on God, and decided not to be called a Doctor of Theology, but rather a Doctor of Medicine. He turns to black magic to call the Devil, and the demon Mephistopheles answers his call. Using Mephistopheles as a messenger, Faustus strikes a deal with Lucifer: he is to be allotted 24 years of life on Earth, during which time he will have Mephistopheles as his personal servant and the ability to use magic; however, at the end he will give his body and soul over to Lucifer as payment and spend the rest of time as one damned to Hell. This deal is to be sealed in the form of a contract written in Faustus' own blood.  Mephistopheles, of course, uses his tricks and lies to keep Faust from accomplishing much of anything during this time, and Faust tries to revoke his pact, which Satan of course refuses. Eventually, Faust loses his soul to eternal damnation. Today’s Gospel passage describes Jesus’ temptations. C. S. Lewis says in the preface of his book Screwtape Letters that readers should avoid two extremes in the matter of dark powers. On the one hand, skeptics may believe that all of this talk about the devil is myth or rubbish. They have succumbed to modern rationalistic philosophy or scientific materialism. Satan is delighted that these skeptics no longer believe in him. Now he can ruin their lives without their knowing it. But on the other hand, the religiously inclined may let their curiosity about the dark world run away with them, dabbling in things that are dangerous and forbidden. These extremists have given up too much of their reason. Both positions are wrong.  (http://frtonyshomilies.com/)

Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading describes the ancient Jewish ritual of presenting the first fruits and gifts to God during the harvest festival in order to thank Him for liberating His people from Egypt and for strengthening them during the years of their trials and temptations in the desert. The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 91), points to Satan’s third temptation of Jesus in the desert as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.  In the second reading, St. Paul warns the early Christians converted from Judaism not to yield to their constant temptation to return to the observances of the Mosaic Laws. He reminds them that they will be saved only by acknowledging the risen Jesus as Lord and Savior.  The graphic temptations of Jesus described by Matthew and Luke in their Gospels are pictorial and dramatic representations of the inner struggle against a temptation that Jesus experienced throughout his public life. The devil was trying to prevent Jesus from accomplishing his mission of saving mankind from the bondage of sin, mainly through a temptation to become the political Messiah of Jewish expectations, and to use his Divine power first for his own convenience and then to avoid suffering and death.

The first reading, Deuteronomy (26:4-10), explained:  The passage from Deuteronomy describes the ancient Jewish ritual of presenting the first fruits and gifts to God during the harvest festival to thank Him for liberating His people from Egypt and for strengthening them during the years of their trials and temptations in the desert. After setting forth the first fruits in front of the altar of the Lord, the people  were to bow down in God's presence and hear the recital of the mighty acts of Yahweh in Jewish history which centered around  three decisive events that shaped Israel’s evolution as a people: (1) the demographic shift from Mesopotamia to Canaan to Egypt motivated by God’s call of Abraham; (2) the deliverance from Egypt of the enslaved Israelites, their passage to freedom and their formation as a people covenanted to God (Exodus); (3) the promise of Canaan and Israel’s eventual possession of it. This ritual was performed annually as part of the Covenant renewal ceremony known as the Feast of Weeks [Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Passover and the day after the Seventh Sabbath which ended the seventh week after Passover, thus got the name Feast of Weeks]. The people formally declared their loyalty to the Covenant with Yahweh. By this ritual of thanksgiving, they thanked God for the gift of land, for the abundance they enjoyed due to God’s provident care, and for the gift of freedom. As Christians entering the Lenten season we thank God  for  (a) a new exodus, i.e., a new passage from slavery to freedom, from death to life; (b) a new and eternal Covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus on the cross; (c) a new manna in the gift of the Eucharist; (d) a new promised land over which God would reign: and (e) a new people of God, inclusive of all the peoples of the earth.

The Second Reading Romans (10:8-13) explained: Paul counsels the early Christian converts from Judaism not to yield to their temptation to go back to the practices of the Mosaic Law.Many of these early Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentile converts to Christ needed to become Jews first and to keep the whole Jewish law for their "justification." But in today’s second reading, Paul teaches that none of us can achieve righteousness on our own. Hence, Paul argues, God offers us a share in Divine righteousness as grace -- a free gift -- to which we contribute nothing except our co-operation with God’s grace, our Faith (also His gift) in Christ’s Resurrection and our public acceptance of Jesus (also His Gift) as our Lord and Savior. Our faith in Jesus Christ must be expressed fully in our words and actions, indeed, by our very lives.  We live out that acceptance through our Baptism and by using His ongoing gifts of grace in our later virtuous words and deeds. Salvation, in the final analysis, is God’s gracious gift to undeserving sinners whose sole responsibility it is to call upon God for mercy and by Faith to appropriate that saving mercy as it is extended to us in Jesus.  Thus, Paul answers those who are tempted to dismiss the Resurrection and take from the Gospels only what seems most reasonable. “Christianity is belief plus confession; it involves witness before men. Not only God, but also our fellow men, must know what side we are on.” (William Barclay).

Gospel exegesis: Forty days of fasting and prayer. The phrase “forty days” was the Hebrew way of expressing a long period of time. We find it used in the recounting of various incidents in Jewish history: a) forty days of rain in Noah’s time (Gn 7:1-23); b) forty days which Moses spent on the mountain with God (Ex 34:28); c) forty days during which the prophet Elijah traveled in the wilderness (II Kgs 19:8). The wilderness was probably a desert in Judea, perhaps the great deserts of Horeb or Sinai, where the children of Israel were tried for forty years, and where Moses and Elijah fasted forty days.

The temptations. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the huge fifteen-by-thirty-five-mile desert between the mountain of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea so that Jesus could prepare by prayer, fasting and penance for the public ministry which he was about to commence. Bible scholars interpret the graphic temptations of Jesus described by Matthew and Luke as a pictorial and dramatic representation of the inner struggle against a temptation that Jesus experienced throughout his public life. The devil was not trying to lure Jesus into some particular sin -- rather, he was trying to entice Jesus away from the accomplishment of his Messianic mission, mainly through a temptation to become the political Messiah of Jewish expectations and to use his Divine power for his own convenience and to avoid suffering and death. The opposition, hostility and rejection which Jesus experienced were constant temptations for him to use His power as God's Son to overcome evil. The temptation story depicts Jesus as obedient to his Father’s will, refusing to be seduced into using his Divine power or authority wrongly. Each of the three temptations, according to the Fathers of the Church, represents an area in which humans regularly fail: the lust of the flesh (stones to bread), the lust of the eye and the heart (ruling over all kingdoms), and the pride of life (a spectacular leap from the Temple). Note that Jesus overcame these temptations through the knowledge of his identity, his purpose, and God's plan for human salvation.

The offensive and the defensive techniques employed:  The temptations to turn stones into bread, to worship Satan and to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple demonstrate three aspects of self-control: material, civil and spiritual. Likewise, they correspond with three levels of human blessings: 1) material goods, 2) political power and 3) spiritual powers. These, in turn, correspond to three human seductions: 1) If you will worship me, I will make you rich; 2) If you will worship me, I will give you political power; 3) If you will worship me, I will endow you with magical power. Jesus dismisses the temptations by references to Deuteronomy. "One does not live by bread alone" (8:3); "Worship the Lord your God" (6:13), and "Do not put the Lord your God to the test(6:16). Jesus used two powerful weapons against the temptations: the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture. First, Jesus was "full of the Holy Spirit," and the Spirit helped him to survive his temptations (Lk 4:1, 4:14, 4:18). Second, Jesus quoted Holy Scripture in response to all three temptations.

The first temptation: The first temptation was well-timed. Jesus had been fasting for forty days and nights. Since the people of Israel in the Old Testament had been miraculously fed by manna, why not the Son of God? Giving in to the temptation to make bread from a stone (vv. 2b-4), would, therefore, be analogous to Israel's failure to trust God for sustenance in the wilderness (Ex 16:3, Ex 16:4-5, Ex 16:20). Quoting from Deuteronomy (8:3) Jesus recalled Israel’s longing for the foods they had left behind in Egypt (bread, onions, meat) and their dissatisfaction with the sustenance (manna, quail, water from the rock) which God provided. Unlike the grumbling Israelites, Jesus was pleased to be nourished by the food that God provided for him, viz., every word that comes forth from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3) and doing the will of the Father (John 4:24). Besides, the first temptation was not merely aimed at the urge to satisfy Jesus’ own physical hunger. It was also a temptation to ignore His real mission as Messiah and to respond to others’ physical needs alone, without, at the same time, showing them that the Kingdom of God is more than mere food and drink. Let us ask ourselves the same question: do we use the powers God has given us – physical, financial, mental, or spiritual – for our own satisfaction, comfort or enrichment, or for the well-being, spiritual as well as physical, of others in the community?

The second temptation: In the second test, Satan offers Jesus an easy way to establish the Kingdom of God on earth: enter the world of political power. The temptation to gain the kingdoms of the world by worshiping the devil (vv. 5-8) is analogous to Israel's temptation to worship other gods (Dt 6:13-15, Ex 32:4; Dt 9:16).  The temptation for Jesus was whether he would opt for political power and success or choose the path that would lead to suffering, humiliation and death. Satan said: ""Worship me and it will all be yours." But this was really an invitation to accomplish His mission by dishonorable means: "If you are going to get along in this world, you need to compromise now and then." This temptation points to our subtle attraction to doing the right thing by using the wrong means. Jesus answered Satan: "It is written, 'Thou shall worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.'" (Dt 6:13).

The third temptation: Luke ironically presents Jesus’ third temptation as taking place on the pinnacle of the Temple in the Holy City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life. This is analogous to Israel's testing of God at Massah and Meribah (Ex 17:3, 17:7, Dt 6:16).  Perhaps the devil was also alluding to the popular expectation that, at his coming, the Messiah would appear suddenly on the pinnacle of the Temple. In this final temptation, Jesus was urged to doubt God. Satan suggested that Jesus should put God to the test: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” trusting in Divine protection as promised in Psalm 91:11-12. Jesus responded by quoting another text from Deuteronomy: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (Dt 6:16), which refers to an incident in which "the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?'" (Ex 17:7). Jesus’ command, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 13) silenced the devil and also affirmed his identity as both Lord and God. Sometimes we become angry with God when He fails to respond to tests we set up for Him. The test may be something like this: "If my husband is healed of cancer, then I'll know God loves me." "If my boy comes back safely from Iraq, I’ll know God is on my side." "If I get the job that I’ve been praying for, I’ll know that God cares about me." The devil tries repeatedly to tempt us to do something reckless and make us expect God to rescue us from it every time. Jesus teaches us that the Spirit-filled life requires unconditional surrender to God's will.

'Bye for the time being: The devil departed from him for a time. He left Jesus but would wait for another opportunity. That is why St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, wrote, “In order to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, put on the whole armor of God.” Prayer, fasting and almsgiving help us to do just that, because they help us to “put on Christ” (Rom 13:14). The Holy Spirit, Who brought Jesus safely through the temptation and empowered him for his ministry, would later fill the disciples and empower the Church (Acts 2:4)., However, the temptation story ends with the ominous statement that the devil departed from him until a more opportune time. That “time” came at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. It came again whenever people demanded signs from him to prove who he was (Lk 11:16, 29-32; 22:3, 54-62; 23:35-39). Ultimately, it came in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified.

Life Messages: 1) We need to confront and conquer temptations as Jesus did, using the means he employed: Like Jesus, every one of us is tempted to seek sinful pleasures, easy wealth and positions of authority, and is drawn to the use of unjust or sinful means to attain good ends. Jesus sets a model for conquering temptations through prayer, penance and the effective use of the ‘‘word of God.” Temptations make us true warriors of God by strengthening our minds and hearts. We are never tempted beyond the strength God gives us. In his first letter, St. John assures us: "The One Who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Hence, during Lent, let us confront our evil tendencies with prayer (especially by participating in the Holy Mass), penance and the meditative reading of the Bible. Knowledge of the Bible prepares us for the moment of temptation by enabling us "to know Jesus more clearly, to love him more dearly and to follow him more nearly, day by day," as William Barclayputs it.

2) We need to grow in holiness during Lent by prayer, reconciliation and sharing. We become resistant and even immune to temptations as we grow healthier in soul by following the traditional Lenten practices: a) by finding time to be with God every day of Lent, speaking to Him and listening to Him; b) by repenting of our sins and renewing our lives, uniting ourselves with God both by the Sacrament of Reconciliation and by forgiving those who have hurt us and asking forgiveness of those whom we have hurt; and   c) by sharing our love with others through our selfless and humble service, our almsgiving and our helping of those in need.

3) We need to be on guard against veiled temptations: Let us remember that even Spirit-filled, sanctified and vibrant Christians are still subject to the Original Temptation of Eve: "You will be like gods, knowing what is good and what is evil” (Gn 3:5). We are tempted to give ourselves godlike status and treat others as our subordinates. Consequently, we resent every limitation of our freedom and vigorously deny the fact that we are dependent on God and on others. We don't want to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. We are also tempted to accomplish honorable goals by less-than-honorable means such as the use of lotteries to help schools, or casinos to provide jobs for Native Americans, thus setting traps for the most vulnerable members of our society. These are veiled temptations to accomplish good ends by bad means. We are also tempted to fraternize with people of questionable character. Our temptation to adopt pop culture in liturgical services ultimately leads to trivialization of the worship service. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

07 March 2019, 11:38