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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 today’s readings give us the notion that testing comes to us by an agency apart from and in opposition to God.

Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11

Introduction: Lent is a time to look at our temptations, sin and the consequences. It is a time that reminds us of the human journey of fall and redemption. Like Adam and Eve, and Jesus, we all face temptations.  Originally, Lent was the season when those about to be baptized repented of their sins and sought to know the Lord Jesus more intimately.  Then it became a season for the baptized to do the same.  We are challenged to die to sin so that we may rise again to the new life in Christ.  Since the Church begins the season with a reflection on the origins of sin among us, the main themes in today’s readings are temptation, sin, guilt, and forgiveness.  We are also told of the temptations offered to our Lord, submission to which would have destroyed his mission.  Today’s readings give us the notion that testing comes to us by an agency apart from and in opposition to God.  But the truth is that, while testing comes from the outside, temptation comes from within us.  However, the good news is that, though we are tempted and often succumb, God’s grace provides the way of salvation for us. The ultimate temptations in life are NOT those that only push us to “do” things we aren’t supposed to “do”; rather they are the ones that push us to “be” persons we weren’t made to “be.” Let us then during this Lenten season very earnestly pray, as Jesus has taught us to pray to Our Father in heaven – Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

Homily starter anecdote # 1: Alluring music of the Sirens: The story of sirens in Greek mythology describes the negative and positive ways of fighting temptations. The Sirens are creatures with the heads of beautiful women and the bodies of attractive birds.  They lived on an island (Sirenum scopuli- a group of three small rocky islands).  With the irresistible charm of their song, they lured mariners to their destruction on the rocks surrounding their island (Homer’s Odyssey XII, 39-54, 158-200; Virgil’s Aeneid V, 42-44; Ovid’s Metamorphoses XIV, 88-89).  They sang so sweetly that all who sailed near their home in the sea were fascinated and drawn to the shore only to be destroyed.  When Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, passed that enchanted spot he escaped the temptation from sirens by ordering himself to be tied to the mast and ordering his sailor comrades to put wax in the ears, so that they might not hear the luring and bewitching strains.  But King Tharsius chose a better and positive way of conquering Sirens’ temptations. He took the great Greek singer and lyrist Orpheus along with him. Orpheus took out his lyre and sang a song so clear and ringing that it drowned the sound of those lovely, fatal voices of the Sirens. Today’s readings advise us that the best way to break the charm of this world’s alluring voices during Lent is not trying to shut out the music by plugging our ears, but to have our hearts and lives filled with the sweeter music of prayer, penance, the word of God, self-control, and acts of charity.  Then temptations will have no power over us. (

The first reading from the book of Genesis (Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7) describes the “Original Temptation" – "You will be like gods, knowing what is good and what is evil."  This is the story of the first sin, symbolized by the eating of the forbidden fruit. It tells us that Adam and Eve were given the possibility of making a choice. The fundamental choice was to live for God, dependent upon and obedient to His will, or to say no to God. Like Adam and Eve, we are all tempted to put ourselves in God's place.  Consequently, we resent every limit on our freedom, and we don't want to be held responsible for the consequences of our choices.  In Genesis, we witness how temptation to evil led Adam and Eve to an act of faithlessness and sin.  In contrast, today’s Gospel from St. Matthew shows us how Jesus Christ conquered temptation by relying on Faith in God's Word and authority. Are we tempted to serve the gods of our inordinate desires instead of serving our loving and providing God? Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 51) presents our contrition or acknowledgment of guilt before God: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.”

The second reading (Rom 5:12-19) explained: St. Paul describes how the disobedience of Adam who fell to Satan’s Original Temptation brought him and us death and a broken relationship with God. He presents Adam who did not resist temptation with its evil consequences for humanity, and Christ, who did resist temptation and so gave humanity the promise of new Life.  Paul reminds us of the social consequences of sin. Sin is never a private affair, affecting only myself. When we sin, all our relationships are affected: our relationship with our inner self, our relationships with our brothers and sisters, our relationship with our God and our relationship with nature and the world in which we live. Paul says that just as sin and death came through Adam, salvation and life come through Christ. Paul compares human sin and its consequences to Christ’s saving action and its restorative effects on humankind. Christ regained for us the right relationship with God that Paul calls justification, which comes to us as undeserved grace. Thus, Paul’s words to the Romans describe humanity’s rehabilitation by grace. The first Adam brought disobedience, sin, condemnation and death. The new Adam has brought obedience, righteousness, justification and eternal life. (St. Paul uses what theologians call typology to help us understand exactly what Jesus has done for us and how he established for us a new life, overcoming what Adam and Eve wrought for us. He sees Adam as a type or foreshadowing of Christ).

Today’s Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11) teaches us how the "desert experience" of fasting, praying, and soul-strengthening was a kind of spiritual “training camp” for Jesus which enabled him to confront his temptations successfully and then to preach the Good News of salvation.  The Gospel also prescribes a dual action plan for Lent: (1) We should confront our temptations and conquer them as Jesus did, by fasting, prayer and the Word of God.  (2) We should renew our lives by true repentance and live the Good News of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness.

Gospel exegesis: (A) Forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert: 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 he could pray to the Father about the public ministry that he was about to commence. “Forty days” was a Hebrew expression meaning a considerable period of time, as seen in various incidents in Jewish history:  a) the 40 days of rain in Noah’s time which Noah spent in the ark in prayer;  b) the 40 days which Moses spent on the mountain with God (Ex. 24:18); c) the 40 days the prophet Elijah traveled on the strength of the meal which the angel had given him (II Kg. 19:8).

(B) The temptationsThe graphic descriptions of the temptations of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke are sometimes interpreted as the dramatic presentation of a single temptation Jesus experienced throughout his public life.  The devil was trying to entice Jesus away from his mission so that he could become, instead, a political messiah of power and fame according to the Jewish expectation, while using His Divine power to avoid suffering and death.  In this account, we are given a glimpse of the inner struggle of Jesus as he faced the question of how to accomplish his mission.  Matthew presents Jesus as conquering the tempter and beginning his preaching in Galilee.  We always encounter temptation in its three major forms: power, prestige, and prosperity with two qualifying terms: “more” and “control.” We want “more” of everything and “control” of our destiny, feeling that only we know what is best for ourselves. Jesus’ temptations remind us of the temptations Israel experienced in the desert. The first temptation recalled God’s gift of manna to Israel in the desert (Exodus 16:4-8) and tested him in his capacity as the Son of God. The second temptation was a test of Jesus’ authentic sonship and it recalled the wilderness incidents wherein Israel complained against God and demanded Him to show His power by providing for their needs. Then in the third test, Jesus is offered a vision of all the world’s kingdoms in their splendor, to be entirely his for his worship of Satan. Jesus was shown those kingdoms, just as Moses atop Mt. Nebo surveyed the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:1-4), and as the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 2:6-8) describes  God giving his messiah-son-king the nations of the earth as an inheritance. The first temptation has to do with Jesus’ own need for food.  The second temptation involves a wider circle in Jerusalem and the Temple.  Finally, the third temptation takes in the whole world.  Matthew saw the sequence of the three temptations as significant in that they moved to greater heights, from stones on ground level, to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and finally to a mountain top from which all the kingdoms of the earth could be surveyed.  The progression was also greater in intensity and scope, from personal food to power in Israel and then to rule over the whole world.

The gradation in temptations: The three temptations - turn stones into bread (4:3); jump off the Temple pinnacle (4:6); worship Satan (4:9) - demonstrate three kinds of control: material, spiritual and civil.  They correspond to three wrong evaluations: 1) those who have material resources are blessed by God; 2) those who have spiritual powers are blessed by God; 3) those who have national power are blessed by God.  These, in turn, correspond to three human-divine bargains: 1) I will worship You if you make me rich; 2) I will worship You if You endow me with magical powers; and 3) I will worship You if You give me political power.  These temptations of Jesus are traditionally treated as archetypes of the temptations we experience: the temptation to satisfy personal needs by material possessions, the temptation to perform miraculous deeds by spiritual power, and the temptation to seek political power and social influence by evil means. But Jesus dismisses all three temptations using the Word of God.  He quotes the Law from Scripture itself: “One does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3); “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (6:16); “Worship the Lord, your God” (6:13).  Each time the devil tempts him Jesus responds with a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy which describes the experience of Israel during her forty years in the desert.

The first temptationIs it possible to fast forty days and live to tell the tale? The New York Times says the average person can go for thirty days without eating. Gandhi and the Irish prisoners in British jails in Belfast fasted even longer. Mitch Snyder, the US advocate for the homeless, fasted fifty-one days. The first temptation could not have been better timed.  Jesus had been fasting for forty days.  He was entitled to eat.  Even Israel in the Old Testament was miraculously fed with manna.  Why not the Son of God?  "Turn these stones into loaves of bread.  Use your power to satisfy your physical need.  You are entitled to food after a forty-day fast."  The temptation was that Jesus use the miraculous powers God had given Him to use for His mission to provide for himself.  This first temptation of Jesus was not merely the urge to satisfy his hunger by some miraculous deed.  It also had implications as to how Jesus would respond to the physical needs of others, especially their need for food.  Matthew tells us, for example, that Jesus miraculously fed a multitude of people (14:13-21 and 15:32-39).  Jesus would be seen as the Messiah who provided for their pressing needs.

The very seat of religious life, namely, the sacred precincts of the Temple itself became the scene of the second temptation.  The devil was suggesting that, on the basis of Scripture, Jesus must believe in and insist on Divine protection: if He were the Son of God, He had the right to expect safety and protection from His heavenly Father.  Here Jesus is pressured either to identify Himself as God’s Son and Messiah, or to discredit His mission by apparently either denying His trust in God, the truth of Scripture or His own right to speak in God's Name.  An additional temptation for Jesus was to use his miraculous powers to amaze people and thereby attract followers.

In the third temptation, the devil wanted Jesus to enter the world of political power to establish his kingdom of God instead of choosing the path that would lead to suffering, humiliation and death.  It was a temptation to do the right thing using the wrong means.  Jesus was being tempted to win the world by worshipping the devil.  Why not compromise a bit?  Why not strike a deal with the evil powers?  Spirit-filled, sanctified, spiritually vibrant Christians are still subject to the same temptation.  We need companionship, acceptance, the approval of others, love and appreciation.  We are tempted to fulfill these legitimate needs using the wrong means.

(C) The preaching: The Greek word used for preaching is kerussein meaning a herald’s proclamation of his king’s message. Jesus’ preaching bore the note of authority, certainty and reliability – as coming from God his Father.

(D) Call to repentance: Metánoia the Greek word used in Matthew for repentance, meant a change of mind which included being sorry for sin and its consequences, and turning away from sinful thoughts, words and deeds, thus reversing our life-direction from ourselves to God.

(E) The message: believe in the Good News: “Believe” meant accept Jesus’ words as truth, based on his authority as the Son of God.  The content of Jesus’ message was called Good News because it corrected the incorrect Jewish belief (and the bad news), that God was an angry, demanding and punishing judge, and taught the Good News that God is a loving, merciful and forgiving Father who wants to save everyone from the bondage of sin through His Son.  Hence, St. Paul calls it Good News of hope (Col.1: 23), peace (Eph.6: 15), promise (Eph.3: 6), immortality (Tim.1: 10) and salvation (Eph.1: 13).

Life messages: 1) We are to confront and conquer temptations as Jesus did, using the means he employed.  Every one of us is tempted to seek sinful pleasures, easy wealth and a position of authority, power and glory, and to use any means, even unjust or sinful ones, to gain these things.  Jesus serves as a model for us in conquering temptations by strengthening himself through prayer, penance and the active use of the Word of God. Temptations make us more powerful warriors of God by strengthening our minds and hearts. By constantly struggling against temptations, we become stronger. Each time one is tempted to do evil but does good, one becomes stronger.  Further, we are never tempted beyond our power.  In his first letter, St. John assures us: “Greater is the One Who is in us, than the one who is in the world (1 John 4: 4). We may be strengthened by St. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "No testing has overtaken you, that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and [God] will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing [God] will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." Hence, during this Lent, let us confront our evil tendencies by prayer (especially by participating in the Holy Mass), by penance and by meditative reading of the Bible.

2) We are to grow in holiness by prayer, reconciliation and sharing during Lent:   a) by finding time to be with God every day of Lent, speaking to Him in fervent prayer and listening to Him through the meditative reading of the Bible; b) by repenting of our sins daily and asking God’s forgiveness every night at bedtime; c) by being reconciled with God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation; d)  by being reconciled with others, forgiving them the hurts they have caused us and asking their pardon for the hurts we have inflicted on them; e) by sharing our love with others through selfless and humble service, almsgiving and helping those in need; f) by living the Gospel or the Good News of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness in our lives, thus bearing true Christian witness.

3) Lent is the time for the desert experienceWe can set aside a place and time to be alone daily with God, a time to distance ourselves from the many noises that bombard our lives every day, a time to hear God’s word, a time to rediscover who we are before God and a time to say yes to God and no to Satan as Jesus did. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

27 February 2020, 11:38