First Sunday of Lent: February 21, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Today’s message from the Gospel of Luke speaks to us of the triumph of Jesus in the desert. Led by the Spirit in the wilderness, Jesus resisted the three temptations that were placed before Him.  His temptations make it clear that Jesus was fully human as well as divine.  The episode also tells us that we too can be tempted at any time. Through Jesus and with Him, we are reminded that we too can be triumphant in our battle against evil. In the liturgical cycle, on this First Sunday of Lent the Gospel speaks of the temptations of Jesus in the desert. The temptations placed before Jesus highlight the kind of Ministry he is about to begin.  It will tell us what kind of leader he is going to be.  He will not be some one who offers instant gratification, one who looks as for all encompassing political power, or who dazzles his followers through his miraculous or dazzling powers.  Instead Jesus will model compassion, gentleness and humility. He will be a servant leader who will not hesitate to wash the feet of his disciples. He will be a leader,  A king on the cross.  

Jesus has just completed his forty days of preparation in the desert and he now faces one more test before he begins his mission. During his stay in the desert he had fasted and prayed and now he was hungry and certainly he needed strength before he started his ministry. Here Jesus shows how a person can conquer the evil one and remain triumphant and be at the service of God. At the same time we must note that in the early centuries of the Church, Lent was seen as a time set aside 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. The catechumens are entering the last six weeks of preparation for their Baptism.  It was a time for the inner journey towards God.  The Sunday readings were the guidelines for them.  It is now the time for the church to pray for them and be in solidarity with them during this time.

In the First Reading of today’s 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. He gives them an extended lesson on survival in the Promised Land. He was aware that he himself would not cross the river Jordan and with out him they may even succumb to temptations that may be harmful o their spiritual welfare. He reminds them that in the Promised Land they have to rely on God as much as they did when they were in the desert. As a leader Moses gives them a preview of the wonderful experiences they would have in the Promised Land. They forty years of wandering would now come to an end. They would not eat Manna; rather they will have the abundance of food, the produce of the land flowing with milk and honey. At the harvest time he called on them to bring the first fruits and offer them to God.  Secondly it would be an opportunity for them to express their gratitude to God.  Their ancestors wandered through the desert because of their lack of faith. He reminds them how they ended in Egypt to be oppressed by the people. But God was with them and built them into a strong nation and has led them to a land of blessing. If they only remain grateful to God, they would be secure in the Promised Land.

The Second Reading of today taken from St Paul tells that those who believe in him will have no cause for shame, for the person in faith it makes no difference whether he is a Jew or a Greek. All belong to the same Lord who is rich enough and is concerned about each one of us.  He will support us and when we ask for his help he will not refuse. Paul tells us that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. It is a scandal and a crime then people brings in the differences in caste and origin into the religion.  Paul tells them that salvation is offered to all Jews and the Greek included.  He calls on them to live a life of faith.  Faith in Jesus and calling on his name in prayer leads all to salvation. Paul again quotes the Book of Deuteronomy to emphasise what a gift of God’s word is.  Heart and mouth refer to the internal belief and outward expression. The whole person must believe in and bear witness to the salvation brought by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel Reading, we heard how Satan tempted Jesus the first time.  Jesus’ temptation in the desert reveals to us the way in which the Son of God is the Messiah. This is contrary to the way Satan proposes it to Jesus and the way generally human beings are likely to attribute to Him. This is why Christ vanquished the tempter in order to show us the new path.  “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning.” Today’s message from the Gospel of Luke indicates to us of the triumph of Jesus in the desert. Led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus fasts and prays and he is tempted three times.  Jesus teaches us that we too can be tempted like him and we too can be triumphant in our battle against evil by overcoming the tempter.  The Satan asked Jesus to manifest His Divine power by commanding a stone to become a loaf of bread. But Jesus, at no time in His life, being God incarnate, had performed any miracle for himself.  His miracles were for others.  The Satan was aware that after fasting forty days he was hungry and he needed food. There would be no harm in doing a miracle so that he has enough strength to begin the ministry. It is a seemingly harmless temptation and it is easy for any one to succumb to it. The answer that Jesus gave to the devil is very interesting. Jesus said, “One does not live by bread alone but by the word of God.”   God’s word is the food and nourishment for him.  His miraculous power is for others and not for himself.  Hence there is no question of performing the miracle of bread.

The second temptation is to worship the devil in exchange for power. The devil promises Jesus the authority over all the kingdoms and dominions. The final temptation is to test God by throwing himself off the parapet of the Temple with the certainty that the angels will hold him up without causing any harm. In each case Jesus responds with a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 8. That chapter is a warning to the Israelites to be faithful to their call and the mission particularly in times of prosperity. Jesus refuses to be diverted from his mission at any time. It is clear however that on the surface the temptations appear to be good and seem to produce well but contain the deception hidden through them. In the Old Testament Israel constantly tended to chase after false gods e.g. the golden calf but Jesus acknowledges his trust in one God: worship the Lord your God and serve him alone. Israel tested God at Meribah in the desert to provide them with water but Jesus in turn refuses to manipulate God. He says: You must not put your Lord to God to the test.

The forty days of fasting in the desert reminds us of Moses doing the very same in the desert. At the end Moses received and proclaimed the message of God, the Law, just as Jesus will go on to makes his mission statement in the synagogue at Nazareth and tells people that he is the messiah, the fulfilment of God’s call.  Jesus used the scripture passages from the book of Deuteronomy to confront the attack of the evil one. Moses was the Old Israel who entered into the desert and remained there with the people for forty years. Jesus now is the new Israel that goes into the desert to pray before he commences his public ministry. The difference is that the Israelites together with Moses succumbed to the temptations in the desert but Jesus overcame the tempter.  The temptations in fact are similar: the old Israelites cry for bread and God gives them Manna. Jesus is hungry but refuses to work the miracle of bread and lives on God’s word.  They make a golden calf and worship but Jesus refused the glory of the kingdoms placed before him and chooses to worship God. There is the question of the presence of God when Israel does not have water and grumble against God and Moses and God gives them water. Jesus is asked to test God’s presence by jumping down the pinnacle of the Temple.  He refuses to listen to the tempter for he is fully aware of God’s way.

In fact, all the three temptations of Jesus are all rolled into one: to be unfaithful to the mission of the Father. The Father had given him the mission to redeem the world through his life, suffering and death on the cross. The Satan now shows him the easy way to fulfil his mission. He need not go the hard way but take the easy path. Jesus refuses to succumb to the temptations and takes the path of God.  The last sentence of today’s Gospel tells us: “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 are our temptations. Our only success in life can be what we achieve 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. Thus the tempter leaves him for a while and he will come again and again to tempt him during his life.  This in fact is the human situation. We too are constantly led to the temptation and we can over come this with the grace of God.

The temptations serve to reaffirm the true identity and the mission of Jesus.  They show that Jesus sees himself in continuity with the heritage of Israel and acts accordingly.  The encounters with the devil also manifest that there is a real conflict between the reign of God and the reign of Satan and it is a conflict over power. We encounter Jesus as a model who resists the temptation and shows the how can counter the power of evil. These temptations tell us that every person is tested in the desert. This was true of the Israelites, was true of Jesus and is true of every human person.  The Evil One tempts us to be unfaithful to the call and mission. God has given to each one a mission and has given a call to fulfil it.

Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome

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