Scripture and the Liturgy

The Drama of Temptation: 1st Sun of Lent

At the beginning of Lent, the Church reads to us the account of Jesus doing spiritual combat with the devil in the wilderness, reminding us that Lent is a time of warfare.  Through our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we do battle with the power of the devil in our lives, and with God’s grace, defeat him decisively.

1.  The First Reading is Deuteronomy 26:4-10:

Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“The priest shall receive the basket from you
and shall set it in front of the altar of the LORD, your God.
Then you shall declare before the Lord, your God,
‘My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.
But there he became a nation
great, strong, and numerous.
When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us,
imposing hard labor upon us,
we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers,
and he heard our cry
and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
He brought us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and outstretched arm,
with terrifying power, with signs and wonders;
and bringing us into this country,
he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
Therefore, I have now brought you the firstfruits
of the products of the soil
which you, O LORD, have given me.’
And having set them before the Lord, your God,
you shall bow down in his presence.”

The First Readings during the first five Sundays of Lent are designed to provide an overview of salvation history, with a special emphasis on the Passover and Exodus from Egypt, because from Holy Thursday to Easter we will re-live these events in our own liturgy.  Therefore, we prepare for Holy Week over the five preceding weeks by pondering the meaning of the pivotal events in the story of God’s people.

This First Reading, at the beginning of Lent, is particularly suitable because it provides a summary or overview of Israel’s story from the time of Jacob (the wandering “Aramean,” that is, Syrian) through the Exodus, to the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land. 

In this passage from Deuteronomy, Moses commands the Israelites to come regularly to the central sanctuary in order to worship.  When they come, they are to recite the history of salvation in order to commemorate it before the Lord.

This passage reminds us of the importance of memory in worship.  To this day, when we celebrate mass, we do it “in remembrance of me,” that is, the Lord Jesus.  One of the enemies of the spiritual life is forgetfulness.  We forget what God has done for us.  We forget who we are, what we have experienced as God’s people, where we come from and where we are going.  As they say, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.  Applied to the spiritual life, that means: those who forget the bondage God has saved them from, will slide back into that bondage.  Therefore the Church wisely requires us to come to mass weekly in order to remember God’s salvation.  Furthermore, in the Bible, remembrance is not just mental recall.  Remembrance involves a new saving act of God.  God remembers Noah in the ark.  God remembers the people of Israel in Egypt.  In both cases, God’s “remembrance” involves salvation.  This is the reason the Psalms frequently ask God to “remember” his people (Psalm 20:3; 74:2,18; 89:50, etc.).  When we come into mass to “do this in remembrance of me,” we are asking God to pour out his saving power on us once again, for the coming week.

Much of American Christianity has religious “amnesia.”  Their churches are as bare as malls.  There is no remembrance of the saints, the councils, the persecutions, the missionary martyrdoms, or the history of God’s people.  Even the Old Testament often gets ignored.  As a result, there is little sense of being part of one people of God through the ages.  Memory creates identity.  The Church in her wisdom constantly encourages us to remember, so that we know who we are.

2. The Responsorial Psalm is 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15:

R. (cf. 15b) Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I trust.”
R. Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
No evil shall befall you,
nor shall affliction come near your tent,
For to his angels he has given command about you,
that they guard you in all your ways.
R. Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Upon their hands they shall bear you up,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
You shall tread upon the asp and the viper;
you shall trample down the lion and the dragon.
R. Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.
Because he clings to me, I will deliver him;
I will set him on high because he acknowledges my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in distress;
I will deliver him and glorify him.
R. Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.

This Psalm is the quintessential spiritual warfare psalm, and was employed for the purpose of exorcism and protection against evil spirits already in ancient times.  To this day, it is one of the psalms used for optional recitation during the rite of exorcism.  The “asp, viper, lion, and dragon” mentioned in the psalm were understood as references to evil spirits, which were worshiped under the form of animals in pagan cults.  The singing of this Psalm in today’s mass is particularly appropriate, because it ties into the theme of combat with Satan in the Gospel Reading.

3.  The Second Reading is Romans 10:8-13:

Brothers and sisters:
What does Scripture say?
The word is near you,
in your mouth and in your heart
—that is, the word of faith that we preach—,
for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified,
and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
For the Scripture says,
“No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all,
enriching all who call upon him.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The Second Readings during the first five Sundays of Lent are classic passages from St. Paul in which he summarizes the Gospel message.  This reading is a good example.  At its heart, the Gospel is simple: believe in Jesus Christ and his resurrection, admit it openly to the world, and you will be saved.

As a Protestant pastor, I often used this passage in evangelism.  I would encourage people to place their faith in Jesus, pray to receive his Spirit into their lives, in order that they would be assured a place in heaven.

That was well and good.  The only danger comes in reducing the whole Christian faith to just believing and confessing in order to be saved. 

We need to remember other Scriptures as well, like the following:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:53-54

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Mark 16:16

He who says, “I know him” but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 1 John 2:4

It is true that “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved,” but to “call on the name of the LORD” presumes an attitude of repentance and humility, an acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves, that we need God’s help, and we are ready to do what God tells us to do in order to be saved. To “call on the name of the LORD,” but then disobey God’s instructions for salvation—which include baptism (Mark 16:16), Eucharist (“eating his flesh and blood”, John 6:53), and a transformed life (1 John 1:6))—doesn’t really make sense.

4.  The Gospel is Luke 4:1-13:

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.

It may sound strange that the Lord was not hungry until after the forty days.  Yet during long fasts, the body adapts to burning stored fat, and after a few days one does not feel hungry until one’s fat stores are burned up, which may take weeks.  At that point, the body begins to break down muscle to stay alive.  The body is beginning to die, and the hunger returns.  Jesus was at that stage after forty days.

The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.

The three temptations of Christ correspond to the “threefold concupiscence,” that is, the common three ways in which we experience the temptation to sin.  In 1 John 2:15, St. John summarizes them as follows: “Lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”  “Lust of the Flesh” is physical lust, for food, sex, drugs, comfort, etc.  “Lust of the Eyes” is greed or avarice, the desire to own and possess things of beauty and value.  “Pride of Life” is simply pride.

Sin entered the world when Eve gave in to the threefold concupiscence.  Genesis 3:6 says that she looked at the apple and saw that it “was good for food” (Lust of the Flesh), “pleasing to the eye” (Lust of the Eyes), and was “desirous to make one wise” like God (Pride, to be equal with God).

In the temptation in the wilderness, Jesus undoes Eve’s threefold disobedience.  First Satan tempts him in the area of Lust of the Flesh: “Turn these stones to bread.  Wouldn’t some nice, hot bread taste so good after all your fasting?”

Then, Lust of the Eyes: he shows him all the “power and glory” of the kingdoms of the world in an instant and offers it to him. 

Finally, Pride: Satan takes Jesus to the most public place in all of Israel, the Temple, and encourages him to perform a miraculous “stunt” that will make him a celebrity, receiving fame and adulation from the whole populace.

In every case, Jesus responds to Satan’s temptations by remembering God’s Word.  Of course, this is what Eve failed to do: she refused to remember, that is, to call to mind and obey, the command of God.

There’s another connection here, this one between Jesus the Son of David and Solomon the Son of David.  We remember that on his death bed, David charged his son and heir Solomon to “keep the Law of Moses,” which meant Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy has three laws for the king (Deut 1716-17): the king was not to have excessive wives (lust of the flesh), nor excessive gold (lust of the eyes, greed), nor excessive horses and chariots (pride in his military strength).

How did Solomon do with that?  Not so good.  In 1 Kings 10-11, we read that he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, 666 talents of gold a year, and so many horses and chariots he had to build cities to house them all.  Three strikes, you’re out, Solomon.

So Solomon failed to uphold the Law of Moses and fell prey to the threefold concupiscence. 

How does Jesus do?  He is also tempted according to the threefold concupiscence, but each time he responds by upholding God’s Word: specifically, the Book of Deuteronomy, the Law of Moses.  Our Lord quotes Deuteronomy three times (8:3; 6:13; 6:16).  In this way, he shows that he is the better Son of David than Solomon.  Truly, “something greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31).  Jesus is the true king.

As we begin Lent, we should remember that the three acts of piety—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—are meant to help us resist the threefold concupiscence.  Thus we learn to be kings and queens like Jesus: persons who rule their passions and are not ruled by them, who command demons and are not commanded by them.

Prayer combats Pride, because prayer is the humble acknowledgement that we need God’s help, that we cannot do it on our own.

Fasting combats the Lust of the Flesh, teaching us to have control over our physical appetites.

Almsgiving combats Lust of the Eyes, teaching us to be detached from our wealth, to give up on greed, to share our wealth rather than hoard it for ourselves.

During Lent, we re-live Jesus’ forty days in the Wilderness in our own experience.  Through an intense life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we do spiritual warfare with the Devil and drive him from our lives with the help of God’s grace.  We don’t struggle by ourselves, because we have received the Spirit of Jesus the victor through baptism and the other sacraments.  We call to him for strength, and can be assured of victory because “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved,” and as our Psalm said:

“He shall call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in distress;
I will deliver him and glorify him.”

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