Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gospel: Temptation in the Desert

1st Sunday of Lent: A cycle

Ever since the Second Vatican Council the Church has employed a three year cycle of readings in the Liturgy. The cycles are simply labeled A, B, and C. In the A cycle the gospel readings are usually taken from the gospel of St. Matthew. The B cycle features the gospel of St. Mark, and the C cycle the gospel of St. Luke. However, the Church has always used the account of the Temptation of Christ in the desert for the first Sunday in Lent.

Today's first reading is also about temptation. It is the story from the Book of Genesis about the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In this ancient reading we get a clear picture of the nature of temptation. It is clear that in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had everything they could have desired. The trees were "delightful to look at and good for food." It reminds us so much of our own society where we live in the richest country in the history of the world, and enjoy the highest standard of living of any people on the face of the earth. Still, it is not enough and so many of us seek "the forbidden fruit."

We don't need serpents to tell us that anything we want to do is ok, that everything is permitted and that nothing can harm us. I just think of the headlines in the newspaper about the young drug addict accused of the cold-blooded murder of two innocent jewelry store owners. His mother is also a heroin addict. Isn't it possible to imagine the scene over 25 years ago when she--only a teen age girl--was tempted by some snake to experiment with drugs. Did the tempter say, "your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods." Certainly, there have been plenty of songs and films saying pretty much the same thing over the past 25 years.

It's not for nothing that the Church contrasts the story of the temptation of the first man and woman with the temptation of Christ. Matthew begins his account by noting that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, "to be tempted by the devil." This episode follows almost immediately upon the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan where a voice from Heaven had proclaimed, "Thou art my beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased."

Matthew says that Jesus fasted for 40 days and then the devil appeared to Him and presented Him with three different temptations. Lucky for us that we are such small fry or such easy marks that the devil doesn't have to personally bother with us. Our temptations are not so dramatic. One of the greatest Christian authors of the last century, C.S. Lewis, wrote a book entitled, "The Screwtape Letters," in which he described how a petty bureaucrat from Hell tried to tempt a young man with the mundane, ordinary temptations that we all experience in our lives.

Nevertheless, the Devil tempts Jesus in ways that we all can understand. Please note however that despite all attempts today to glamorize the Devil, our tradition has always believed that he is a liar. In fact, just like all tempters he cannot help but lie or otherwise distort the Truth. Even when he quotes Scripture, as he does here, he twists the meaning. Our Lord is the Truth, the Devil represents the complete absence of Truth.

The first temptation deals with our basic human needs. Of course, it's not just about food and hunger. It's about all the things that we think that we must have to sustain our standard of living. Maybe we don't all want to be millionaires but we all know how the frantic search for the things of this world can destroy our basic human relationships. As our Lord said, "One does not live on bread alone."

In the second temptation the devil takes our Lord to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem looking down over the parapet 450 feet straight down to the Kidron valley and urges Him to "throw yourself down." Maybe we don't think that it's serious when temptation stares us in the face, but sometimes when it does we are on the brink of the precipice with the rest of our life on the line. Our Lord's words should be a guide to us all. "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.

The third temptation deals with the search for "power and glory." Lying again, the Devil claims that all the kingdoms in the world have been given to him and that he will give them to Jesus "if you will prostrate yourself and worship me." Every day in the newspapers we read about some politician, CEO, athlete or entertainer who is in trouble with the law. Most of us are not such big shots but we know of the power struggles that go on in our own families, our schoolyards, our workplaces and even in our churches.

At the Jordan John the Baptist said that he must diminish so that the Lord could increase. It is just the opposite with the search for "power and glory." Once again, our Lord quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy; "The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve." Of course, the best way to worship is available to us at Mass each and every day during Lent. Let's try to take a half hour out of our hectic schedules during the week to humble ourselves before the Lord.

Our Lord's words show us the way to true happiness. But as St. Paul points out in today's second reading something has gone horribly wrong. We were created to live in a beautiful paradise but when sin entered the world, pain and sorrow and even death were the result. Lent gives us an opportunity to get back on track. It gives us an opportunity to examine our lives and see how far we have succumbed to the temptations that constantly face us. There is hope if we follow the example of Jesus, for through His sacrifice, "acquittal and life came to all."

Reading 1. Genesis 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7
Reading II. Romans 5: 12-19
Gospel. Matthew 4: 1-11 (Temptation in the Desert)

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