First Sunday of Lent
If the connection between the first reading and the Gospel this Sunday is not immediately clear, the second reading from St. Paul spells it out for us. The first reading from Genesis 3 tells us how Adam fell to the devil’s temptation, whereas in Matthew 4 we read how Christ overcame that temptation. In Romans 5, Paul ties the two together, by explaining that Adam “is a type of the one who was to come,” and concludes:
Just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act,
acquittal and life came to all. (Romans 5:18)
I find it interesting that the Church reflects on the parallels between Adam and Christ at the beginning and end of Lent. On Holy Saturday, for example, the Church meditates in the Office of Readings on an ancient homily narrating Christ’s decent into hell among the dead, where he meets Adam face to face and proclaims his redemption to him. If you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend reading it today, as it harmonizes nicely with the theme of today’s liturgy. Here’s an excerpt from the text:
The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light…
Eerily beautiful! It’s one of the most breathtaking sermons ever written. You can read the full text by clicking here.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” This willful exile mirrors Adam and Eve’s being banished from the Garden after falling to the devil’s temptation. In both instances, the temptation was three-fold. Matthew’s narrative tells us that the devil confronts Jesus with three distinct offers (which we will consider momentarily), while in Genesis 3 Eve “saw that the tree was (1) good for food, (2) pleasing to the eyes, and (3) desirable for gaining wisdom.”
Notice how Adam and Eve fall for what is: (1) good, (2) good, and (3) good. Pleasure, possessions, and power are all good things – people naturally desire them. The problem is that they are only good for the sake of something else, not good in and of themselves, and therefore not what God ultimately wants for us. Adam and Eve’s sin was that they took it into their own hands to decide what was best for themselves, even though they were forewarned it wasn’t what God wanted. They chose themselves and the allurements of this world over God.
A similar thing happened to Israel after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.
God’s command to Pharaoh was “Let my people go that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exodus 7:16). The original order was not let my people go for good so that they may enter into the land I promised to their forefather Abraham. The initial command to Pharaoh was that they should be allowed to go out on a three day journey, with their wives, children, and livestock, into the wilderness to worship God the way God intended and then return back to Egypt, not stay gone forever. Pharaoh, however, kept trying to curtail God’s orders in his negotiations with Moses, and Moses would not have it any other way than the way God – not man – ordained it.
As the story goes, Pharaoh paid a heavy price for putting himself above God, and the people of Israel were set free to worship their God before they entered into their promised land. It was a land where they would eat abundant fruit from trees they themselves did not plant – kind of like the Garden of Eden. But before they could enter the land, they had to learn to live according to God’s will. Otherwise, as children of Adam and Eve, they would be allured by the vanities and pleasures enjoyed by the people who already inhabited that land, and not live as God’s chosen people. First, they had to turn their whole hearts back to God.
So their temporary sojourn in the desert (which ended up lasting 40 years) before entering into their promised land, parallels Jesus’ 40 days in the desert before engaging in his public ministry. Jesus was tempted to water down his mission, so were they, but where Jesus overcame the allurements of this world, Israel failed. Here’s why.
Let us recall that the purpose for their sojourn into the desert is for Israel to reorient their lives and worship toward God, so that they can live good and holy lives when they enter into the promised land.
While encamped at Mount Sinai in the desert, the Israelites become anxious waiting for Moses who was up on the mountain receiving the law from God – the law that would order their worship and their lives. After Moses is gone for about a month, the people give up on him and insist that Aaron, whom Moses left in charge, make them a god so that they can worship. Aaron caters to their whims and fashions a golden calf out of the jewelry they had taken with them out of Egypt. To the Israelites, everything looked good.
After all, their intention was to worship the God who delivered them from the land of Egypt, and now they had this emblem of gold, no less, to represent that God. It was a beautiful, tangible image – pleasing to the eye – that they could turn to as a visible symbol to celebrate their new, and lasting freedom. So they thought. But they had been forewarned that this was not what God wanted. Like Adam and Eve, they took it into their own hands to decide what was best for them. As the story goes, it did not turn out well for them, after all.
That generation did not make it into the promised land, their children did. They could not enter the land the Lord had promised them until they learned to turn their hearts to God, rather than to the allurements of this world. Though the Israelites eventually did inherit the promised land, Moses knew they would fail to follow God’s law – as we saw last Sunday – and would eventually be exiled from their land, just as Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, for failing to obey God.
The reason for their failure is clear and simple: instead of turning to God, they turned away from him.
The devil knows our weakness, how the pleasures and vanities of the world allure us, and how without God, we are powerless over these transient things. His tactics are not complicated – just turn us away from God. He knows we are just like Adam and Eve, who instead of turning to God, turned to the tree of knowledge and saw that its fruit was “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.” Once they turned away from God, it was all downhill from there. Like Adam and Eve, without God, we cannot beat the devil.
Now we want to say that Jesus, therefore, had it made, because he was God, right?
That’s right, but as a man, he faced the same temptations we all face, and so, as a man, he shows us how to deal with them properly. Jesus stays focused on his God-given mission, because he continuously orients himself toward doing God’s will, by constantly turning to God. Each time he is tempted, he turns to God in the scriptures so as to respond to the devil: what you’re proposing isn’t God’s will; this is. End of discussion.
Jesus is prepared to face temptation from the onset, by doing what he says to do in the Gospel we read on Ash Wednesday. He fasts. He is already mentally, physically, and spiritually dependent on God. So when the devil presents him what appears to be “good for food” (after 40 days of fasting), by tempting him to “turn these stones to bread,” Jesus readily turns to the word of God in Scripture: “One does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The temptation subsides, for God is with him, since his mind is resolutely set on pleasing God.
The following two temptations are similarly dealt with. The temptation to throw himself down from the highest point on the temple, so as to perform a miraculous spectacle in the eyes of men, is quickly checked with “it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). Finally when the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world, if he will only prostrate himself in front of him, Jesus counters strongly with another verse from Deuteronomy, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve’” (Deuteronomy 6:13). And the devil goes away.
Each time, Jesus turns to God’s will revealed in the law Moses gave to the Israelites, for them to order their lives and worship the way God intended for them live and worship in the promised land. Thus Christ shows us that the one way to live the life God wants for us is to turn to God. Failure to do so abandons us to the allurements of the world, the flesh, and the devil, over which we have no power, when left to our own designs.
Without God, we cannot beat the devil. The 40 days of Lent is all about reorienting our lives and worship toward God, so that with him, we can live the good and holy lives God intended for us from the beginning. It’s all about turning back to the one who has already saved us.
Intensifying our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during the season of Lent is the means Christ proposes for us, in the Gospel reading from Ash Wednesday, to resist the allurements of this world – things that are “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom,” the pleasure, possessions, and power that bedazzled Adam and Eve – and focus our attention more on serving God and others. That is, reorienting our lives and worship in accord with God’s will.
The end game is to be with God. If we live the season of Lent in this spirit of ordering our lives the way God desires it for us, then after our Lord’s resurrection at Easter, we may go forward with confidence that we don’t have to beat the devil at his game; Christ has already won it for us.