The First Sunday of Lent (Year C)
Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15
There is an old story about a carriage that was being pulled by a pair of spirited steeds. A heavy drowsiness came upon the driver and he fell asleep. The horses, not feeling the restraint of the reins, went off the right path, and soon they were bouncing over bush and brush, to the edge of a ravine. A man nearby saw the carriage, and called out in a loud voice: “Wake up! Save yourself!” The driver suddenly awakened. In a moment he realized his peril. Pale and trembling, he hastily grabbed the reins, and, exerting almost superhuman effort, he succeeded in turning the horses to one side, saving his life, his animals, and the carriage. The story is an allegory: the fiery steeds are the appetites and passions which threaten to run at full tilt, even toward danger, pulling the heart with them. The driver is the wisdom and intelligence with which God has endowed human beings that we might rule over our appetites and passions and have dominion over our self-destructive impulses.
The reading from the Gospel of Luke which we just heard was about Jesus overcoming the temptations in the desert.
We discussed these a bit on Ash Wednesday, because the three main penitential practices of Lent address these same three weaknesses, what are sometimes called the Triple Concupiscence (concupiscence is sinful inclination of excess of desire). Saint John in his first letter identifies them as:
- Lust of the flesh (a disordered desire for pleasure, indulgence)
- Lust of the eyes (a disordered desire for possession, greed, envy),
- Pride of life (pride, a disordered focus on self at the expense of the love of God).
The Seven Capital Vices in relation to the Triple Concupiscence
I also mentioned at Mass on Ash Wednesday, that these also correspond to the temptation of the forbidden fruit that Eve gave in to. In Genesis 3:6, it says, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh] and pleasing to the eyes [lust of the eyes], and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom [disordered lust for pride, power]. So she took some of its fruit and ate it…” It’s not that these things they wanted were bad; they were good! Food is good, possessions are good (God gave Adam and Eve the whole world), and even the desire to be like God is a good thing, to be wise is a good thing. But they wanted these good things in the wrong way. They figured that the best way to attain these good things was by breaking God’s commandment. It’s still wrong to try to get a good thing the wrong way.
On Ash Wednesday, we heard Jesus give us the three penitential practices of the Christian life, particularly in Lent, to directly fight against this Triple Concupiscence. First, Jesus talked about “when you give alms,” giving of our possessions so that we learn detachment, and overcome the lust of the eyes. Then Jesus talked about “when you pray,” giving glory to God, acknowledging that we are inferior and dependent on God, and overcome pride. And then Jesus talked about “when you fast,” when you discipline your bodily appetites, overcoming the power and hungers of the lust of the flesh.
Men and women who enter religious orders take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, what are often called “the evangelical counsels.” These virtues are enshrined in the rule of many religious orders because they are tried-and-true Christian weapons for resisting the Triple Concupiscence, not just for vowed religious, but for everyone: poverty helps resist the lust of the eyes, chastity resists against the lust of the flesh, and obedience helps resist against pride of life. Pretty much all sin that we commit, or are tempted to commit, is some aspect of this Triple Concupiscence.
So now we can look at the temptations and testing that Jesus endured in the wilderness, and guess what, we see the same Triple Concupiscence.
Before we get to that, let’s look at the forty days Jesus spent in the desert. We often hear that the number forty in the Scriptures simply means “a really long time.” According to Dr. Brant Pitre, biblical references to the number forty spiritually denote a period of preparation and purification. It’s not just that it rained a long time while Noah was in the ark, but it was a period of purifying the earth from sin, and a preparation for a new beginning. Moses spent forty years in the desert before his encounter with the Lord in the burning bush, and he spent forty days atop Mt. Sinai, in preparation for his leading God’s people Israel from their slavery in Egypt, and for his role as the quintessential prophetic figure, interceding between God and God’s stiff-necked (stubborn) people. Israel’s forty years in the desert marked their period of purification from the slavery and idolatry (and other sins) of pagan Egypt, and preparation for their place as the holy nation of God’s people.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (which we heard in January), and before beginning his earthly ministry (beginning with the synagogue in Nazareth), we skipped over our gospel for today, Jesus’ time of purification and preparation to face the challenges of his Messianic mission, to enter into combat with (and faithfully resist the testing by) Satan.
In Exodus 4:22, God tells Moses, “So you will say to Pharaoh, Thus says the LORD: Israel is my son, my firstborn.” Immediately before Luke tells of the temptations in the desert, he gives Jesus’ genealogy, not just to Abraham, as Matthew did, but all the way back to “Adam, son of God.” As Adam failed in the garden, Israel failed in the desert. Jesus, the true and perfect Son of God, the “New Adam,” now recapitulates these tests, and of course passes with perfect faithfulness, in himself removing (or rather, taking into himself) Adam’s and Israel’s failures.
Jesus faced these temptations not because there was the chance he would fail—he was divine—but, like his baptism which brought us into his relationship with the Father, his temptations unite us into his victory over the snares and wickedness of the devil, Satan, the ancient Serpent, the enemy of humanity.
First, Satan tempts Jesus in the area of Lust of the Flesh: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” How was this a temptation for Jesus? He had been fasting in the desert for forty days, he’s not just fully divine, but also fully human, incarnate. He has to be very hungry. And yet, he rejects the temptation to give up the purifying suffering of his fast. He responds, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone’” (Dt 8:3). Remember what Jesus said to his disciples when he was talking with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:34), “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to finish his work.’”
Second, Satan tempts Jesus with the Lust of the Eyes: “The devil said to him, ‘I shall give to you all this power and their 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.’” (All the world was entrusted by God to Adam and Eve. When they sinned, they, and everything handed over to them, fell into the debt to Satan. Jesus calls Satan “the prince of this world.”) How is this a test, a temptation for Jesus? It’s not the glory and splendor of those kingdoms; it’s all the human souls in those kingdoms. Jesus’ messianic mission is to win back those kingdoms, all the souls of the world, from Satan’s grasp. And Satan is saying “Look, I’ll give them all to you, just give me your worship, and they’re all yours.” And what does Jesus say? “Worship the Lord, your God, alone” (Dt 6:13).
Third, Satan temps Jesus with Pride: “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…” Satan says, “Look, if you’re the son of God then prove it to everyone. Show everyone your power. Jump off the parapet (the highest point) of the Temple, where everyone can see. And then they’ll know that you are in fact the Son of God, when the angels catch you.” Satan quotes Psalm 91, about the angels coming to our aid. Yes, Jesus wants everyone to come to faith and believe in him as the Son of God. Wouldn’t it make it easier for Jesus to convert the world to Him—to accept and follow Him—if he performed a huge public spectacle to prove and wipe out any doubt that he is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God? But the problem is… this isn’t God’s way (which allows for each person’s free choice to put their faith in Christ). This forceful overpowering of people’s free will would be Jesus conforming to the way the world works, instead of Jesus converting the world to the way heaven works—where Jesus’ freely accepted suffering and death on the cross is the victorious act of sacrificial love to redeem humanity from sin and raise humanity to the glorious life of grace. Satan is tempting Jesus away from the cross. Remember when Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his crucifixion? Jesus rebuked Peter back, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Also notice the connection between Satan saying to Jesus here, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” and Jesus’ persecutors at his crucifixion saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!”
Psalm 91, the psalm Satan quotes in the third temptation, is our psalm for today. And in Jewish tradition, it’s a deliverance prayer, a psalm of exorcism. People would pray Psalm 91 over someone possessed by demonic or satanic influence. One theory as to why Satan quotes this psalm is because he knew it, he’d heard it many times, he knew its power. And in his effort to use it to tempt Jesus, he twists the meaning from one of trusting in the Lord’s protection to pridefully presuming on God’s protection. Because that’s Satan’s way: to manipulate, to trick, to try to win by devious cleverness and half-truths. So Jesus responds to Satan’s temptation, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test’” (Dt. 6:16).
And if the words of our psalm sounded a bit familiar, it’s the basis of the song, “On Eagles’ Wings.” Also, the Liturgy of the Hours offers this as the psalm for every Sunday night (and every Solemnity), so that we might begin our week delivered from the power of the enemy.
Interestingly, when Satan pulls his chosen scripture quotes from Psalm 91, the very next verse, which of course he doesn’t quote, is “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” Peter in his letter says Satan is “prowling like a roaring lion, looking for souls to devour.” And of course the connection between Satan and the snake in the garden, the serpent, and the great dragon in the Book of Revelation, makes it easy to see not only why this would be a psalm of exorcism, but also why Satan would stop short of quoting this verse… which speaks of his own defeat!
The first readings of the liturgical season of Lent aren’t chosen to be connected to the Gospel readings, like in Ordinary Time. As Lent progresses, the first readings take us on a tour of the pivotal moments in salvation history in the Old Testament, leading us up to its consummation in Christ, which we celebrate at Easter, the end of the Lenten Season.
Our First reading, from Deuteronomy, Moses outlines the liturgical instructions for the faithful for the celebration of Pentecost, which is an ancient harvest festival, to give thanks to the Lord. The faithful are to present to God the first fruits of their labor, which the priest receives in a basket, and sets in front of the altar of the Lord. Then they participate in a memorial narrative that outlines the history of the covenant.
Kind of like what we’re going to do in the rest of the Mass. The collection is taken up of the first fruits (not just what’s left over and easier to give) of our labor (which in the modern world isn’t fruit or wheat, but exchanged for money), which the priest receives (from the ushers) in a basket, and sets in front of the altar of the Lord. Then the faithful participate in the retelling of the Institution Narrative of the Last Supper, in which Jesus consecrates the bread and wine on the altar into the Covenant of His Body and Blood.
[The Sunday homily for parish Masses at this point used the first reading—of giving our first fruits to the Lord—as the reflection for speaking about the Diocesan Annual Campaign. Everything from here on was not part of the homily.]
The Second Reading we have for today is somewhat challenging in giving the broader meaning of its apparent (and often mistaken) simplicity.
“Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart…” Paul is quoting Moses’ words after he gave Israel the Law: “For this command which I am giving you today is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?’ No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” (Dt 30:11-14).
“—that is, the word of faith that we preach—” Paul refers to the commandment of the law of Moses, which is fulfilled by the word of faith in Christ; the works of obedience to the law that does not save, fulfilled by the life of love poured out from Christ into our hearts, which does save. The Mosaic Law was an external law, a set of precepts from God that Israel was to follow to live in harmony with the laws of Creation and human flourishing, along with some particular laws for living together in community. So the heart of the (Mosaic) Law is in essence written into our very nature, “something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” But the Law merely pointed out what sort of things were sinful, but gave no intrinsic help against fallen humanity’s inclination toward sin. The New Law, the New Covenant in Christ, surpasses the Mosaic Law in raising the perspective from simple legal obedience to embracing the love of God that inspired the Mosaic Law. In Christ the Law is fulfilled, for Christ perfectly satisfied the requirements of the Law, and even put to death the punishments owed by all who failed to uphold the Law. Then, even greater, Christ put His own Holy Spirit within us (received in the Sacrament of Baptism, and then more perfectly and fruitfully in the Sacrament of Confirmation), to give us an internal fountain of grace to live the Christian life of divine love (which surpasses the Law). But it requires our consent and our cooperation to participate in this life, which Christ by his perfect sacrifice makes available to us.
“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.” The prima facie interpretation of these verses is asserted by many evangelical Christians to be the essence of the whole Christian scripture, faith, and life. And that would be good, if the Christian scripture did not also identify many other requirements for being saved, such as avoiding sin (1 Thes 5:22), eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ (Jn 6:53) worthily (1 Cor 11:27), remaining in full communion with the Church without causing scandal (1 Cor 5:2), being baptized with water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5), denying ourselves, picking up our cross daily, and following Jesus (Mt 16:24), to name a few.
So how do we reconcile this verse with the larger picture of what we must do to be saved? First and foremost, Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God, by his life, death, and resurrection, purchased salvation for all who would believe in him, love him, follow him, and unite themselves to him. He is the only one by whom anyone can have any hope in salvation. We cannot earn salvation apart or aside from him by any amount of human works. People often think the Catholic Church teaches a salvation by works, but that is a heresy consistently condemned by the Church.
“If you confess with your mouth” should be interpreted not just in confessing your Christian faith and identity, which could result in suffering and even death, but also your confession should be considered to be with more than your mouth. It should be consistent with the witness (confession) of your Christian life. Certainly we must not speak one way and then live in a way that conflicts with our words. We cannot speak in the Spirit and then live in the Flesh. If you “believe in your heart” that Jesus is resurrected and lives and is truly the Son of God, then the whole of your life, in your words and your actions, should manifest that heart-held belief. And if you do so, you will be saved. Not because you earned your salvation by your works, but because your heart was good, fertile soil, which received the Word, which then bore fruit that will last, the fruit of your Christian life of faith, hope, and love (not just faith!)—the greatest of these is love, which must be lived out in the intentional choices and relationships of our life. So one believes with the heart, and so is justified by a living and fruitful faith, and one confesses with the mouth, one’s words and actions bearing consistent witness to one’s faith in the living Christ and his saving truth, and so one 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.” Paul is addressing the Roman Christian community (whom he has not yet met at the time of his letter), which is enduring some tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Greek, or Greco-Roman) Christians, with the Jewish Christians being even more targeted for having been Jewish. So while he encourages all the Roman Christians to bravely live out and confess their Christian faith regardless of the apparent shame that might come to them, he is also encouraging reconciliation and unity in the Roman Christian community, particularly calling on the gentile Christians to be supportive and protective of their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters.
“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” The Roman Christians are encouraged again to bravely face persecution for their faith, because it is their faith—their being Christian—not just in name but in their witness—that is their hope for being strengthened by Christ in their suffering, and saved by Christ in their martyrdom.
The reason the Church gives us this gospel reading is because Lent is about uniting ourselves to the mystery of Jesus in the desert. We are living out that mystery in our own lives during the forty days of Lent. We all face temptation, and often feel helpless to resist them. Because Lent is about taking on temptation, sacrifice, and trying to unite ourselves with Jesus, we’re going to face an uptick in resistance from the Enemy. Lent is also a time of spiritual warfare. So we can remember the lessons of Jesus in the desert from our Gospel today, and his instructions given to us in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, to help us overcome the three great areas of our weakness and temptation. Let us not sleepily allow our disordered passions to run unreigned toward danger, but let us awake and save ourselves, exercising wisdom and understanding over our passions.
Let us embrace the opportunity for purification and preparation, that we may more fruitfully and joyfully celebrate the Easter Mysteries!