Mar 1, 2020: 1st Sunday of Lent (A)

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Introduction

Lent originated in the early Church as a season of preparation for those desiring baptism. From early times, this preparation included recounting the history of salvation, which is exactly what happens in the lectionary readings on the Sundays during Lent.

Through our baptism, we embrace the new and eternal covenant with God, which was brought into being by Christ’s death and resurrection. However, ours is not the only covenant God made with man: the covenants of the Old Testament are a great help in understanding what God has done for us in his New Covenant. That is why, in her preparation for Easter, the Church remembers the covenants of the Old Testament: to remind us of the stages of God’s plan for our redemption and to instruct those to be baptized.

All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God.

Although we regard Lent as a season for repentance, any call to repent in the Sunday readings is only indirect. The emphasis in the readings is to assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: be grateful, trust in God, and if necessary, reform your life.

1st Reading – Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being.

Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and placed there the man whom he had formed.
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals
that the LORD God had made.
The serpent asked the woman,
“Did God really tell you not to eat
from any of the trees in the garden?”
The woman answered the serpent:
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;
it is only about the fruit of the tree
in the middle of the garden that God said,
‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’”
But the serpent said to the woman:
“You certainly will not die!
No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it
your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods
who know what is good and what is evil.”
The woman saw that the tree was good for food,
pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.
So she took some of its fruit and ate it;
and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her,
and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened,
and they realized that they were naked;
so they sewed fig leaves together
and made loincloths for themselves.

On this First Sunday of Lent, our gospel reading will be the story of Jesus overcoming temptation, and our first reading will be the story of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden.

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground

There is something of a play on words here: the Hebrew word for “man” is ādām and the Hebrew word for “clay of the ground” is ădāmâ.

and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.

The word translated as “breath” is the Hebrew word ruah, which also means “spirit” or “wind.” Man has a special kind of life that distinguishes him from all other animals; a life that comes from God.

Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow that were delightful to look at and good for food,

Note that the trees were made to grow out of the same ground from which man was formed.  From the very beginning there has been a physical connection between humans and other creatures of the earth.

with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.

The reading omits the remainder of Chapter 2, focusing instead on the account of the sin.  The tree of the knowledge of good and bad is the only tree in the garden from which Adam cannot eat, as dictated by God in Genesis 2:17. Woman is then created in verse 22.

Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made.

The personification of temptation is not the devil, but a serpent. Note that the serpent is a creature also made by God.

The serpent asked the woman, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”

The serpent’s question is a distortion of the divine command; it makes it sound like an unwarranted restriction. Presenting this as a question prompts Eve to reply if the conversation is to be maintained.

The woman answered the serpent: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'”

The woman corrects the serpent’s distortion, but adds a distortion of her own. The command given the man by God was simply “not to eat of the tree” (Genesis 2:17). Hebrew legend has it that the man had forbidden the woman to even touch the tree because of his zeal to guard her against the transgressing of the Divine command. This original sin begins with some distortion of the truth on the part of both the serpent and mankind.

But the serpent said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.”

The serpent tempts the woman to doubt God’s love. He suggests that God did not give this commandment for the man and woman’s good, but for God’s own good; i.e., God did not want them to become like gods.

Like temptation itself, the exchange between the serpent and the woman is more subtle than direct. He leads her on without really lying to her. It’s true that they will not experience physical death (the separation of the spirit from the body), but a spiritual one (separation from God). It is true that they will gain knowledge of both good and evil — up until this point, they have only experienced good.

However, as is often the case with temptation, what happens is unexpected, and it is only afterwards that the tempted realize that they have been deceived.

The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.

As is always true when we sin, acting contrary to the moral order looks good at the time.

It is admirable to want to gain wisdom and be like God, but it is sinful to seek a proud reliance on self rather than on God.

So she took some of its fruit and ate it;

An act of blatant disobedience.

and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

She didn’t have to hunt him down, he was right alongside her. Genesis 2:15 tells us that God commanded the man to “till and keep” the garden. The Hebrew word shammar translated as “keep” can also be translated as “guard” (i.e., to keep safe). If the man is to guard, there must be something to guard against. The man is standing alongside the woman and fails to keep her safe. It was not the woman who committed the first sin, but the man who failed in his duty to guard her.

What should the man have done? He should have taken the serpent to task, done battle with it to defend his family — a battle which may well have cost the man his physical life. How do we know this? Because this is exactly what Jesus, the second Adam, did. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They immediately experience shame due to their nakedness, something which was impossible before the sin.

The fact that they fashioned their loincloths from fig leaves suggests that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a fig — a tree which is used later in the Old and New Testaments as a symbol of Israel and Jerusalem. Hebrew legend also maintains that the fig was the forbidden fruit itself.

The man and woman die when they disobey God, not in the sense that their physical lives come to an end, but in the sense that their spiritual relationships are all disrupted. As the story continues, they will feel not only self-alienation (shame) but separation from each other and from God.

The story of the man and woman in the garden teaches that to succumb to temptation is always harmful because sin inevitably causes suffering. Jesus, like every human being, experienced temptation. But Jesus, God’s own son, overcame temptation and used his power only to do the will of his Father.

2nd Reading – Romans 5:12-19

Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by the transgression of the one, the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned.
For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation;
but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act,
acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one,
the many will be made righteous.

Written by Paul from Corinth around the year 58, his letter to the Christians at Rome is the most morally instructive of all his letters as well as the most doctrinally profound. It is also very beautifully written, from a stylistic point of view. It contains a summary (naturally, an incomplete one) of Christian teaching, starting with the Old Covenant, and an outline of God’s plans for man’s salvation after the fall of our first parents.

In our reading today, Saint Paul is teaching the core good news of the gospel. The human race needed to be redeemed, and the human race has been redeemed through Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters: Through one man sin entered the world,

Paul affirms the existence of hereditary sin. The Council of Carthedge (A.D. 418) gave a definitive interpretation to this text in the sense that Paul’s words teach a form of the dogma of Original Sin. It is one of only seven scripture texts that enjoys a dogmatic interpretation.

The emphasis on the “one man” continues throughout this reading, occurring eight times. The contrast between “one man” and “all” brings out the universality of what is involved here.

and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned —

Not merely physical, bodily death (separation of body and soul), but also including spiritual death (the separation of human beings from God, the source of life).

Adam may have been the first to sin, but subsequently, all have sinned. The fact that “all” includes infants is a precision that was born of later controversy. The Council of Trent included infants and thus the necessity of infant baptism, which was practiced for sixteen centuries before it was seriously questioned.

“Everyone, even little children, have broken God’s covenant, not indeed in virtue of any personal action but in virtue of mankind’s common origin in that single ancestor in whom all have sinned.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 413-426), The City of God 16,27]

“When a man is born, he is already born with death, because he contracts sin from Adam.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 416), Homilies on the Gospel of John 49,12,2]

for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world, though sin is not accounted when there is no law.

From Adam to Moses, the source of death was Adam’s sin.  Men did, of course, commit evil deeds, but they were not charged with them because the Law (i.e., the first five books of the Bible) had not yet been given to them.

But death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come.

Note that he refers to Adam’s sin, not Eve’s. As we learned in our first reading, the first sin was Adam’s failure to guard: an act of blatant disobedience.

“Sin was in the world before the Law of Moses came, and it was counted, though not according to that Law. Rather, it was counted according to the law of nature, by which we have learned to distinguish good and evil. This was the law of which Paul spoke above (Romans 2:14).” [Diodore of Tarsus (ca. A.D. 373), Pauline Commentary From the Greek Church]

But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many.

Paul uses an a fortiori argument to illustrate the incomparable nature of God’s salvific grace: if this is the way it was with sin, how much more it is with grace.  

And the gift is not like the result of the one person’s sinning. For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation; but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.

This second mode contrasts the verdict of condemnation for one sin, which fell on all men, with the verdict of acquittal for men condemned not only through Adam’s transgression, but also through their own offenses.

Grace is much more powerful than sin. Grace does not merely acquit the sin of Adam, it acquits all sin. Through Jesus Christ, salvation is offered to the whole human race.

For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.

Death came through one man, Adam, and the gift of upright life is obtained through one man, Jesus the Christ.

“There is an obvious difference between the fact that those who have sinned in imitation of Adam’s transgression have been condemned and the fact that the grace of God in Christ has justified men not from one trespass but from many sins, giving them forgiveness of sins.” [The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous.

The formal effect of Adam’s disobedience was to make mankind not only liable to punishment, but actually made us sinners. Adam’s disobedience placed the mass of mankind in a condition of estrangement from God.

“Many will be made righteous” most likely refers to the final judgment, when the final phase of the process of justification will be achieved in glory. From Adam we get a sinful nature, but from Christ we get a righteous nature.

Gospel – Matthew 4:1-11

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply,
“It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God.”

Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus answered him,
“Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
“Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.”

Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.

Over the past few weeks, we have been reading Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus promulgates a new law. Today’s passage, Jesus’ temptation in the desert, is one of four stories that precede the Sermon on the Mount: the genealogy, the birth narratives, the baptism, and the temptation in the desert. In all of the stories, the emphasis is on Jesus’ identity as God’s son. It is this identity that establishes Jesus’ authority as the new Moses who teaches a new law.

In today’s reading, Jesus overcomes every temptation to use his authority in any self-serving way. Jesus’ authority will be used to do the will of his Father.

Obedience to the Father is a characteristic of true sonship. The individual temptations related here are not as bizarre as they appear at first glance; they are all based on temptations to which the Israelites had succumbed during their forty years in the desert, suggesting that Jesus is being compared with that ancient community.

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

Probably the desert of Judea, a steep slope that falls from the central ridge of the country to the valley of the Jordan and the Dead Sea.

The first similarity between Jesus and the ancient Israelites in the wilderness is having the desert as the place of testing. The desert was traditionally believed to be the abode of evil spirits.  The normal supports of life are absent, and one is forced to turn elsewhere for sustenance.

He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.

Moses spent forty days and forty nights fasting on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18). Israel spent forty years in the desert being tempted and failing. The number 40 in Hebrew numerology indicates a time of transition or change.

The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” 

The first temptation that the devil offers the hungry Jesus is to use his power, not to serve others, but to serve himself.

Twice the devil will challenge Jesus’ identity as Son of God (“If you are the Son of God…”), a reference that for ancient Israel had royal connotations, but in the gospels always points to divine origin.

He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'”

Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3. When Moses spoke these words, he was teaching the Israelites that God let them experience hunger in the desert and then fed them with manna so that they might learn to trust God’s providence and obey God’s commandments.

Jesus does trust God’s providence. His only desire is to do the will of his Father.

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'”

The devil proposes that Jesus test God’s promise of protection in Psalm 91:11-12 and throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple.  If he is the Son of God, he will certainly be saved from injury. The temptation is for Jesus to abuse his power by using it simply for show, to create a spectacle, to draw attention to himself.

Whereas the first temptation was to distrust divine providence, here the temptation is to presume divine providence.

Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”

Jesus refutes the devil’s argument by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16. When Moses spoke these words he was urging the Israelites to obey God’s commandments when they entered the promised land. They should not test the Lord with disobedience as they had in the past.

Jesus will not abuse his power to draw worldly acclaim to himself. This is not the Father’s will.

Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,

This mountain does not exist in nature, it is a vision. However, Jebel Qaranthal, named after the forty days, lies to the west of Jericho and is traditionally associated with the mount of temptation.

and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

The devil, who since the fall of Adam and Eve seems to hold sway over the world, offers Jesus dominion over all.  The temptation is for Jesus to compromise his mission in exchange for worldly power — when Jesus is lonely, weak, and friendless, he is offered the power, fame, and wealth that humans crave.

At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'”

Jesus exerts his authority over Satan by dismissing him with words that demonstrate his allegiance to God alone, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:13. The Israelites had failed this test by following gods of surrounding nations and through the sin of the Golden Calf.

Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.

Jesus has passed the final test. This account makes clear that the Son of God has chosen not to use divine power to establish his reign on earth, but will rather hold steadfast in the face of temptation, reversing the pattern set by both Adam and Eve as well as the Israelites in the wilderness.

Connections and Themes

The human condition.  The account of creation reminds us of the fragility of the human condition. We are made of the dust of the ground (āpār), the very stuff that represents death and decay (Genesis 3:19). This was called to mind by the ashes used to sign us on Ash Wednesday.

In all three readings, we are reminded of our sinfulness. Here, at the beginning of Lent, we are invited to acknowledge honestly and realistically our fundamental human weakness. We are guilty of sin, and consequently we are in need of God’s mercy.

The compassion of God.  Despite our weak and sinful nature, our situation is not hopeless.  God has not deserted us to our guilt.  We are children of God, and for this reason we boldly lay claim on the compassion that springs from him as our loving Father.

Although today “compassion” often refers to the sentiments of deep sympathy felt for the suffering of another, the word appears in biblical texts that describe the attitude of the mercy God has toward sinners. Paul describes the form this compassion takes in the second reading.  It is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that we see the extent of this divine compassion.  Its scope is first measured by the yardstick of human sinfulness, and then it outstrips those dimensions: God’s gracious gift far exceeds the effects of human transgression.  On this first Sunday of Lent, we are not reminded of our frailty and sinfulness in order that we may linger over them, but rather that they enable us to reflect on the mercy of God.

Choose Christ.  When we look to Jesus, we see humanity at its best: tempted but not overcome.  There will always be human limitations, weaknesses that will open the door to temptation.  But Jesus shows us we are not thereby doomed.  The God we are called to serve is the God who serves us by showing us compassion and by giving us Jesus as a model for our own journey to new life.

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