Lent originated in the early Church as a season for the preparation of 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.
The first readings on the Sundays throughout 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 – 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.”
Today’s first reading recalls one of the most important creeds in the Pentateuch.
The entire Book of Deuteronomy takes place on the plains of Moab after the people have wandered for forty years in the desert, just before they cross the Jordan River into the Holy Land. Moses is reminding the younger generation of Israelites of all they have already experienced as a people, and is admonishing them to be faithful to Yahweh when they reach the promised land.
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.
Moses is instructing the Israelites to make a yearly offering of the first fruits, also known as the Feast of Pentecost, which occurred fifty days after Passover (see Exodus 13:1-13).
Offering the first fruits was an expression of gratitude for the magnalia Dei, the great deeds done by God, the wonders he worked in liberating the people from bondage in Egypt and establishing them in the promised land.
Then you shall declare before the LORD, your God,
The cultic celebration consisted of both action (the offering of the basket containing the produce) and the recitation of a very important historical-religious creed which takes in all the man features of Old Testament faith.
‘My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien.
The creed is a summary of the history of Israel, which begins with an admission of Israel’s humble beginnings.
Jacob is portrayed as a key figure in their early history; he personifies the patriarchal era. The reference to him not by name but as a “wandering Aramean” underlines the contrast between the miserable circumstances of Israel earlier and settlement in the promised land. The word for “wandering” (’ōbēd) does not indicate nomadic behavior but suggests being lost and/or about to perish.
Jacob is referred to as an Aramean possibly because Abraham may have been connected with the migrations of Aramean tribes, or because of the long years Jacob spent in northeastern Mesopotamia, and his Aramean wives (Genesis 29-30).
But there he became a nation great, strong and numerous.
Note that Jacob became a great nation when he was most vulnerable (“wandering”). This is Israel’s way of proclaiming that it was through the goodness of God that it survived and flourished.
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.
The second section of the creed is a report of Israel’s oppression in Egypt.
Note the change from third person (he became a nation great) to first person (the Egyptians oppressed us). Mention of their ancestor Jacob seems to be historical in nature, but it is with the people who were in bondage that those reciting this creed most strongly identified themselves.
He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders;
The creed hinges on two saving actions of God: his deliverance of the people from Egypt and his settlement of them in the promised land.
“Strong hand and outstretched arm” is military imagery, a depiction of strength that implies that God conquered the forces of Egypt on Egyptian soil in order to deliver his people. At the time, people understood deities to have sovereignty only within a particular region; here, the mighty God of Israel has power within a foreign land.
and bringing us into this country, he gave us the land flowing with milk and honey.
Finally, an acknowledgment of God’s gift (the verb used is nātan) of the land to them.
Therefore, I have now brought you the first fruits of the products of the soil which you, O LORD, have given me.’
Reciting this prayer at the offering of the firstfruits (which are generally the finest of the crop) heightens the contrast between the poverty of the homeless, landless Aramean and the prosperity of the rich landowner enjoying his freedom in a land flowing with milk and honey.
And having set them before the LORD, your God, you shall bow down in his presence.”
After making their offerings the people will bow down in the presence of their Lord.
2nd Reading – 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.”
Today’s second reading includes three important themes: 1) the singular importance of faith as the basis of salvation, 2) a reinterpretation of Scripture from a christological perspective, and 3) the universal character of salvation through Christ.
Brothers and sisters: What does Scripture say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”
A quote from Deuteronomy 30:14.
—that is, the word of faith that we preach— for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
This was probably the creedal (if not baptismal) formula of the early Palestinian Church. In diaspora Jewish circles, Kýrios (the Greek word used here for “Lord”) was an equivalent for YHWH, the sacred name of God.
To call Jesus “Lord” had ramifications in both Jewish and Hellenistic circles. Since Judaism is a monotheistic faith, it identifies Jesus with the one true God. In a Hellenistic culture that embraced many gods, it was a political claim as well: a statement that Jesus was the one to whom wholehearted allegiance belonged.
and believe in your heart
Note the distinction between believing and confessing, and the teaching that one follows and requires another. Belief without some kind of public confession could be betrayal; confession without interior belief is hypocrisy.
that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
According to Paul, it was precisely by means of the resurrection that Jesus became the anointed (Christós, in Greek) of God.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
There is a chiastic literary structure here: “confess with your mouth” / “believe in your heart” / “believe with the heart” / “confess with the mouth”.
In the symmetrical arrangement of themes, the intention is to highlight the most important theme, which is placed in the center. It is clear that faith is the heart of this message.
For the scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
Again relying on the hearers’ knowledge of Scripture, Paul alludes to two prophetic passages, reinterpreting them to show Christ’s fulfillment of them.
In the first, Isaiah 28:16, Isaiah speaks of a firm cornerstone God lays in Zion; whoever puts faith in that stone will not be shaken. Isaiah was warning the people against putting their faith in political alliances rather than in God. Through Isaiah, God told the people that they should put their faith in him alone and the sure foundation that he built in Zion.
Paul understands that Isaiah’s words have been fulfilled in Jesus: Jesus is the cornerstone. All who put their faith in Jesus will be saved.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.
A clear statement of universalism. There is no advantage to being a Jew, a member of the chosen race of yore. Nor is there an advantage to being a Greek, a likely reference to Gentiles who were not bound by the Law of Moses. It is faith in Jesus that justifies and saves.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The second prophetic passage: Joel 2:32. After Joel described the terrors that will accompany the Day of the Lord, he announced that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Paul identifies Jesus as this Lord.
Gospel – 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.
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, and:
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.
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
Here we see the devil interfere in Jesus’ life for the first time, just as he is about to begin his public ministry. Christ, true God and true man, made himself like us in everything except sin (Philippians 2:7; Hebrews 2:7, 4:15) and voluntarily underwent temptation.
Jesus will be tempted three times, and in all three cases the temptation is to misuse his power. Everyone who met Jesus experienced him as a person of power in both word and deed. Now, before Luke tells us how Jesus used his power for good in the service of the kingdom of God, Luke portrays him overcoming temptation to use that power for any purpose other than the purpose for which it has been granted.
The story itself contains many features that connect Jesus with ancient Israel. In a sense, the three temptations Jesus faced are the same three which were Israel’s downfall: they complained about the manna, they worshiped idols (the golden calf), and they tested God. Where Israel failed, Jesus prevails.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan River, where the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.
and was led by the Spirit
Notice the emphasis on the presence of the Spirit. Jesus is tempted, but he is filled with the Holy Spirit and is led by the Spirit into the desert (not into temptation).
The Spirit will help Jesus, as the Spirit helps us, overcome temptation.
into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.
The exact location is unknown, but we know the wilderness was not a romantic place. A refuge for bandits and the discarded of society, and inhabited by wild animals, it was replete with danger. In Luke 8:29 and 11:24, the desert is a place of demons. More significantly, the desert had been the place of Israel’s testing (Deuteronomy 8:2).
He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.
Jesus fasts in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, the two men who represented Israel’s law and prophets, who also fasted forty days and forty nights. Moses fasted as he wrote the Ten Commandments on stone tablets (Exodus 34:28); Elijah fasted as he walked to Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). It was in this same tradition that Jesus fasted.
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 by bread alone.’”
In each of the temptations, Jesus’ relationship to the Father is challenged (“if you are the Son of God”). Each time, he answers with a reference to Deuteronomy; in this case, Deuteronomy 8:1-3.
He never directly answers the question of his divine sonship, but he always shows himself to be faithful (where Israel was not).
The temptation to produce bread recalls Israel’s hunger in the wilderness and God’s graciousness in supplying the people with manna. Here, the devil insinuates that if he has divine power, he should be able to provide himself with the bread his body craves.
Jesus does not need to abuse his power to take care of himself. He knows that his Father will take care of all his needs as he did the needs of the Israelites during their time in the desert.
Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The temptations themselves occur in three different places; here, on a high mountain. Obviously no mountain is actually high enough to see all kingdoms in the world; this might have been a vision.
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.”
There seems to have been a tradition that evil forces had ruling authority over the world (see John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Acts 26:18), which would change when the Messiah appeared and took back control. It is out of this idea that the devil could offer to relinquish power in return for Jesus’ homage.
The temptation is for Jesus to abuse his power in order to gain political influence.
Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God, and him alone shall you serve.’”
Jesus rejects his proposal by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13.
Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
The last test takes place in Jerusalem. The spot referred to was probably the southernmost corner of the Temple, a spot from which one can look across the Kidron valley and view a vast expanse of land.
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,’ and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
The devil quotes Psalm 91:11 and 12. This test is an attempt to force God’s hand, suggesting that Jesus see whether God will in fact preserve him from harm.
Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”
Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.
Three times the devil tempts Jesus; three times Jesus proves his allegiance to God. It was as a man that he was tempted and as a man that he resisted:
“He did not act as God, bringing his power into play; if he had done so, how could we have availed of his example? Rather, as a man he made use of the resources which he has in common with us” (Saint Ambrose, Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam)
Jesus wanted to show us the methods to use to defeat the devil: prayer, fasting, watchfulness, not dialoguing with temptation, having the words of God’s scripture on our lips, and putting our trust in the Lord.
When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him for a time.
The reading ends on an ominous note: The devil is not gone for good, nor is Jesus done being tempted.
During his ministry, Jesus will encounter many temptations and the powers of evil who know who he is (Luke 4:41; 8:29), and he will vanquish them. But it will be at the Passion that the devil will be most clearly seen in his role as tempter (Luke 22:53: “This is your hour, the time for the power of darkness”).
Jesus will forewarn his disciples about this and once more assure them of victory (John 12:31, 14:30). Through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the devil will be overpowered once and for all. And by virtue of Christ’s victory, we are enabled to overcome all temptations.
Connections and Themes
Salvation cannot be earned. At the beginning of the Lenten season, we are reminded that salvation is not something we can achieve; it is a gift. Lent is not a time to concentrate on what we are going to do to be saved, it’s a time for us to reflect on what God has done for us. It is less a time for us to be doing religious “things” than for us to be open to the transformative “things” God wishes to do for us. For Paul, as shown in the second reading, this is the basis of our faith.
Do not force God’s hand. The temptations of Jesus are the same temptations we face when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are somehow in control. While the goals of temptation may be admirable — feed the hungry, bring the world under the reign of good, trust in God’s power to protect us — we often choose to accomplish them in ways that are less than admirable. We try to perform the extraordinary so that what we do reflects favorably on us. We use brute force to achieve control. We put God to the test rather than accept his plan as it unfolds within and around us. We seek to become the superhero on our own — to be our own saviors.
In his responses to the tempter, Jesus constantly defers to the power of God: it is not by bread alone… worship God only… do not put God to the test. In a real sense, these temptations are a reminder that the fundamental temptation is to deny our human limitations and refuse to let God be God for us. Lent is a time for us to truly remember that we are dust and not merely to wear it on our foreheads.
Remember the mysteries of our faith. Remembrance is more than an intellectual activity, it is participation in the reality of what is remembered. Just as ancient Israel remembered God’s care for them from the time of the calling of their ancestors to the events in their own lives (today’s first reading), so Lent is the time to remember the events of the paschal mystery. More specifically, it is a time to enter into them and identify with them. If we are honest with ourselves, we ask why this remembrance of the mysteries of God has not transformed us already. This is part of the reason why we have Lent each year.