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Sunday, 13 March 2011

First Sunday of Lent (A)

(Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12, 17-19; Matthew 4:1-11)

In our first reading, the Serpent, speaking to the woman in the Garden of Eden, directly contradicted God’s warning against eating fruit from the forbidden tree:
You will not die.  For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
However, when speaking with Jesus in our Gospel passage, Satan considered it wiser not to openly contradict the words spoken by the Father at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (Matthew 3:17ss.):
 This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Was He indeed God’s Son?   Satan was hesitant, certainly not out of respect for this possible Son of God, but out of a desire to proceed correctly and prove successful.  Therefore, instead, of directly contradicting what the Father had said, as he had done when speaking with that foolish woman Eve in the beginning, he tried subterfuge and cunning; he endeavoured to communicate something of his own doubt, to insinuate some little seed of distrust, into the mind of this quite ordinary-looking man:
            If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.
Jesus’ period of testing in the desert had gone on for a full forty days and nights, and the devil apparently thought that a few carefully chosen words of his at the end of it, when Jesus was human-enough to be showing exhaustion, might cause Him to wonder whether His visionary experience at His baptism by John in the Jordan had been as real as He had first thought.  Satan hoped that Jesus -- having been very much alone for forty days and nights and now feeling very weak from starvation -- might be unable, at this moment, to deal with a nagging suspicion at the back of His mind   It would have, let us say, amused, pleased, Satan hugely if Jesus were to try to secretly satisfy His own slight doubt – a fatal fruit of Satan’s sowing – while at the same time proclaiming Satan to be totally wrong in having himself imagined and expressed such doubt! 
            If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.
However, Jesus had no gnawing suspicion of His Father to assuage, nothing to prove to Himself, and He – most certainly -- had no intention whatsoever of giving Satan the satisfaction of receiving an answer to his question: throughout His ministry He would refuse to allow evil spirits to testify concerning Him, and He had no inclination to prove His personal identity to their master now.  And if Satan thought that an opportunity to secretly satisfy His natural hunger might influence Him, Jesus made it supremely clear where He found His true nourishment:
He answered and said, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "
Jesus, the Son of God, sent, as Messiah, to save God's People from their servitude to sin, was being tempted as the early Israelites had been when they were crossing the desert towards the Promised Land under the guidance of Yahweh their God and the leadership of Moses their prophet.   On that journey, Israel of old -- sinful children of their sinful mother Eve -- had behaved as she did: feeling the pangs of hunger, they would not trust God and complained bitterly to Moses  that God was planning to kill them in the desert, openly expressing a longing to return to the slavery of Egypt for the food that was plentiful there.  Later on Moses reminded them of their behaviour saying:
Remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.  So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger.   (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
Remember! Do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. (Deuteronomy 9:7)
Jesus had shown Himself to be in no way subject to that over-riding solicitude for self which is characteristic of fallen humanity: suffering and trial could not induce Him either to suspect His Father or abuse His gifts.
Therefore, Satan turned his attention from Jesus’ human make-up to His supposedly divine mission, homing in, so speak, on Jesus’ desire to be recognized and accepted as Israel’s Redeemer and Saviour.
Satan had noted Jesus’ reference to the Scriptures and so, continuing his attempt to find out just Who Jesus might be, he took Him to the Holy City, Jerusalem, set Him on a pinnacle of the Temple, and said: ‘Here, on this pinnacle of the world-famous Jewish temple is just the spot to prove yourself and win your people.   Here, you can do something that would resound throughout Israel and be fully in accordance with the Scriptures you quote so lovingly; it would be something whereby the whole Jewish nation could easily recognize that the Lord has chosen and appointed you, therefore:
If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.'
Jesus, again unmoved, replied:
            It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God.'
Thwarted for a second time, Satan showed persistence for he was beginning not only to despise, but also to fear and, indeed, to truly hate this Jesus of Nazareth.  Who was He?  What the hell (a suitable word for Satan!) was He up to?
Today, we, who have as St. Paul says ‘the mind of Christ’, know that Jesus had not come for His own human aggrandisement or satisfaction, nor had He entered upon His divine mission for the well-being of Israel alone: He had been sent by His Father, to save the whole of mankind.  Although Satan knew neither Jesus nor His mission fully, nevertheless, his temptations were diabolically cunning shots in the dark: he seems to have disdainfully thought that any human-being could be tempted successfully, provided that the stakes were high enough.  Therefore he made one further and final attempt to derail Jesus’ mission:
Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.
At that moment Satan -- in the fullness of his maniacal pride and ambition --overreached himself, and Jesus, no longer tolerating his presence, responded by a manifestation of His own authority:
Away with you, Satan!
before adding the words of Scripture:
For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.'
‘Away with you, Satan!’   Words cannot express the loathing, revulsion, and holy anger of Jesus’ reply … but we can recall that years later, at the very end of His mission (Matt 16:23), He relived once again, and once again rejected with startling vehemence, this desert experience, on the occasion when Peter tried to persuade Him to follow an easier path than that of the Cross:
He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men."            
In these temptations of Jesus in the desert we recall, as I have mentioned, Israel’s trials in the desert of Sinai on the way to the Promised Land, in particular the occasion when Moses told the Israelites:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then beware, lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.  You shall fear the LORD your God and serve Him. (Deut. 6:10-14)
Now Jesus sums up, and fulfils, in Himself the history and calling of Israel, the Chosen People; but He also prepares for the future world-wide People of God, the Church that would be His Body and Bride, the Church whose Head and Saviour He would be, and therefore these temptations of Jesus in the desert are for both our instruction and our confirmation as His disciples.
In the first two of these temptations of Jesus Satan starts off with the words, ‘I you are the Son of God’ endeavouring to stir up suspicion of God’s love and providence.  How many Christians, today, succumb to this temptation!  They fall away from God because they begin to doubt that He is with them, they are not sure He is hearing them, they are unaware of His helping, guiding, hand in their lives.  “I don’t feel anything; He makes no sign.  If only I could be conscious of His presence, if He would only answer I would be satisfied.”  In some such way they begin to demand a sign from God to convince themselves of His Providence over them: some turn away from the true Faith and seek refuge in religious sects which provide them with all sorts of pseudo-divine signs; others try to stir up signs for themselves by rashly setting aside faith and reasonable behaviour and pushing themselves to become neurotically excited and disturbed.  You will see some of these in popular churches doing all sorts of strange antics or excessive practices.  Many more, however, complaining that God is silent in their lives, fall away from the Faith, and, as it were returning to Egypt’s slavery, turn aside to enjoy the pagan life-style of the surrounding peoples, trying to forget their worries and cares, and even their conscience, in a maelstrom of worldly endeavours, comforts, and distractions.  Let us learn from Jesus, People of God, starving after 40 days and nights in the desert: He would in no way make demands of God, nor would He divert His divine calling or abuse His divine gifts in order to get earthly satisfactions for Himself; above all He would never love Himself so much as to entertain suspicion of His Father:
The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.  (John 8:29)
Finally, in the third temptation, notice that Satan does not begin with the words, ‘If you are the Son of God’ because this time at issue is the supreme sin of human, devilish, pride.  Here we have the situation of those who do indeed set out to do the work of God but allow themselves to be tempted to accept just a little help (that is, initially, just a little help) from the devil: they carry on, apparently seeking to do God's purposes indeed, but for reasons other than God alone.  Often enough they allow themselves to become discouraged under difficulties or fearful in the face of opposition; then they resort to making just a few slight compromises and  some minimal accommodations acceptable to popular tastes, all done with the aim of recording success where previously there had only been apparent failure.  Thenceforth, all the high aims and loving purposes avowedly pursued are increasingly subject to their desire for results, good results, successful results, above all, acceptable results.  The ultimate end for such victims of the devil's deceits is that, far from serving God’s plans and the true good of their fellows they serve, they end up promoting, first and foremost, their own hypocrisy; and, far from worshipping God as they started out, they end up worshipping the devil in his very best clothes!  They worship him who will give them humanly appreciable and acceptable success in the work they do apparently for God; they worship him who will enable them to taste the general approval and personal self-satisfaction that comes from wearing easily recognizable tokens of pseudo-holiness!   They both despise and fear the humility, the waiting, the trusting, the hoping, the praying, involved in worshipping God alone. 
The variety of humanity’s life experience and the vagaries of its response to such experience are multiform; and though sometimes, and indeed far too often, they show all too clearly its fallen condition, nevertheless our evangelist would have us never forget that the basic, God-given and God-orientated, aspirations and  possibilities of our human nature are sublime, for when Jesus had successfully overcome His trial on our behalf:
            The devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.