Temptation, Rudall30, iStock/Getty Images.
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[Jesus said] “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Matthew 4:10.
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Temptation dominates today’s readings, appropriately at the beginning of Lent and with the first temptation, that apple! Now note there is no mention of an apple in Genesis, just “fruit”, but the poor apple, one of which a day should keep the doctor away, has to bear this unfortunate image of the Fall from Grace. The whole Garden of Eden story is a foundational passage for everyone I think. It’s where everything collapsed, and sin, evil, degradation, corruption, all the bad things, suddenly entered human life, beginning with that supreme temptation, uttered by the serpent, “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:4). And look at the consequences, clearly demonstrated in Genesis:
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. (Genesis 3:7).
The story is simple, the implications profound. These two people are now alienated from their own bodies, ashamed of God’s magnificent creation! Take that dislike of self to its ultimate extreme, and you have suicide, the actual self-destruction of God’s greatest creation. Each of the events in the Garden after the Fall are alienations. They hid from God – meaning alienation from God, which can lead ultimately to despair, the absence of all hope. Adam blames Eve for his action – giving us alienation from our neighbor, which can ultimately lead to hatred of neighbor, and even murder. Eve blames the snake for her act of disobedience, and thereby alienates us from nature, something which has strongly emerged now with our destructive abuse and disregard of the natural world. The Garden of Eden is our foundational myth of profound wisdom, explaining all the evil in the world. And note that myth does not mean untruth but rather represents a search for ultimate truth in a way that we are able to understand and accept. Genesis gives us a grounding of why things are as they are in our world, the beautiful as well as the ugly. And this we see clearly in today’s gospel.
The Temptations of Christ, 12th Century Mosaic, St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy.
One should be impressed by the overweening pride of the Devil, prepared to try and corrupt the Son of God! But remember that Jesus was fully human as well, hence open to everything the evil one could throw at him – and he did. Considering the first temptation, anyone who has spent a few days in France in, say, an airbnb, will know the delight of rushing out first thing in the morning to the local bakery down the road and buying a baguette, that quintessential thin loaf of bread fresh out of the oven. Pure heaven, and fully deserves its recognition by UNESCO onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It has to have been the first temptation, Jesus hungry after 40 days and nights fasting in the desert… The Devil was suggesting that to the Lord in return for a simple demonstration of Jesus’ divine power, and turn stones into that wondrous food. No. Jesus refused. He said that life is more than a loaf of bread, and, though this is not mentioned in the gospel, Jesus refused to use any of his power to reward himself. Ever. God’s love and protection are more important than selfishness, even in a situation like that. As Jesus said elsewhere, he had been sent to serve others, never himself. True life comes from the presence of God, grace, and we should truly live by that. The devil failed in the first temptation. Then the scene changed to the high point of the temple in Jerusalem. “Throw yourself down if you truly believe in God, for God will save you”. Jesus knew he was God’s Son; he had discovered that at his baptism even hours before. The temptation would be to think “I’ll show you” and jump. So sinful pride would be wrapped up in self-justification, hardly a heavenly reaction. No, Jesus refused to do that, which would have been a blatant example of distrust in God, and hence putting God to the test, expressly forbidden in Scripture (Deuteronomy 6:16-25). And then the predictable most extreme test. The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, and said he would give them all over to Jesus if he would but bow before him, Satan, the source of all evil: “It’s all yours” he says, “‘all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence’ if you just acknowledge my power and position…” Now how many of us would refuse that? I think of those who are guilty of selfish ambitions in the parliaments of the world to get to the top of the tree and wield power; or those who would break the law and steal wealth which is not theirs to take. The number of Hollywood films based on this third temptation must be in the hundreds if not thousands. The mind boggles.
Overlooking the Magnificence of Paris from the Towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral, 2002.
Jesus had had enough: “Get away from me Satan”. And so the seal is set on our annual Lenten season, where we are all invited to consider our own temptations and any sources of weakness or failure which separate us from the source of all happiness and peace. I grew up in an age of self-denial as a Lenten exercise. For me that meant no chocolate treats of any sort. Actually, I saved them all up for midday on Holy Saturday which would then result in a feeding frenzy and consequent unfortunate discomfort. Well self-denial is a very long tradition, and should be considered, though not quite in that way. But much better, in my opinion, is doing something extra to help those around us. What that would be is up to each of us, but I suspect it would be a little more challenging than simply giving something up. Perhaps the goal might be to know that the world will be a little better off by Easter Sunday because of our Lenten efforts than it would have been without them. And goodness knows there is a multitude of good works available to us these days. Look around and see where our help is most desperately needed: that is the Lenten exercise calling out to us.
Lenten Devotional Psalm 38, Bering Drive Church of Christ, Houston, Texas,
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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