Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
First Sunday of Lent, Year A
February 13, 2005
Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11
1) At the end of today’s second reading, St. Paul summarizes the principle message of all three readings on this first Sunday of Lent: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” We see the disobedience of that one man in today’s first reading in the story of Adam’s and Eve’s fall, by which the human race became sinners. We see in the Gospel the obedience and fidelity of the New Adam, by which we were justified. The entirety of our lives is a battle in our mind, in our heart and particularly in our choices between the old Adam and the path of disobedience and sin, and the New Adam and the way of obedience and faithfulness. Lent is the time we’re called to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel, to turn our back on the old Adam and embrace the New. We know that the devil is still present — as he was in the Garden and as he was in the desert — trying to tempt us to buy into his lies. And many times we have. But the Good News is that Christ shows us in the Gospel today both THAT the devil can be defeated and HOW he is to be defeated. To learn how to follow Christ in overcoming these temptations, though, we first need to understand how the devil operates, and that brings us to the first reading.
2) Adam and Eve had it all in the garden. God had made all of creation for them. They were perfectly in the state of grace. They had transparent relations with God, with all of creation, and with each other, as was symbolized by the fact they were “naked and unashamed” (Gen 2:25). God gave them just one limitation. “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:16-17). It was called symbolically the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but we know what the word “know” means in Genesis — it means to “become one with” something or someone. Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived a child (Gen 4:1). To “know” good and evil meant that they would become one with good or one with evil.
3) The devil came disguised symbolically as a serpent and he got Adam and Eve to become one with evil. We can examine the steps he took, because he still has the same modus operandi. The first step was to expose that Eve didn’t really pay very close attention to what God said. When the devil asked her what God had instructed, she replied by saying that they were not to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden NOR TOUCH IT lest they die. God had never said anything about touching it — and we’ll see why this lack of precision is relevant later. The second step was to get Eve to distrust God. First he called into question the fact of the consequences: “You will not die!” Then he undermined God’s credibility, as if God were just making rules for the sake of keeping his own prerogatives, rather than because he loved them: God didn’t want them to eat it, the devil said, because it would give them the power to become like God, not just knowing but determining good and evil. And Eve went after the bait. She began to “negotiate” with evil in her imagination. She “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and was to be desired to make one wise.” She was already on the slippery slope and she gave in and then Adam gave in.
4) We saw what the immediate consequences were. Their eyes were opened to the presence of evil, which up to that point had not been a temptation or reality to them. They covered their private parts with fig leaves, because they no longer trusted that the one they loved would not take advantage of their vulnerability. They tried to hide themselves even from God, because they no longer trusted even in God’s goodness (Gen 3:8 ). When God asked them why they were hiding themselves, Adam responded, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid, because I was naked, and hid myself” (Gen 3:10). When God asked them who told them they were naked, the story came out, and Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the devil, but neither took any responsibility for the misuse of their freedom. So we see the consequences of sin: it wounds our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves and our sense of responsibility, and with the entire created order, symbolized by man’s now having to till the soil with the sweat of his brow and woman’s needing to bring forth children in pain (Gen 3:16,19).
5) The devil continues to operate in the same way. He continues to take advantage of our ignorance of God’s word to use it against us. He continues to try to get us to distrust God. He continues to try to tell us that sin won’t really kill us. He continues to try to get us to “negotiate with” sin, to start to use our imagination to deliberate “how far we can go without committing a sin.” And many people continue to bite on that fruit. We can take up ten examples of the devil’s contemporary seductions, maybe some of which you’ve heard:
•“You don’t really have to love your enemies. How stupid is that? Jesus is telling you have to LOVE guys like Osama Bin Laden. That’s like saying you’ve got to love evil, isn’t it? God would never want you to do that.”
•“Jesus’ statement that you have to forgive 70×7 times and turn the other cheek are just a recipe for your becoming a victim. By Jesus’ principle, you’d have to forgive even serial killers on death row, even child molesters, even those who are seeking to hurt or kill you. We’re supposed to believe that THAT will bring us peace and happiness!”
•“Don’t be a fanatic. Sure, Jesus tells you that if you want to be his disciple, you must deny yourself, pick up your Cross every day and follow him. But he didn’t really mean for you to take that literally. Jesus wants you to be happy, not miserable, and he took on his sufferings so that you wouldn’t have to suffer. So relax and enjoy the gift of life God gave you!”
•“You’d be stupid to trust the Church. Don’t believe that ‘it’s guided by the Holy Spirit’ or that ‘Jesus founded it.’ What religion — and what lunatic — hasn’t cited God as the authority for its teachings, after all? Let’s face it: What can a bunch of male celibates know that you don’t know?”
•“You don’t need to go to the sacrament of confession. What’s the point of that? After all, if you want to tell God you’re sorry, you can always say it to him directly, right?”
•“God is love,” isn’t he? Then LOVE! Don’t hold anything back! If you want to have sex before you’re married, go for it — as long, of course, as you love the person. Don’t listen to the prudes! If you want to sleep with or marry people of the same sex, what harm is there in that? Stop letting the bigots tell you what you can and cannot do. If your marriage is not everything you hoped it would be, stop living as a slave to the past. You’ve only got one life to live, so don’t waste it. Admit that you’re unfulfilled and go be fulfilled!”
•“You don’t really have to go to Mass every week and on holy days of obligation. All that’s important is that you’re a good person. God knows what’s in your heart. Don’t believe the person who tells you that to miss Mass is a mortal sin. Imagine — voluntarily missing one Mass and you could go to HELL? What type of God would ever do something like that?”
•“God gave us the knowledge of how to create babies in test tubes. Why shouldn’t we put that knowledge to use? And if God helped us to learn how to clone human embryos, don’t believe anyone who tells you that we shouldn’t use that know-how to cure people who are suffering from Parkinsons disease and other illnesses. Some people care more about cells in Petri dishes than real living human beings!”
•“It’s good that you want to convert and get your life back together. But remember: there’s always time. God will give you the time you need. So don’t do anything abrupt.”
•“Above all, don’t believe in anyone who talks to you about Hell and tries to ‘scare’ you into worshipping God. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Hell exists, but is really just for those who are truly evil, like Judas, or Adolf Hitler. So as long as you’re not like them — and you’ll never be like them! — you’re going to go to heaven. Why would God have made heaven if he didn’t want you to be there?”
6) How do we defeat these and other temptations of the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44)? Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel. But before we discuss the particular temptations Jesus suffered in the Gospel, how he overcame them, and what that means for us, I want to mention two points that will help us better to appreciate what Jesus shows us in his confrontation with the evil one.
a) The first comes from what I consider the most consoling line in all of Sacred Scripture, which the Holy Spirit inspired the author of the Letter to the Hebrews to memorialize for all of us: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). I’d like to ask you to pause for about ten seconds and just call to mind the types of temptations you’ve been suffering from recently… [Pause]. JESUS SUFFERED THOSE TEMPTATIONS TOO, but he never consented to them. That’s why he’s such a reason for hope to us in our temptations, because he can tell us in truth, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. Trust in me. I can help you overcome those temptations without sin.” The temptations Jesus suffered were not just the three named in today’s Gospel, but all those that human beings are able to suffer. And hence the path to overcome them works not just for the temptations in the Gospel, but for all of them.
b) The second thing I want to highlight is how Jesus in general defeated the temptations of the devil in the Gospel. What did he do? Each time he CITED SACRED SCRIPTURE. He referenced God’s word. The problem with the devil’s temptations is that so often they sound so good. That’s because the devil often mixes his seductions with half-truths, because few of us would succumb to his temptations if he were trying to tell us something that our minds would readily reject — e.g., that God doesn’t exist, or that there’s no such thing as Hell — or that our consciences would immediately recognize as evil, like infanticide. We see with Eve in the garden that the first step to her fall was that she didn’t know precisely what God had said; the devil was able to use that to manipulate her. In the Gospel, Jesus was able to withstand the devil’s false use of God’s word because he knew God’s word! In response to the first temptation, Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus not only KNEW that word that came from the mouth of God, but LIVED it. Similarly for us, if we wish to discern the devil’s half-lies and defeat his temptations, we need both to KNOW Sacred Scripture well and to PUT IT INTO PRACTICE. Without this knowledge, we’re extremely vulnerable. That’s why every Catholic should to get to know Sacred Scripture much better and to live by it. Imagine:
1. If the devil were tempting a person by fear and anxiety, how much strength a person would receive if she knew Sacred Scripture well enough to recall Jesus’ words from the Last Supper: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God. Have faith also in me!”? (Jn 14:1)
2. If the devil were tempting a man to amass an earthly treasure, how much guidance he’d receive by recalling Jesus’ question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, if he loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk 9:25).
3. If the devil were trying to get a person not to speak up for Christ and for what is right because others would mock or attack her, how much courage she could receive from Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Mt 5:11-12). Or
4. If the devil were trying to tempt somebody to sexual sins, how much light he would receive by reflecting on the passage that helped the great St. Augustine overcome his own fleshly concupiscence: “Let us live not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:13-14).
The better we know Sacred Scripture, and the more we live it, the better we will be able to withstand the wiles of the devil.
7) When we look at the temptations Jesus suffered in the Gospel, we see that they summarize every form of temptation to which a person can be subjected. The first temptation was to disorder one’s relationship with the rest of the created world. The second was to warp one’s relationship with God. The third was to distort one’s relationship with others. It makes sense that the devil would seek to tempt Jesus in all of these ways, because, as we talked about above, the consequences of sin are always to disorder our relationships with God, others, the created order — and, in each and all of them, within ourselves.
8 ) The first temptation came after Jesus was literally starving, having fasted for 40 days. The devil tempted him to become a baker rather than a savior, to use his talents and powers to turn stone into bread. We know what Jesus’ response was, to proclaim that man lives not just on bread, but more importantly on God’s word. Jesus’ food was “to do the will of the one who sent him and complete his work” (Jn 4:34). Similarly the devil tries to tempt us to use the talents God has given us in a selfish way, for our own aggrandizement, rather than for the good of others. The devil can get rich people to use their material blessings to live a consumerist, materialistic existence, rather than for the building up of God’s kingdom, for the care and support of those who are less fortunate. He can get those who are intelligent to use those gifts to seek money and fame, rather than use them for understanding and passing on the faith. God gave us the gifts that he has so that we might use them for him and for others, but the devil tries to make those blessings become curses by having us use them only for ourselves. Jesus gives us the answer: to live by the word of God, and to use these blessings for the proclamation of that word.
9) The second temptation was when the devil brought Jesus to the parapet of the temple and told him to jump off, trusting that God would send his angels to catch him and prevent all harm. This is the temptation to disorder our relationship with God by presumption. So often the devil continues to work in this way. He can do it in terms of sin, telling us: “Go ahead. Commit that sin. You can always go to confession and God will forgive you.” It can happen with our moral life. He can tempt us to live in a reckless way — by drugs, booze, immoral sex, etc. — such that one day we end up sick and in the hospital, with lung cancer, or liver damage, or an STD. Next he can tempt us to pray, “God, if you really love me, please cure me”; if God chooses not to cure us, the devil can use that fact to drive an even deeper wedge between us and God. And this happens a lot! A similar thing can occur with kids who blow off studying all semester and on their way to their exam pray that God will help them get a good grade. When they get a 12/100, the devil can often get them to doubt God’s existence or his goodness. This is the way he uses presumption. The solution is what Jesus shows us: “you shall not tempt the Lord your God.” And the way not to tempt the Lord is by doing what we should be doing when we should be doing it.
10) The third temptation happened when the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world and promised them all to Jesus if only he would fall down and worship him. This is the temptation to disorder our relationship with others, to seek dominion over others, regardless of the means. In the course of history, many people have made these Faustian bargains, selling out on their worship of God for the sake of getting ahead. We can think readily in our own time of politicians who have sold their souls to the diabolical pro-abortion plank of the democratic party so that they might get elected. Others have traded their chastity for the sake of a promotion. Several young people here in our parish, prodded on by their parents, have forsaken their responsibilities to God — to keep holy the Lord’s day — in order to play hockey or soccer and have a better chance for a future scholarship. This is the temptation to forsake God’s will for the sake of an advantage vis-à-vis other people. Jesus shows us the remedy. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.” If we are truly worshipping and loving God, we will be loving others, who are made in his image. If we are serving God, we will not use others for the sake of getting ahead. We will not seek to have dominion over others, but will strive to serve others in love.
11) Jesus suffered every type of temptation we face but never sinned, and today, on this first Sunday of Lent, he tells each of us, “Follow me!” He calls us to trust in him, to believe in his word, and to put it into practice even when we find it hard and challenging. To help us do just that, he is about to give us this world’s supreme gift. He was unwilling to change a stone into bread for the devil, but for us, today, he will change bread into his flesh and blood. He IS “the word that comes from the mouth of God” and now God the Father wants to put that word into our mouths! Together with him, everything is possible. Together with him, we can withstand any and every temptation. Together with him, we can indeed live by the word of God and worship and serve God alone.
12) We finish by praying the second verse of the hymn we sang to begin Mass, which summarizes the thrust of this homily, this first Sunday of Lent and this whole Lenten season:
“As you with Satan did contend
and did the victory win;
So give us strength in you to fight,
in you to conquer sin!”