Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
First Sunday of Lent, Year A
March 9, 2014
Gen 2:7-9.3:1-7, Ps 51, Rom 5:12-19, Mt 4:1-11
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following is the text that guided the homily:
The Lenten Choice to Turn Away from the Old Adam and Believe in the New
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 through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one man 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.
As Pope Francis continually is reminding us in his daily Mass homilies, the devil is real and active — just as real and active 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 focus very carefully on the first reading.
How the Devil Got Adam and Eve to Fall
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.
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 not 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. The devil initially 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. God had made them in his “image and likeness,” he wanted them to be “like him,” but the devil was trying to get them to believe that they would become like God not through loving him by disobeying him. And Eve took 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 sliding on the slippery slope. She gave in and then Adam gave in, too.
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 whole story came out, and Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the devil, but neither took any responsibility for the misuse of their freedom and their disobedience. 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).
How the Devil Tries to Get Us to Fall
The devil continues to operate in the same way. He continues to take advantage of our ignorance of God’s word to use that lack of knowledge against us. He continues to try to get us to distrust God. He continues to try to tell us that sin — even mortal or deadly sin — won’t really kill us. He continues to try to get us to “negotiate with” evil, 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 most common contemporary seductions, which he’s used to alienate many from God:
- “You don’t really have to love your enemies, pray for your persecutors, and forgive 70 times 7 times. How naive is that? Jesus could not possibly be telling you need to love and forgive even terrorists, serial killers, child molesters and even those who are seeking to hurt and kill you. That’s like saying you’ve got to love evil, isn’t it? God would never want you to do that.”
- “God doesn’t want us to be a fanatic about the faith. 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 will the cross make you happy or miserable? Jesus took on his sufferings so that you wouldn’t have to suffer! The type of sacrifice and self-denial Jesus is describing will just end up making you mentally ill. You’re already doing enough! Just relax and enjoy the gift of life God gave you!”
- “You’d be foolish to trust the Church. How many scandals will it take for you to realize that the Church isn’t holy and certainly isn’t trustworthy? Don’t naively believe what you heard in the second grade, that ‘it’s guided by the Holy Spirit,’ or that ‘Jesus founded it,’ or that some man dressed in white could possibly be infallible. What can a bunch of old celibate men in the Vatican know that you don’t know? The Church is undemocratic and hopelessly out of touch with real world and modern times. While one can believe in God, how can one possibly believe in the farce of a holy, Catholic and apostolic Church?”
- “You don’t need to go to the Sacrament of Confession to be forgiven. What’s the point of that except to fill you with shame and embarrassment? If you’re sorry, just tell God you’re sorry. Avoid the middle-man altogether, since, after all, aren’t priests sinners just like you?”
- “’God is love,’ right? Then love! Don’t hold anything back! As long as you say you love someone, then don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you that you can’t express that love any way you find appropriate! Don’t believe the prudes who tell you that God restricts sex only to the marriage of a man and a woman. That just represses and stifles love! Stop letting the bigots tell you what you can and cannot do or who you can and cannot love. And if you end up getting married, know that once you lose that loving feeling it’s totally fine for you to go find that loving feeling with someone else, someone younger, sexier and more exciting. Remember life is about love and God would never sabotage love by the rules of medieval morality and Victorian manners.”
- “You don’t really have to go to Mass every week and on holy days of obligation. That’s just a means for the Church to get two collections out of you! You can worship God better on your own than by wasting Sunday morning getting bored to death in Church. All that’s important is that you’re a good person and God already knows you are. The fact that the Church teaches that voluntarily to miss Mass is a mortal sin shows how insane and ridiculous the Church is. Imagine, voluntarily missing Mass and you could go to hell? What type of God would ever do something like that, as if he could possibly think that Mass were that important for human beings. Absurd!”
- “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 has 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 like Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox! Those people are not only anti-science but immoral!”
- “If you follow the teachings of the Church, you’ll just end up bankrupting yourselves and impoverishing our nation. How ridiculous is it that the Church says that the way we treat immigrants is the way we treat Jesus himself? Doesn’t the Church know that immigrants are just sucking the lifeblood out of our country and taking away all our jobs? How silly is it for the Church to say that we cannot serve both God and money either. Of course we can! People have been doing it forever. The alternative to not serving money and mammon is for all of us to end up in third world economies. How could God want that?”
- “It’s good that you want to convert and get your life back together. But remember: there’s always time! God will give you all the time you need and you’ll have plenty of Lents in the future. ” So no need to take this Lent seriously now with prayer, fasting and almsgiving because things are too busy. God will give you plenty of other chances.”
- “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. Sure, hell exists, but it’s really just for those who are truly evil, like Judas Iscariot, Adolf Hitler, or Osama bin Laden. So as long as you’re not like them — and you’ll never be like them! — you’re going to go to heaven. Really. So just chill out and keep doing what you’re doing. Everything will be fine.”
Jesus Personally Experienced our Temptations
Before we discuss how Jesus in the Gospel shows us how do we defeat these and other temptations of the “father of lies” (Jn 8:44), I want to mention two things that will help us better to appreciate what Jesus shows us in his confrontation with the evil one.
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 call to mind the types of temptations you’ve been suffering from recently — perhaps to hatred or vengeance, or greed, or envy, or lust, or despair — and to grasp that 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.
Arming Ourselves with Sacred Scripture
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, since few of us would succumb to his temptations if 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 evil — or that our consciences would immediately recognize as morally wrong, like infanticide or torturing the innocent. 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. We have Wednesday night Bible Studies every week for a reason, to arm people with the defense of God’s word.
I preach much longer than most priests for a reason, because I recognize that for many of you, this is the only Scripture you’ll hear all week and I don’t want to leave you vulnerable to the devil’s schemes.
Pope Francis this morning in his Angelus meditation called the Catholics of the world to arm themselves with God’s word “Note well,” he says, “how Jesus responds: He doesn’t dialogue with Satan, as Eve did in the terrestrial Paradise. Jesus knows well that one can’t dialogue with Satan, because he is so cunning. For this reason, instead of dialoguing, as Eve did, Jesus chooses to take refuge in the Word of God and to respond with the power of this Word. Let us remind ourselves of this in the moment of … our temptation: not arguing with Satan, but defending ourselves with the Word of God. And this will save us!” We need to know the Word of God to defend ourselves, the Pope says. This advice is very practical. Imagine:
- If the devil were tempting you by fear and anxiety, how much strength you would receive if you 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)
- If the devil were tempting you to amass an earthly treasure, how much guidance you’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).
- If the devil were trying to get you not to speak up for Christ and for what is right because others would mock or attack you, how much courage you would 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
- If the devil were trying to tempt you to sexual sins, how much light you 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. The less we know it the more we’re at risk.
What We Learn Practically from Jesus’ Triumph in the Desert
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 himself and 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.
As Pope Francis said in his Angelus meditation this morning, “The tempter tries to divert Jesus from the Father’s plan, that is, from the path of sacrifice, of love that offers itself in expiation; to make Him take an easy road, [a road] of success and power. … The devil, in fact, to divert Jesus from the way of the Cross, makes present to him the false messianic hopes: economic well-being, indicated by the ability to turn stones into bread; a spectacular and miraculous style, with the idea of casting Himself down from the highest point of the Temple of Jerusalem and being saved by angels; and finally the shortcut of power and domination, in exchange for an act of worship to Satan. There are three groups of temptations. We also know them well.” So let’s see how Jesus teaches us to respond.
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 advantage, 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. If we haven’t been using our talents, our money and all that God has given us for God and others, but rather mainly for ourselves, it’s a sign that the devil has subtly gotten us.
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, or promiscuity — such that one day we end up sick and in the hospital, with lung cancer, or liver damage, or an STD. And when we’re there suffering, he’ll continue his temptation by enticing 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 out of 100 on the test, 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. If we’ve been living in such a way that we’ve been fundamentally going about our life thinking our sins aren’t really a big deal, that God’s mercy is cheap and for the taking whenever we choose to turn back to him and not taking seriously our call to be holy as God is holy, it’s a sign that the devil’s tail is around our waist.
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 their political party so that they might get elected. Others have betrayed friends or traded their chastity for the sake of a promotion. Young people, prodded on sometimes by the example of their parents, have forsaken their responsibilities to God — to keep holy the Lord’s day — in order to play hockey or soccer or work. This is the temptation to forsake God’s will for the sake of an advantage over others, to seek to build up our own earthly kingdom rather than enter God’s. 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. To the extent that we find ourselves in a situation in which we’re trying to control others, to the extent that we’re willing to cut corners and perhaps fudge our resumés or embellish our experiences to get ahead, to the extent that we ambitiously covet positions of authority more than we do our status in God’s kingdom, the devil is smiling and licking his chops for more.
Following Jesus and Entering into Communion with Him in Triumph
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 and especially 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 Boy. 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.
On the day of our baptism, in which we received Jesus’ risen life inside, we received his own power to defeat the temptations of the evil one. Our parents and godparents said for us then words we have repeated many times, that we reject Satan, all his evil works and all his empty promises and profess our faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and all the means he gives us through the prayer and the Sacraments. In our name, they prayed on the day of our baptism words we have reiterated, “Let us not to fall into temptation but deliver us from the Evil One!” Today let us renew those baptismal promises and that prayer!
We began Mass today by singing a hymn that summarizes the thrust of this homily, this first Sunday of Lent and this whole Lenten season: We say, Lord, “As you with Satan did contend and did the victory win; So give us strength in you to fight, in you to conquer sin!” That’s what Christ wants to do. He wants us to help us to fight, to win, and to conquer sin. Let us let him strengthen us from the inside for that triumph, so that just like Our Lady in the statue behind me has stomped on the head of the ancient serpent, so we may likewise have enmity between us and evil because of our living knowledge of God’s word and the holy Communion into which we’re now about to enter!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
GN 2:7-9; 3:1-7
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.
PS 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense,
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
R/ Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
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.
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.