Monday, November 25, 2013

Homily - 1st Sunday of Lent (Year A)

1st Sunday of Lent (Year A)

First Reading: Genesis 2: 7-9, 3:1-7           Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19             Gospel Reading: Matthew 4:1-11


The story is told of a pastor who was asked to conduct the funeral services of a fellow named Charlie who was known in the community as the lowest of the low in terms of his character and reputation. In fact the town was embarrassed that this fellow had called that place home.
Charlie's brother was rather wealthy fellow and offered the pastor $1000 to conduct the funeral with one stipulation – he had to refer to Charlie as a saint.
The service began and the pastor stepped to the podium to begin the message. At the appropriate moment he said, “He was a low down, worthless, bum who cheated everyone he ever met and had the morals of an alley-cat; but compared to his brother, Charlie was a saint.”
The stunned brother handed over the honorarium to the pastor who promptly slipped away. Perhaps the pastor succumbed to temptation a bit.
Temptations do come to all of us also in our lives – in various disguise of course. They are part and parcel of our life. A temptation is a trick, a deception, a lie. It conceals the truth and presents falsehood to us as the truth. A temptation may even offer us something good but entices us to use it in a false and selfish way. No wonder that temptations come from the devil, which is called the father of lies.
Last Wednesday, i.e. 'Ash Wednesday,' we began our Lenten pilgrimage and today is the First Sunday of Lent. Lent is a Holy Season, a time of grace, a period comprising forty days during which the whole Church renews itself through prayer, fasting and works of piety.
The common theme of today’s Scripture Readings is ‘Temptation.’ In the 1st Reading from the Book of Genesis, we hear about our first parents Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan in the garden of Eden, while in the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, we hear about Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. These two temptation stories are sophisticated ones and are not strictly meant to be taken either literally or historically. They are symbolic and are directed essentially about making choices – either in favor of God or against Him. In the 2nd Reading, St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, considers and compares the above two temptation events, and tells us in what manner their results and consequences affect our lives today.

It is no accident that the first reading begins with one of the Genesis accounts of Adam and Eve. In the story of Adam and Eve we hear again about the perfect world God created for humans and how through a temptation, Adam established a pattern that led to sin and death. The Eden story was actually a drama woven of pretense and cover-up. Adam and Eve were the first to bite on a big lie: the denial that we as creatures of God are dependent on God. Enter the serpent, that cunning beast, that lord of lies, who taunted their obedience and reliance on God. Ah, the attraction of having no limits. To be God. To be self-sufficient, self-made. The pretense was attractive, desirable. The trick looked so wise.
First round: The devil, being the master of deceit, knows human psychology only too well. His first task was to get the attention of Eve. Thus his question, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" Eve right away saw the half truth in the question so she corrected him saying that they could eat of the fruit of all the trees except that of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. And on this last, God's command was clear: "You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die." We see here how Eve, by arguing with the devil, got hooked.
Second round: The devil took immediate advantage of his gain. He told Eve they would not die; instead, "Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad." Her curiosity aroused, Eve saw that the fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom.
Third round: Eve then took a fruit and ate it. She gave one to her husband Adam who likewise ate it. All of a sudden both of them realized that they were naked. Ashamed of their nakedness in front of each other, they covered parts of themselves, and afraid of God, they went into hiding. They had fallen and sin had entered the world!
Sin brings about dislocation in our relationships. Instead of openness, hiding or covering–up has become our way of relating to God and to each other. And we justify our weaknesses and sins with all kinds of rationalizations. This is the story of our life ever since.

The Gospel Reading of the 1st Sunday of Lent always features the temptations of Jesus in the desert. It will therefore not be wrong to call the 1st Sunday of Lent, ' The Temptation Sunday.' This is Year A of the Liturgical Cycle, and so today we have St. Matthew's account of the temptations of Jesus, and strikingly, they are paralleled with the temptations of Adam and Eve!
a) “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”
After his baptism by John the Baptist at Jordan river, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert where he prayed and fasted for forty days and nights, and afterward he was tested there. The testing is done not by God directly but by the Evil One, the Tempter. It is pictured as taking place in a barren region between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. It might be worth noting that we may not be dealing here with a strictly historical happening. This passage takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Yet this was not the report of a single incident, but a commentary on the entire course of Jesus' ministry. Time and again Jesus must have been tempted to authenticate his mission by a display of miraculous power or to undertake the role of a political Messiah. So, rather than just seeing them as three consecutive temptations happening almost simultaneously at a particular moment, we should perhaps see them as three key areas where Jesus was tempted to compromise his whole mission during his public life. They were not just passing temptations of the moment, but temptations with which he was beset all through his public life. They came as inner reflections about his baptismal experience and how to do what he now perceived his divine mission to be.
b) “If you are the Son of God, ...”
St. Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus in the desert displays his characteristic interest in Jesus as 'the Son of God,' which we can clearly notice in the devil's hidden assumption in tempting Jesus. The story follows immediately on Jesus' baptism and endorsement by God the Father, “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Gospel tells us that Jesus was tempted three times and each of the three temptations touches on his identity as the Son of God. The Tempter begins, "If you are the Son of God, ...” then he says, "do what I ask you to do." Jesus refuses to fall into the trap of the devil. Does Jesus have a need to prove who he is? Of course not.
Again, some of us may struggle with this concept. For if Jesus is the Son of God, how and why could he be tempted? Someone has said, 'You are not tempted because you are evil; you are tempted because you are human.' The account of the temptations thus places heavy emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was like us in all things but sin and was tempted in every way that we are.
c) The three temptations of Jesus:
The three temptations of Jesus are the three essential weapons that the devil has in his arsenal to destroy humanity:
The first is of appetite (pleasure/gluttony/materialism) – to change stones into bread. It demanded that miraculous power be used to provide for basic material needs. The tempter picks up the fact that Jesus was hungry, that he had not eaten for forty days. The tempter says that if he is truly the Son of God, he could command the stones to become bread. To this Jesus responds through the words of Scripture that a person does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Here Jesus is indicating that his mission was not fulfilled by providing for basic needs but rather by proclaiming the Word that is life.
The second is of ambition (power/fame/boasting) - to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. It demanded that Divine power be used to produce a spectacular 'sign' that would compel anyone to believe. In this temptation, the devil offers him a chance to prove his power as God’s son by throwing himself down from the parapet of the temple. He knew that as recorded in the Psalms Jesus can do this without being hurt. Jesus responds with a passage from Scripture, from the Book of Deuteronomy which says that it is also written not to put the Lord God to the test. Hence Jesus responds to the Satan saying, he will not test God’s word by doing something foolish or unnecessary. He will trust his Father in the direction of his mission.
The third is of arrogance (pride/vanity/idolatry) - to worship the devil who can give power and wealth. In this final temptation, Jesus is set by the devil on a very high mountain and offered the kingdoms of the world in return for worshiping him. Jesus absolutely rejects the offer and tells the devil to go away from him. He once again quotes the Book of Deuteronomy which says that every creature has to worship the Lord God, and serve Him alone and no one else. It is the cardinal truth of the Scripture taken from the Ten Commandments to worship God alone and no other gods. Jesus is not swayed. He indeed has won over the subtle temptation of the devil.
In the aftermath of the contest we read how the devil left Jesus and angels came and ministered to him. All the three temptations can be summarized briefly as a suggestion of short cut by the devil to be unfaithful to the call and mission of the Father. He rejects these possibilities and shows that his purpose is different.
These three temptations are also our temptations, and to them, somehow, are perhaps connected all temptations. The devil invites us to turn towards self. Jesus invites us to turn towards God. In fact, these three tests are really symbols of real tests that we find in the life of Jesus. In reality all of the temptations can be summed up as temptations to the three A's - Appetite, Ambition & Arrogance, or the three P's - Pleasure, Power and Pride. It is also important to realize that all temptations – and these tests are no exception – come to us under the guise of some kind of goodness. No sane person chooses the purely evil unless some positive benefit is seen to come from it. In each of the three tests today, Jesus is being led on to do something which would seem to enhance his mission as Lord and Savior.

In the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul, taking into consideration the above two events, compares them and goes on to say that Jesus is the 2nd Adam. His main interest is not to talk about sin or death, but rather to draw a contrasting picture of Adam and Christ, prominent figures of the beginning and the end time respectively. He uses what theologians call ‘typology’ to help us understand exactly what Jesus has done for us and how he established for us a new life, overcoming what Adam and Eve wrought for us. He sees Adam as a ‘type’ or 'foreshadowing' of Christ.
St. Paul begins by establishing a basic equivalence between Adam and Christ: both are the 'first' or the 'beginning' of different eras. Adam stands at the beginning of the first creation; Christ is the beginning of a new creation. While typology usually stresses common elements, Paul stresses differences. Reading today's passage from Romans carefully, we notice these contrasts between what Adam and Christ bring: Just as sin came into the world through Adam and with it death entered the world affecting all people, so also through Christ uprightness came into the world and with it life eternal. With the disobedience of the 1st Adam death entered the human race, but we have received abundance of grace and new life through the 2nd Adam, Jesus Christ. He stresses that the free gift of the grace of God received through Jesus far surpassed the outcome of sin. Hence there is no comparison between the free gifts of the grace of God versus the consequence of one’s sin. While one’s trespass brought condemnation, the free gift of God brought justification

We are into the Holy Season of Lent. It is a time that reminds us of the human journey of fall and redemption. Like Adam and Eve, and Jesus, we all face temptations. Original sin reminds us that we humans tend to give in to temptation. It is a family trait. The mother and father of the race did it and we do it too. So, when we are tempted, we should not trust in our own abilities or strength, because we are sinful from our origins. Instead we should trust in Jesus and his strength, because God is gracious from the beginning. Where humanity fails, Jesus prevails. So the point is that we should follow his lead when we face temptations. We should look at how Jesus faced temptations. We should learn from his example. Then when we face the same temptations, which we do, we can resist them as well and be victorious over them.
Let us then during this Lenten season very earnestly pray, as Jesus has taught us to pray to Our Father in heaven – “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” And this is the Good News of today.


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