Matthew 4:1-11, First Sunday of Lent
A pilgrimage to the Holy Land brings us always to Jericho. The busses stop at the foot of a high mountain with a Greek Orthodox Monastery halfway up carved in the rock. But the people leaving the busses usually don’t look up to the monastery and the mountain but to a very inviting building that introduces itself as “Temptation Restaurant.” Yes, there is a restaurant but more attractive are the souvenir shops tempting us with their glittering offers to spend as much money as possible inside these shops. It is called Temptation Restaurant because the mountain I mentioned is called Mountain of Temptation where according to tradition Jesus faced the climax of his temptations, where Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship Satan.
When I was a kid, I formed a vivid image of God. For me he was a grumpy old man with a frown on his face. Every time anyone tries to have a little fun, he’d shouts “Thou shall not!”
And it seemed to me that to really live and not just exist, you had to do daring, “sinful” things. What the Bible calls “sin” is where the action is. This is what learned from movies I watched, and from books I read. And talking to classmates I found out that everybody appeared to accept this as an unquestioned matter of fact.
Behind this widespread perception lies a very successful propaganda campaign unparalleled in the history of humanity. In fact it goes back to the very beginnings of humanity. To the Garden, to the story we heard in the first reading.
Think for a minute of this metaphor. God, completely sufficient in Himself and needing nothing, decides to create paradise out of chaos in an act of total generosity. He creates creatures of all shapes and sizes, and puts as caretakers of them all a couple He had created in His own image and likeness, with intellect and will, freedom and responsibility.
Their assigned activity is to love one another intimately, to walk daily with God in the cool of the evening, and simply enjoy Paradise.
Any duties? They had to tend the garden, which was virtually maintenance-free since neither thorn nor thistle, drought nor insects had as yet arrived on the scene. And there was one more thing – to avoid eating the fruit of a particular tree, since it would kill them. But that should not have been a problem because the garden was full of trees with delicious fruits.
But then appears a slithering reptile who had given them absolutely nothing. And it has the nerve to give them advice. “Did God really say you would die if you ate this fruit? Nonsense! He only said that because eating this fruit would make you his equal, and he can’t bear that. You see, he created you to enslave you. He wants to keep you under his foot. He’s keeping the best for himself. You listen to him and you will be missing the real life. You’ll be His slaves forever.”
Thus began the deceptive advertising campaign that lasts till this day: “God wants only to kill joy. Don’t be stupid, do what you want and what all are doing. Enjoy life! It’s short enough. And don’t forget: Nobody leaves the earth alive.”
For that truly is what sin is about, and that’s why God says “thou shall not.” He is not a grumpy old man who is envious when we enjoy things, but a loving Father. He knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us more than we love ourselves. So he does what every good and loving parent does. “Don’t touch the stove, you’ll get burnt.” “Don’t play at the top of the stairs – you’ll fall and break your neck.”
Our first parents believed the liar instead of the Father. They fell and broke their relationship with God and shattered the innocent intimacy they had with one another. Their family fragmented as soon as it started with Cain killing his brother Abel. Thorns and thistles appeared, Paradise was lost, and death came into the world.
Lent begins with the memory of how the first head of the human family caved in under the pressure of the lies.
But more importantly, we remember too how the second Adam, Jesus Christ, had another round with the deceiver and defeated him through the power of the Word of God.
There is more. Jesus had just passed the waters of the Jordan where he was baptized and where God’s voice proclaimed him as his beloved Son. Then he went into the wilderness for a retreat and there he was tempted.
We cannot help but be reminded of the Israelites who crossed the waters of the Red Sea and went into the wilderness where they stayed 40 years and where they were severely tempted. Do you see the parallel? There is only one difference: Where the Israelites failed, there Jesus gave us an example how to overcome temptation.
Pope Benedict wrote therefore in his message for Lent 2011 that during this time of Lent we should remember our baptism and become again aware of our ongoing journey through the wilderness of life where we, like the Israelites and like Jesus face the temptations of the Evil One. He writes about today’s Sunday:
“The First Sunday of the Lenten journey reveals our condition as human beings here on earth. The victorious battle against temptation, the starting point of Jesus’ mission, is an invitation to become aware of our own fragility in order to accept the Grace that frees from sin and infuses new strength in Christ – the way, the truth and the life.
It is a powerful reminder that Christian faith implies, following the example of Jesus and in union with him, a battle “against the ruling forces who are masters of the darkness in this world” in which the devil is at work and never tires – even today – of tempting whoever wishes to draw close to the Lord: Christ emerges victorious to open also our hearts to hope and guide us in overcoming the seductions of evil.”
During these weeks of Lent, we should examine ourselves and ask: What is my greatest temptation right now? – How do I react to it? – Do I pray for God’s help when it comes? – Do I respond to temptations like Jesus by using the Word of God which I find in the Bible? – Do I seek a healthy diversion that will help me ignore it – Do I see temptations as valuable occasions to choose God once more?
Temptations are like storms of the soul. Sooner or later they come to an end. And if we fought them well, as Jesus did in the desert, we emerge from them stronger, better, happier.
That is why Lent is called a joyful season. The purple color of repentance is also the color of royalty – it is the time to recognize our true identity and claim our true birthright as free sons and daughters of a loving Father who happens to be the King of the Universe.