FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT, YEAR C
The first reading is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy. This book is the fifth and last of the five scrolls (books) that form the heart of Israelite religion. The collection of the five scrolls is called Torah, a Hebrew noun meaning the Teaching or the Law of Moses. Why Moses? Because it was believed that Moses was the author of these five books or scrolls. Thus sometimes in our gospels, when there is a quote from the Torah, it is introduced by the words, “Moses said . . . .” Moses lived in the thirteenth century B.C. The scrolls (books) attributed to him were assembled centuries later. Much of Deuteronomy is cast in the form of a long address (sermon) of Moses delivered to the people before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. God did not allow Moses to lead them across the Jordan. He died before the crossing. Joshua became the leader. Therefore much of Deuteronomy may be understood as Moses’ farewell address. Even when an excerpt is removed from within the sermon of Moses, it begins with the words, “Moses said to the people,” as we hear in today’s first reading.
In the Torah God is entitled to whatever is first, firstborn of human or beast, or firstfruits of the crops the earth produces. Today’s reading gives us a liturgy governing the presentation of first-fruits at local shrines (ancient Israelite worship sites). The liturgy is in story form recalling the origins of the people of Israel in the ancient east, their exodus from the ancient east and their connection to Egypt, where they were formed into a people, a nation. Their rise as a people incited fear among the Egyptians. This led to persecution and the help of “God’s strong hand and outstretched arm.” Then came the Exodus from Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey, (but unfortunately to this day no oil). The history of God’s intervention on behalf of his people leads to this statement narrated by the one offering, “Therefore I have now brought you the firstfruits of the produce of the soil, which you, O Lord, have given me.” The liturgy of first-fruits closes with an act of adoration, “You shall bow down in God’s presence.” A connection with today’s other readings is difficult to establish. Nevertheless, it is a teaching moment in and by itself, as all the readings are, inviting the homilist to explain the reading.
The Responsorial Psalm, 91, was selected because it echoes statements and themes in today’s gospel. One theme of the gospel is trusting God, as Jesus does in the temptation scenes. Because the Psalmist trusts God, he calls God “My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” The next two parts of the Psalm contain a statement quoted by the devil in slightly different form during the third temptation, “He has given his angels charge over you, that they guard you in all your ways. Upon their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” The People’s Response is appropriate, “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.”
In the context of this part of Romans, Paul attempts to convince readers that the new way of faith to attain salvation is easy compared to the ancient way to salvation through works prescribed by the Torah. He plays on a statement attributed to Moses in Deut. 30:11-14, (even though he does not seem to agree with it), that the commandment of God, the Torah, is “very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” He insists on the ease of attaining salvation through faith in Christ. Paul sanctions this affirmation with quotes from the Old Testament. The first is from Isaiah 28:16, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” The second from Joel 2:37, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is the story of the temptation of Jesus by the devil. This year we have Luke’s version. The basic and very simple story is found in the Gospel of Mark. The Holy Spirit who had just descended upon Jesus compels him into the wilderness. “There he was tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” Luke and Matthew, always trying to improve on Mark’s gospel, embellish Mark’s story by creating three individual, highly symbolic temptations. We are hearing catechetical instruction with a historical foundation expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews 4:15, “We have a high priest . . ., who in every way has been tempted as we are, but without sin.” Yes, Jesus did experience temptation because he shared our human nature, as Luke wrote about Jesus’ humanity in 2:40, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.”
The first symbolic temptation Jesus experiences is related to hunger. Mark’s gospel is silent about Jesus fasting in the wilderness. Luke and Matthew, by adding a fast of 40 days, (in Matthew also 40 nights), call to mind the hunger of the Israelites in their 40-year desert experience. Jesus represents the new Israel, the Church. These are therefore temptations faced by the Christian Community. Where old Israel failed to trust God, the new Israel is encouraged to follow its Leader, who expresses his trust in God by a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone.” Luke should have added what Matthew did add, “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” The second temptation is a temptation to power over others. The devil makes an offer — authority over all the kingdoms of the earth — but with one condition: adore the devil. Jesus refuses through another quotation from Deuteronomy, “You shall adore the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve.” The Church is only God’s servant. God alone is Lord. The third temptation is related to the human desire for fame and acclaim, perhaps a preference for grandeur over service. The Lucan Jesus calls this a case of tempting God — again by a quote from Deuteronomy. To which could be added the words of Jesus in Luke 2:27, “I am among you as one who serves.”