Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 1st Sunday in Lent

Readings: Deut 26:4-10; Rom 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13

This gospel text gave me an opportunity to catch up on research into the accounts of Jesus’ temptation in the gospel traditions. It ‘s been a fascinating study. The gospels as texts were not written down until decades after the life of Jesus and they convey not only historical memories about him but also faith-expressions of who he really was (and is) to his early followers. We see both of those aspects in the gospel traditions of the temptation stories. The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the gospels, remembers only the fact that there was some kind of spiritual struggle for Jesus in the desert after his baptism by John. Mark’s account tells it very simply: "The Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. He was with wild beasts and angels waited on him." Nothing about what the temptations were about, just that they happened.

The accounts of Matthew and Luke, which we have just heard, represent another tradition, one of faith-expression, which wanted to make some statement about the ongoing significance of Jesus. So his temptations are described carefully in terms of three specific testings by the devil: to use his power (stones to bread), to seek all earthly power (claim all the kingdoms of the earth), to throw himself from the Temple (to force God’s hand). But Jesus overcomes all these temptations, which are patterned after the various trials of the Israelites in the Egyptian desert. The Israelites failed them, but Jesus overcame the temptations. The main point of Luke’s temptation story is a faith-expression about Jesus: that he fulfills the legacy of Israel and shows himself more powerful than any temptations of demonic wiles.

This temptation story allows us to look in a broader context at the very nature of "temptation" in a religious Christian sense. The temptation of Jesus brings up a recurring theme in Judaeo-Christian religion; instances of temptation. The Christian bible is framed by two classic temptation accounts: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus in the desert. In both there is a goal to which the individuals are called and a lesser goal which may be more personally appealing at the present but which turns them from the larger goal. Adam and Eve choose the lesser (more immediately pleasing) goal. Jesus, on the other hand, holds onto the mission he has been given at his Baptism. The reality of temptation is the lure, the attraction of a "lesser" goal in place of a "higher" goal that has already been placed before us and has been accepted.

The devious thing about temptation is that the alternate goal, the lesser one, actually seems pretty good "right now." We lose the bigger picture because of our own desires, usually selfish desires. There’s a very interesting passage in the Letter of James: "When you are tempted, do not think that your temptation comes from God...for God does not tempt anyone. When anyone is tempted, it is by your own desires that you are enticed and lured." (1:12-14) That can happen in many ways. I suppose I will always remember some twenty years ago when Fr. Gavin decided to stop producing stage plays in the seminary at St. Meinrad. He stopped because he could no longer depend on the students to keep their commitments to practice and rehearse the plays. If they got a "better" offer, they would not show up for the rehearsal as they had promised. They yielded to the more selfish choice—to go to a movie, to go out to dinner, to go shopping in Evansville.

Sometimes temptation comes just from our own laziness, our own lack of drive. I dare say that many of us have probably already dealt with that in these first four days of Lent. I know I have. When we think about temptations in our lives, big or small, it should take us back to the "big picture": what are the values and vision that we want to live by? Above all, let me live by my made commitments—even if they are just Lenten resolutions. Jesus did not choose the more selfish way; he remained true to the mission that God had given him. Let’s hope and pray that we do the same!

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