First Sunday of Lent, Year A



First Sunday of Lent, Year A

First Reading: Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Response: Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19; Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

It is too-little-known that the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis contain two creation stories; and that they are very different in origin, in time of composition and in arrangement. Genesis opens with the first creation in the form of a hymn or song complete with a people’s response to each stanza. The hymn sings of creation in six days, or one might say seven days, since God creates the Sabbath by ceasing to work on the seventh day. The Hebrew word Shabbath is derived from a verb meaning, “to cease, to abstain, desist from, terminate, be at an end.” In this case, it meant to abstain from work on that day. The first creation story opens with a setting of darkness, emptiness and water. The Spirit of God hovers over the water causing motion, which leads to creation of light. Now that God has light by which to work, he can proceed with the various creations – ending on the sixth day with the creation of humanity, male and female together, and equal. God gives to both of them dominion over his creation. They are blessed and given the holy and creative task to “increase and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”

The second creation story begins in Genesis 2:4b. It is not a hymn but a story; a narrative. The author notes that on the day God created the earth and sky, there was no vegetation whatsoever, since God had not yet caused rain. There was no one to till the ground, though a mist was rising from the earth and did some watering. God’s plans include a gardener. So, he formed a man from the dust or clay, and brought him to life by breathing into the man’s nose. Only now does God create a garden (Eden) in the east and causes trees to grow out of the ground, including the tree of life – and that dangerous and regrettable tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God brought the man into the garden, gave him free access to the fruit of every tree except that dangerous tree.

Thus, the set-up for the Fall. The man named all the animals, but found none like himself. God becomes the first surgeon, removes a rib (thus the woman’s curvatures) from the anesthetized man, and forms the summit of his creation, a woman. God officiates at their marriage, and all is well until an invasion: “The serpent was more subtle that any other wild creature.” Temptation and Fall follow, forming our first reading of this Sunday. The story of the temptation of the first parents serves as an introduction to our gospel reading — the temptation(s) endured by Jesus.

Psalm 51 is the most important and most-used of a group of Psalms called The Seven Penitential Psalms. They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. Psalm 51 has been popularly known by its first word in the Latin version, The Miserere (Have mercy!) It is an appropriate response to the story of the Fall in the first reading. The psalmist recognizes his sinfulness and pleads for God’s forgiveness. The last verse selected from the Psalm begins the official daily prayer of the Church. “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

In our second reading, Paul adapts the story of the Fall into his theology. He compares the first man, Adam, with the first man’s counterpart, Jesus Christ. Sin entered the world through one man, Adam. Sin brought death with it, thus making death reign (to rule or be in charge). The remedy for disobedience of Adam is the obedience of Jesus. If so many died through the sin of one man, so God’s gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflows for the many or, we should say, for all. The grace of God in the work of Jesus is more powerful than sin. All were condemned through Adam’s sin. All are acquitted of condemnation through the gift of God in the work of Jesus Christ.

That Jesus endured temptation is a solid tradition even older than the highly stylized versions of temptation(s) we find in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Apart from these three familiar stories, we find the following in the Letter to the Hebrews (2:18): “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” Also 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” We may ask why Jesus submitted at all to being tempted. A parallel question might be, “Why did Jesus submit to baptism?” A valid answer to the latter question is that, by submitting to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he began what he completed on the cross — taking our sins upon himself. In all of his temptations, he also began what he completed on the cross — taking upon himself our temptations, plus the sins we committed when yielding to temptation. The cross was his final temptation. Where we failed, he did not fail. As was noted above, “in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

This year, we have Matthew’s version of the temptation. Mark’s version is older. It consists of two short verses. “The Spirit forced him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts.” Matthew and Luke are not satisfied with Mark’s version. They turn to another source and find a story with three temptations. They seem to intend their version to reflect the experience of Israel’s temptations during their 40 years in the wilderness; temptations they failed. Jesus defeats each temptation by a quote from Israel’s experience. The devil’s three temptations: changing stones into bread; jumping off a high projection on the temple; and adoration of Satan. Since the gospels are catechetical instruction, what is Matthew teaching? A homilist or reader is free to interpret what each temptation can mean for the Church (or for the individual Christian). Here are some suggestions: the temptation to turn stones into bread and Jesus’ rejection of it: a pursuit of material goods while neglecting the spiritual is the work of the devil. The temptation to jump off the tip of the temple: the pursuit of human glory is the devil’s work. The temptation to adore the devil and be rewarded with power over all kingdoms: the pursuit of power over others is the devil’s work. The history of the Church reveals that the Church, even in its top echelons, failed often to overcome temptation.