First Sunday of Lent, Year C

By Father Donal Dilger

Sunday Scripture

First Sunday of Lent, Year C

Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Deuteronomy is the fifth scroll or book of the Torah — the technical title for the first five books of the Bible. Among Christians, the more common title is the Pentateuch, a noun derived from Greek meaning five scrolls. The Hebrew word Torah means the Teaching. The Torah is often called The Law or The Law of Moses, or just Moses; as in, “Moses wrote . . . .” It was believed that Moses was the author of the whole Torah. The best we can say about that belief is that the influence of Moses is prevalent; and he has the major role in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Moses lived in the 13th century B.C. The books (scrolls) attributed to him were assembled centuries later. Much of Deuteronomy is cast by its authors in the form of three long sermons of Moses to the Israelites in their years as nomads in the Sinai wilderness and northward to the Promised Land. He died before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Promise, so the sermons of Moses can serve also as his farewell address to his and God’s People. Excerpts removed from context begin with the words, “Moses said to the people,” as in today’s first reading.

Moses has come to the end of his second address to the Israelites. According to Exodus 22:28-29, God is entitled to what is first-born – human or animal – and to “an offering from the abundance of your threshing floor and your winepress.” The details are in today’s reading from Deuteronomy — the law of first fruits. The farmer, vintner and orchardist must put the first of a crop into a basket and take it to the local shrine. The priest accepts the basket and sets is in front of the altar. The one who offers the first fruits recites a creed detailing, in brief form, the history of the Israelites from the time of Abraham through the time of oppression in Egypt, to settlement in the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Deliverance from Egypt is attributed to the Lord accomplishing deliverance like some ancient emperor, through “his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders . . . .” The prayer of offering: “Therefore, I have now brought you the first fruits of the land, which you, O Lord, have given me.” This liturgy concludes with a bow to the Lord’s presence. A connection with today’s other readings is not obvious.

Psalm 91 was selected as a response, although it responds to the gospel of today rather than to the first reading. A theme of the gospel is, “trust in God as Jesus trusts in God during the temptations.” The Psalmist expresses his trust with these titles, “my refuge and my fortress, my God.” The next sections of the psalm contain statements quoted by the devil, in modified form, in the gospel as part of the third temptation scene. The people’s response: “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.”

In today’s reading from Romans, St. Paul attempts to convince Christians of Rome that faith and profession of that faith are the new, easier way to attain salvation. “If you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Paul reinforces this statement with the Old Testament. “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:16); and, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 3:5). Paul was commenting on words of Moses, “. . . the man who practices righteousness which is based on the Torah shall have life by it.” Paul contrasts, “But the righteousness based on faith” is much easier than a righteousness based on the works commanded by the Torah. Yet, it is those very works that Paul, on another occasion, offers as leading to the supreme law – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-10). Theologians are not always consistent.

The gospel is Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness. Luke found the basic story in Mark’s brief version of two sentences. Both Luke and Matthew expanded Mark into three specific temptations symbolizing, it seems, all temptations, as we read in Hebrews, “We have a high priest . . ., who in every way has been tempted as we are but without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).We should be aware that Luke’s and Matthew’s) presentations are not eyewitness reports of actual temptations but stand for all temptations, “in every way.” The Church Fathers Origen, died 254, and Cyril of Alexandria, died 444, have an interesting observation – that the first temptation of Jesus and the first temptation of the original parents are both about food. Where the latter failed, Jesus prevailed. The hunger of the Israelites surely fed into Luke’s version, since the passage in Deuteronomy 8:3 describing their hunger and why God permitted it includes Jesus’ response to the devil that, “One does not live by bread alone.” Not only the 40 years of Israel’s temptations in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2), but also the 40 days of fasting attributed to Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), seem to be at work in Luke’s and Matthew’s versions.

The second temptation is a temptation to lordship – power. The devil makes an offer to Jesus. He claims that all the kingdoms of the earth belong to him. He is willing to transfer title to Jesus under one condition, “if you worship me.” Jesus resorts for a second time to Deuteronomy (6:3), “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Luke may have in mind the episode of the Israelite worship of the golden calf. See Deuteronomy 9:16, 21. From the fourth to the early 20th century, the Church could have learned that the temptation to earthly power is a temptation to idolatry. The third temptation is related to the human desire for fame and acclaim, perhaps a temptation for grandeur over service. Luke treats this as tempting God; Jesus responds, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Does he have in mind the oft-noted human way that Scripture has of attributing to God jealousy over the attention given to fake gods? Would this apply to personality cults, to modern idols, treated as gods? See, for example, Deuteronomy 5:9; 6:15. The devil interprets Psalm 91 literally — a warning to biblical literalists against abusing biblical passages by taking them out of context.