First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13-17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The Book of Genesis is the first of five books in the collection of books called Torah, a Hebrew word meaning “teaching or law.” The Greek term for this collection is translated into English as Pentateuch. This Greek term, at least in word origin, means “five containers,” referring to the five tubes or cases in which the five great scrolls of the Torah were individually stored. Eventually the Greek word was understood as the five great scrolls themselves. The English title by which the first of the five books or scrolls is known is Genesis. The title is derived from the Greek word meaning “origin,” referring first to the origins of all creatures, then especially to the origins of the Hebrew or Israelite peoples or nation. The Hebrew title for a book of the Bible is taken from the first word or words of the Hebrew text. Thus the first single Hebrew word of Genesis is translated into English as “In the beginning.”
Genesis begins with a liturgical hymn singing of God’s creation of the world in six days, though one could say seven days, since God also is said to have created Shabbath (Sabbath). This He-brew word is derived from a Hebrew verb which means “to cease, to desist, to stop,” but came to mean the seventh day at the end of the six days of activity, or simply “rest.” This liturgical hymn is only the first of two creation stories. The first reading for this Sunday is part of the second creation story, a very different story about origins, and from a different literary and theological source. To attempt to harmonize the first and second creation stories as if they were intended to be written as history is a disservice to The Author and the authors. The intent is catechetical instruction. Even the word Torah means exactly that, “instruction.” Therefore, we look for what-ever instruction God intended to give through the combination of inspired human authors. Though there are many discrepancies between the first and second creation stories, they agree in this — God is the source of all creation, no matter how that fundamental truth is taught. The part of the second creation story we read on this Sunday is the story of the Fall into sin. This sets us up for the liturgical season of Lent — a time in which we recognize not so much the first sin but our own sins and sinfulness, a time of cooperation with God’s grace to overcome our sins.
The Responsorial Psalm 51 is the most important of a group of Psalms known as The Seven Penitential Psalms: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. Psalm 51 is often known by its first word in the Latin translation, Miserere, in English, “Have mercy.” A fitting response to the story of the origins of sin in ourselves! The Psalmist recognizes his sinfulness and pleads for God’s forgive-ness. He recognizes that sin is an offense against God. He pleads for a clean heart and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. The selection for today’s liturgy ends with the opening prayer which each begins the praying of the official prayer of the Church, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.”
The second reading is from the Letter to the Romans. Paul puts into profound theology the Old Testament story-form of this Sunday’s first reading, connecting it with the remedy that comes to us in Jesus. Sin enters the world through one man and brings death with it, so that death reigned (was in charge). Then he compares Adam with Jesus Christ. If so many died through the sin of one man, so “the gracious gift of God of the one man Jesus Christ overflows for the many, grace being more powerful than sin. Through the work of Jesus Christ, God justifies humankind, that is restores it to a condition acceptable to him. Death reigns no more. Now life reigns.
The story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness comes to us in three gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Mark’s version is basic, brief, generic. Matthew and Luke expand Mark’s story in three specific temptations. This year we have Matthew’s version. In Mark’s version, the Holy Spirit, who had just come upon Jesus in his baptism, “expels” (forces) Jesus into the desert. This begins Mark’s theology of total abandonment of Jesus. For Matthew, that is too brutal. Therefore, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert.” The desert was the place of cleansing of the Israelites for 40 years. The one who represents all Israel is said to undergo a cleansing in the desert for 40 days and nights. The cleansing experience must include fasting, which sets the stage for the first temptation; “. . . and afterwards Jesus was hungry.” The whole story recalls the Israelite experience of specific temptations. The Israelites rebelled when hungry. Jesus merely recalls the will of his Father to which he is obedient, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” a reference to Deuteronomy 8:3.
The second temptation involves Jerusalem and a tip of the temple. The devil, with a quote from Psalm 91, invites Jesus to jump. As in the first temptation, this one also tempts Jesus to deviate from his Father’s plan — that the path to real glory will be through suffering and death, not through a crowd pleasing spectacle. Jesus again resorts to Deuteronomy (6:16), a warning against testing God. The third temptation is on a high mountain from which all the nations of the earth could be seen. The devil promises to give them to Jesus, “if you will fall down and worship me.” A third time Jesus refers to Deuteronomy (6:13-14), “The Lord your God shall you worship, and him alone shall you serve.” What is Matthew teaching? A homilist or a reader is free to interpret as fits the occasion. A suggestion for each of the temptations as they involve the devil and Scripture: first, a rejection of the pursuit of material goods while neglecting the spiritual is the work of the devil; second, the pursuit of human glory is the devil’s work; third, the pursuit of power over others is the devils work. Why was the sinless one tempted at all? An answer that still leaves us in the questioning darkness of faith: “Because he himself suffered and was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted,” Hebrews 2:18.