We’re not doing a standard Bible study for Lent and Easter, so I’ve decided to put my commentary on the Sunday readings, rather than study guides, up on the blog.
First Reading (Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7)
The Old Testament readings for Lent begin with Genesis — first failure (the sin of Adam and Eve), then promise (God beginning His covenant with Abram). Then the third through fifth weeks we’ll see how God provides for His people, how He exalts the lowly, and restores them to life.
But first we have to hear the familiar story of the Garden of Eden: God creating man and woman, placing them in the garden, and their disobedience of His command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
God breathes into us “the breath of life” and so we are living beings; the “breath” of God, ruah in Hebrew, is another name for His Spirit. It is His Spirit which gives life to our souls, and which He pours out upon us to give us new life in Baptism and to strengthen that life in Confirmation.
The first man was named “Adam,” a play on the Hebrew word for soil or ground, adamah. Likewise, our word “human” comes from the Latin humanus, which has a root of humus, which means soil or ground.
The serpent which tricks Eve was no measly snake — the New Testament identifies Satan as “that ancient serpent” (Revelation 12:9). Satan wants us to question God — to question His commands, His will for us, even His very wisdom. The result of Eve’s transgression, and Adam’s going along with it, causes them to become ashamed of how God had made them (was God foolish to have kept them naked?), and fills them with a desire to hide from Him (is God unable to find anything?), leading to the first question in the whole Bible (Genesis 3:9, just outside of the reading we’ll hear), God calling out to Adam, “Where are you?” Of course, when God asks a question, it’s not because He doesn’t know the answer, but because He wants to hear our answer…
Responsorial (Psalm 51)
And our answer, our response to that first sin, is to confess our own sin in the words of David the King (how fitting). We ask God to be merciful, to wash away our sins, to renew our hearts, to keep us in His presence, and to let us experience the joy of salvation. In response to His grace, we will proclaim His praise.
Second Reading (Romans 5:12-19)
St. Paul gives us a recap and analysis of our First Reading: how sin and death entered the world through one person and how likewise salvation and eternal life entered the world through one person. Paul names Adam, not Eve, as the root: “the trespass of Adam”. Perhaps this implies that Adam failed in his God-given duties “to cultivate (keep) and care for (guard) the garden” (Genesis 2:15) by permitting the serpent to convince Eve that God was a liar.
This reminds us that we can be complicit in the sin of another both by our action and by our inaction. For those of you were at the Ash Wednesday Mass at St. David the King this week, you might remember we prayed the Confiteor (“I Confess”) at the beginning of Mass, where we admit to having sinned “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.”
But Paul does not end with gloom; he preaches the Gospel! Jesus is the new Adam (and Mary is the new Eve). Jesus succeeded where Adam failed; we now have acquittal where before we had condemnation; we have life where before we had death. In short, where as the many have suffered for the sin of one, the many can now rejoice in the righteousness of one. And not only can we rejoice in the righteousness of Christ, we have the promise of being made righteous through God’s grace given to us in Christ Jesus.
Gospel Verse (Matthew 4:4)
Before we hear the Gospel, we always hear a verse intended to prepare us for the whole thing. This week it is the first response of Christ to his tempter, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” We’ll look at this in more detail in the Gospel, below.
Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11, paralleled in Luke 4:1-13)
The Catholic Church uses a three-year cycle for Sunday readings. Since Advent 2016, we have been in Year A, which uses the Gospel according to Matthew predominantly (although we’ll hear John’s Gospel a lot during Lent). Because Lent is a time when we consider more strongly our spiritual struggle against sin, we start the season by hearing about the temptation of Christ in the desert by Satan, after his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist.
As is often the case, the Gospel is related thematically to the Old Testament reading. Jesus’s temptation is contrasted with Adam and Eve’s, with St. Paul’s analysis as the hinge between them.
After his baptism, the Holy Spirit urges Jesus to go out to the desert to be tempted. Not just to spend time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, but to face the tempter, Satan. That might sound like a foolish decision by God: to identify His chosen one and then put him in harm’s way. But even the “foolishness of God” surpasses the wisdom of man (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus is tested, but never succumbs. Satan takes advantage of his fasting and hunger, and challenges him to turn stones into bread, surely something the Son of God could do. He challenges Jesus to jump from the Temple roof, since surely the Son of God would be protected from falling to his death. And he challenges Jesus to worship him, Satan, instead of God, and promises dominion over all the kingdoms of the world in return. This time, the devil does not bring up Jesus’s title as “Son of God”, but it is implied: Satan is asking Jesus to forsake his Father, to give up his inheritance (as God’s Son) and choose a promised gift from him instead.
Jesus responds to each of Satan’s tests by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, one of the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, the books of Moses, the Torah. To the challenge to produce bread from stones, he quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, and refuses to use his power for his own benefit, choosing to accept God’s will, which in the desert, means fasting and being hungry! The context of the verse he quotes is Moses’ warning to the Israelites that the miraculous manna (bread from heaven) which God provided for them in their hunger was a sign that they should heed God’s commandments as their source for life. So Jesus places God’s will for him over the temporal benefit of food.
In the second challenge, the devil himself quotes Scripture to trap Jesus (a practice Christ would encounter again by others who opposed him). Satan quotes Psalm 91, the psalm of those whose fortress, shelter, and refuge is God. The psalm confesses that for those who trust in God, “no evil shall befall you … for he commands his angels … to guard you wherever you go … lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:10-12) But Jesus is smarter than Satan, and responds with Moses’ instruction to the Israelites not to “put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16) as they had done at Massah (which we’ll hear about in the following Sunday’s First Reading). What is more, Satan is foolish to choose Psalm 91, which promises that God will save His faithful from snares and traps, and they shall tread upon serpents!
In the third challenge, the devil (the “ruler of this world” as Jesus thrice calls him in John’s gospel) promises to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, but Jesus rebukes him with the oldest rule in the book: you shall worship God and no other (Deuteronomy 6:13). Israel knows the sad history of abandoning worship of God, and Jesus is restoring Israel, making the right decisions where they made the wrong ones. Worshiping God, and only God, is Faithfulness 101; it’s a precept so simple yet so important that Moses instructed it to be written on the Israelites’ doorposts, and worn upon the arm and the head as jewelry, that the Word of God would never be far from them.
In return for Jesus’ faithfulness, not only do angels come and minister to him when Satan leaves, but Jesus confirms that what Satan attempted to offer him has actually been given to him by his Father: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)
God has always been the gold standard for us: how He loves, we should love; how He protects, we should protect; how He is perfect, we should be perfect. But we could never learn from God’s own example how to obey… until He came to us as a man, as Jesus. In Jesus Christ, God has finally shown us a perfect example of obedience, because his obedience is God’s obedience. For this, we should give thanks. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of endless glory.
Questions to Consider
- When have I been persuaded to trust in someone or something other than God?
- What temptations do I face, and how do I resist them?
- How can I use my fasting and abstinence during Lent to focus more on God’s will for me?