Paul T. Keil, February 26, 2023
The First Sunday of Lent, Year A
Peace be with you on this, our celebration of The Mass for the First Sunday of Lent. Alright, so here we are, four/five days into Lent. How is your spiritual growth going so far? If you’ve been listening to the message from this pulpit for the last couple of weeks you know, personal spiritual growth should be at the heart of these 40 days. In fact, right now might be a good time to contemplate for a few seconds as ask, is what I’m doing so far for Lent helping my spiritual growth? Hopefully the answer is “yes” but if not, now is a great time to reevaluate and perhaps seek a more spiritual path towards Easter. And of course, ultimately, any path we might discover that helps personal spiritual growth should continue right on past Easter and become part of our lives from now on.
So today we’ve just heard Matthew’s version of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the desert. You know, I’m not sure about you, but over the years there have been a few things that have bothered me about this story. It was probably my engineering mind working but have you ever wondered; who was the eyewitness, who was listening to the exchange between Jesus and Satan to write it down, or how could Jesus Christ, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, ever really be tempted by the devil in the first place? Well, as I was sitting in a Catholic University classroom studying Scripture here is how a wise old professor answered my questions: “First, Jesus is, was, and always will be the Son, coeternal with the Father and Holy Spirit, in Trinity. Second, Jesus knew exactly whom he was talking to in the desert that day. Third, this was not a true temptation encounter from a human perspective. It was spiritual joust using Scripture instead of swords. Fourth, there were no eyewitnesses to this encounter between Jesus and the Evil One. And finally, Jesus himself chose to tell this temptation story to his disciples later, specifically to TEACH through divine revelation.” Now my professor’s answer does not constitute Catholic Doctrine per se, and you can certainly choose to ignore it, but personally, I’ve always loved the image of Jesus’ Apostles sitting around the campfire listening to him talk about this first verbal battle with Satan.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place this story right after Jesus’ baptism and just before his public ministry, obviously a prominent place in the salvation story. So, as we sit here on this First Sunday of Lent, what is the salvation message to take away from this temptation story? Friends, this is where the New Testament really starts teaching us the difference between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world. This is where Jesus really begins his journey to Calvary. This is where Jesus begins saying to each and every one of us, “As I, so you. Follow my example. Do as I do.” You’ve often heard me talk about the four great false gods of our modern secular culture; pride, power, pleasure, and wealth, for you engineers that’s P3 + W. Well, it doesn’t take much thought to realize these temptations of Christ in the desert crosswalk neatly into the wisdom of the world portrayed by pride, power, pleasure, and wealth.
Let me ask, have you ever thought about this; as the New Testament starts out with a temptation story, so does the Old Testament? Of course, we all know these two-temptation stories end significantly different. The OT story revolves around that first great “P” word on the false god list – pride. When we hear the serpent tell Eve, “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” And, out of pride, I think humanity still struggles, making God-like decisions today, don’t you? When theologians talk about the 7 deadly sins, they always place pride on the top of the list as the most dangerous. Why? My sisters and brothers, pride is the sin that opens the door for us to rationalize almost anything. As modern Americans especially, pride is the sin that allows us to say, “it’s my right,” even when it’s spiritually, ethically, or morally wrong.
In Jesus’ temptation story, Satan offered him everything encompassing worldly pride, power, pleasure, and wealth, and his answer was what? Perhaps when we’re tempted to make a god-like decision ourselves, Jesus’ answer to Satan should be our own, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Now imagine yourself with Jesus and his Apostles sitting around the campfire as he tells this temptation story and he looks directly at you and asks, “how often do you serve personal pride, or place your own desire for power, pleasure, or wealth ahead of serving God? Out of pride, do you rationalize an ethical or moral decision that you know deep down in your own heart – is wrong. Do you listen to your God or to your ego.”
Now before I wrap up today, let me make one thing perfectly clear; pride, power, pleasure, and wealth are not, in themselves, inherently evil. They are some of the things that make us truly human and separate us from the animals. God doesn’t want us to go through life as miserable unhappy people. Really and truly, pleasure is OK. These very human characteristics only become evil when we, through our own free wills, allow them to become god-like. When we allow them to control our lives. When we put them ahead of the one true God and creator of the universe. As I hear this 2000-year-old temptation story about Jesus and Satan I’m reminded of a quote from C.S. Lewis, which it seems, is even more applicable today, “While Satan is out of style, he is not out of business.”
So, here’s your homework. As you go home today remember to ask yourself, “Is my Lenten practice helping me to grow spiritually.” If the answer is no, you might want to reevaluate. After all, we’re just starting our first full week. The late Father James Gilhooley gave some great advice for Lent. “Call someone who’s lonely and say, ‘I’ll come over.’ Go to confession. Smile more. Read the Bible. Forgive an enemy. Love someone who doesn’t deserve it. Be kinder than necessary. Exercise. Live one day at a time and make it a work of art. Finish Lent as a more interesting Christian.”