The Liturgy starts Lent with a reminder that it is based on the forty days of Jesus’ time of prayer and fasting in the desert. The first two readings put us in the middle of longer texts – that may act as a challenge to spend more time in reading or reflecting on the full text .
The readings are available online here.
Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7
This is from the second creation account in the first book of the Hebrew bible. The first story shows God creating the universe and it is all ‘good’. It is generally considered the next section is by another author, one who is a gifted story-teller, and it takes up the issue, ‘if God’s intention was all for the goodness of the world and it’s inhabitants, what went wrong?’ ‘Adam and Eve’ is a familiar story even in the secular world, but for true understanding it needs careful reading and background is helpful
‘The tree of knowledge of good and evil’ has been an issue for those who ask, ‘Why would God want ignorance?’ It helps to understand that for the Hebrews ‘know’ means also ‘participate in’. (So it is used for sexual relations, as ‘he knew his wife and she conceived….’) It does not mean that God wants people to be ignorant, rather that we do not need to do evil in order to ‘understand’ it – an idea sometime expressed in the present. Another aspect of that temptation is that humans do not determine what is right and wrong, instead we have God’s word on that.
The liturgy has left out many details, and is good to read the whole story (Genesis 2:4 to 3:24). Then some of the popular assumptions will fail: Eve is not a wicked sexual temptress, nor does God intend her to be inferior to the male. Her temptation is rather to power (‘be like gods’ and pleasure of eating). The serpent is not called the devil or Satan, although obviously, but mysteriously, it is more than a mere animal. It represents any voice trying to lead people to disobey God. (It may have seemed a good image to the writer because snakes were worshipped by the Canaanites in their fertility cults.) The lies of the serpent are quickly exposed as the story continues: after their disobedience, the pair do not ‘become like gods’ – instead they become aware of their physical bodies, and begin to feel a shame that was lacking before their disobedience. Nakedness is symbolic of human frailty. Whether or not we think that we ‘inherit’ their weakness as ‘descendants’, the basic point is that the goodness God planted in us is subject to human freedom and allows decisions and actions that put a distance between people and God. The result is a picture of the world – then and now: peoples distanced from nature, blaming others for what they do, finding life often harsh or painful. But the story contains a hope that such a world is ‘not the last word’.
Psalm 51/52:3-6, 12-14, 17
This is one of the ‘penitential psalms’ recognising personal sin but trusting in God to put us right again – with a ‘pure heart and steadfast spirit’. It sets a good example for Lent prayers.
St Paul’s Letter to the Roman community is a long and dense laying out of his theology, emphasising how in Jesus the Messiah, all the promises of the past are being fulfilled. As N. T. Wright puts it in his massive study, God’s ‘faithfulness’ comes to us despite all the past wrongdoing. In today’s selection, Paul is working with the first book of the Hebrew bible with its ‘first prediction’ that God will overcome all the evil and suffering arising from human sinfulness. Ironically, however the liturgy has left out that promise today; When laying out the dire results of their action to the man and woman, are also the words to the serpent: ‘I will set enmity between you and the woman, between your descendants and hers.’ (Genesis 3:15) So in the view of Paul, God intends only good from the time of creation, but after human failure this will come to fullness only in the life-death-resurrection of Jesus in which we are destined to share. Lent can be a time of recognising we have to live in this ‘not yet’ period till the final ‘day of the Lord’.
One note about the language of the translation we hear: it is based on older ideas that ‘man’ was inclusive of both men and women. Greek has one word meaning ‘males’ and one meaning ‘human’ and that word (anthropos) is used throughout this part of the Letter, including when he speaks of Jesus. The Hebrew word adam means a human and it is not till after the fall, that the woman is given a different name, Eve, of her own (Genesis 3:20). So this explanation treats both sexes as equal in God’s sight.
Part of the context of this selection is Paul explaining the Law (Torah) and how it functioned as a moral guide for the Jews, but also showing that non-Jews were still to blame for their sinfulness, as well. All humans come under the condemnation of sinfulness, all ‘fall short of the glory of God’. But even more important – all are being saving through Jesus. Sin brings death, but Jesus brings life and righteousness and that comes freely, it is gift of God, and nothing we have earned.
This can give a program to take us into Lent. Sometimes the period is taken as setting up practices we can carry out to prove how well we doing in ‘giving up’ some pleasure. In the light of Paul’s emphasis, it would be a time in which we become aware of our difficulties in doing what is right, and then turn to God to lead us to deeper or wider ways living out the commands of love. In the process, we then appreciate how much we need the grace of God and the guidance of the spirit, day by day.
This reading explains the forty days of the Christian Lent are related to Christ’s time of fasting in the desert. Traditionally called the ‘Temptation’ but with some modern scholars I prefer ‘the Testing of God’s Son’ as better explaining the Greek word used by Matthew. Like a medical ‘test’, any suggestion of wrongdoing will show up what is the truth of our condition, whether or not we decide to choose God’s loving will.
The account is written as a drama, seen from ‘outside’ and not shown as a ‘psychological’ experience of any ‘tempting’ Jesus may have felt. Rather we are in the realm of Deuteronomy, where the Hebrew people were tested – and ‘tested God’ – in their 40 years of wandering through the Sinai desert on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land. As one way to understand this, we see Jesus as the ‘New’ or ‘True’ Israel which had been called by prophets as God’s son. Matthew has made this point by quoting in his infant story a prophecy from Hosea 11:1.
Forty days were a traditional Old Testament number, recalling fasts by Moses (Deuteronomy 9:9-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8). Jesus’ forty days were led by the Spirit and follows in the gospel directly on his baptism, where words from heaven identified Jesus as ‘the beloved Son of God’. The tempter takes this up, challenging Jesus to show proof that Son of God is what he truly is.
All of Jesus’ answers are quotations from the book of Deuteronomy, written about that period in Israel’s history. For some of the references to that book: God’s love 7:6-7. Father-son relationship 8:5. Testing 8:2. Jesus’ responses are 2:7, 8:3, 6:16. The devil’s quotation is from Ps 90/91:11-12.
The Hebrews failed when their trust and fidelity were tested by conditions in the desert, but Jesus triumphantly overcomes each temptation and proves in a very different way than Satan suggested that he is truly the Son of God. Not one who shows off his worldly power but who lives out his Father’s will in every way. The tests have at their core absolute trust in God and on God’s call in life. Such a faith does not ‘use’ God in any way either to satisfy a need like hunger, nor prove by a miracle that God cares. Whether the devil’s boast that he controls ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ is true, the offer is contrary to the different ‘Dominion of God/Heaven’ that Jesus describes in this Gospel.
Jesus is showing, in his replies, faithfulness to God, and his overcoming all the tests is part of the way God’s faithfulness is being shown to the world.
(I have drawn for this reflection from N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and also checked a recent translation of The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter.)