First Sunday of Lent
Archbishop Oscar Romero once said there are two plans in history: God’s plan and an idolatrous plan. This dichotomy clearly appears also in the first reading. God says to the people of Israel: ‘I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19). The temptations of Jesus raise two questions for us: ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we to do?’ We are confronted by the same question Jesus faced: do we meet ‘my’ physical needs, ‘my’ level of power and place and ‘my’ access or right to special favours from God.
It questions an individualistic view of God who always, through Jesus, directs our attention to seek beyond just our needs and towards the world. Jesus clearly states that he has come for God and from God for others; that his work involves serving humanity and not his own physical, privilege, and powerful self. Embracing the radical ministry of the life and message of Jesus is liberating. He wasn’t building a brand or a business. Jesus’ passion was reflecting the extravagant love of God to those who were desperate to receive it. Surely there is a strong message here for the institutional church in the failures of leaders to respond to children seeking redress from sexual abuse, women seeking to be regarded as valued and equal members of the community, GLBTIQ people who seek to be respected for who they are. Equally relevant are the empires that threaten peace in our world.
Can we put boundaries on our desires for power, wealth, or privilege? Will we serve ourselves or define ourselves by our relationship to people who have no bread and only stones available to them. Can we imagine how they might long for a ‘miracle’ of generosity in the hearts of God’s people?
Deuteronomy touches on this tension by picking up the ideas of ‘giving’ and ‘possessing’. It has implications always for aliens and strangers amongst us and those considered vulnerable (orphans and widows).
The tempter does not want to bring fish or bread, but magic. The temptation is to address every problem by economic, political, and religious solutions. In rejecting the temptation to power and influence, Jesus chooses to live a life of being there for others and enduring the path of the oppressed. He shows us that those in power are not the friends of the poor. God is.
As we watch and pray for Ukraine now invaded, many people have been unaware of the reach of the US presence (empire) around the world and its involvement in devil or Satan worship. The founding of the USA, Canada, and Australia were based on seizure of land and genocide. Where treaties existed, they were violated. At the moment, the USA has 800 military bases around the world describing an extensive, highly oppressive, and extremely violent presence.
The interaction between Jesus and the tempter today shows a clear negative judgement on empire and colonialism. As victim of empire, Jesus as a prophet proclaimed not himself or a new religion but ‘the reign of God’. Here was a great reversal which we have heard in recent weeks where the first would be last; the last would be first; the rich would weep, and the poor would laugh; outsiders, such as prostitutes and tax collectors, would enter God’s reign, while those in power and privilege would be excluded; the world would belong to the non-violent rather than the powerful and violent. Compassion and gift (sharing) would be at the heart of this.
The message in the second temptation where Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the earth means that those who exercise imperial power do so because an evil spirit has shares this possession with them: ‘I may give it to whomever I wish.’ So, whoever exercises empire is the devil’s agent. Devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: ‘All this will be yours, if you worship me.’ For Jesus empire and worship of God are incompatible.
The alluring offer of political power by the tempter means forgoing morality in the public sphere. God wants a new human community that does justice, seeks the welfare of all and makes peace. Jesus chose integrity and humanity and risked all by entrusting his message and future in the hands of ordinary people rather than the powerful. The question Jesus faced was whether he would walk with people without looking for ways out or flashing rescues. As God in disguises, Jesus comes in the homeless, the hungry, the forgotten, the stranger and the overlooked. Do we say, ‘I am like these people’ or ‘I am not part of these people’? It means living differently - a way of living where ‘justice is achieved by putting our energies in living compassionate, truthful and joyous lives that are completed in kindness and care.
Jesus saw the everyday face of temptation and the pull of illusion. As for us, they were real and powerful. These temptations hounded him throughout his life but continued to live the goal of his clearly defined ministry: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor’ (Luke 4:18-19).
As intimated earlier, the temptations also touch us as church and nation. We put national security over the needs of vulnerable people. Fear and greed are assuaged by military spending to the neglect of many social programmes. The focus on the need for security maintains a consumer/capitalist lifestyle which needs to be defended. So-called ‘security’ and stock exchanges are false idols which must be unmasked by focusing on God’s justice which looks like mercy and compassion.
We must be prepared to be misunderstood if we are to be at the service of those who captives, poor, oppressed. This is precisely the challenge before the churches at this time of our history in this nation. Will they stand with those who are oppressed and captives or look away? It happened in Nazi Germany and the churches were condemned for that by people like Alfred Delp sj and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who paid the price for this with their lives. The world’s definition of success and security cannot influence our actions and decisions. God’s reign of justice does not come about by us alone but with God present with us. We are called to build God’s reign as co-creators of a truly new world. As we engage with the critical issues of our time, we are called to be disciples of love, inclusivity, reconciliation, and equality.
Jesus was tempted to give up on God the way we sometimes are. Where was God when Jesus faced opposition and needed help throughout his ministry? Why didn't God answer Jesus when he prayed in the garden the night before his execution, or from the cross? It seems Jesus had to go through what we are asked to do--trust God; hope against hope.
Lent then is not so much the giving up of things but remembering God is with us and calls us to focus once on others, including our real or perceived enemies. The focus is on God’s care, protection and provision for God’s people and Jesus embraces different values – not issues of entitlement, security, power, and consumption. In his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen says that in the temptations Jesus is taunted to be relevant, popular, spectacular, and powerful. The trickiest thing about the temptations is that they arrive in the camouflage of good ideas, even as ways to advance the reign of God. All the provocations in the gospel lead to one response: Jesus stands firmly in God.
Anyone who lives with passion and becomes deeply committed to the cause of Jesus will be tempted as he was. Luke tells us that temptation was not a one-time event for Jesus any more than for us. May we contemplative and learn from Jesus how to be faithful to our God, our sisters and brothers and all Creation.
Holy Companion of our wilderness wandering,
draw near to us and give us strength.
Remind us of the ways in which you have always
been a God of liberation for the alienated and lost.
Lead us to embrace our vocation
to authentically serve you and one another,
reaching beyond ourselves to empower the powerless.
from Out in Scripture