The First Reading and the Gospel are all about temptation—an appropriate theme for the First Sunday of Lent. And surely something we all know about!
But these temptations in our readings don’t seem very tempting to us. They are not all that interesting and certainly not very exciting. Stealing an apple, as in the account of the Garden of Eden, seems a bit pedestrian for a temptation these days! I don’t suppose small boys today even bother stealing apples; they probably find it easier and more profitable to steal mobile phones from even smaller boys!
And being able to throw yourself off the parapet of the Temple seems even less tempting except for those who fancy themselves in the role of Superman.
To people today temptations are perhaps more about lust and money and personal ambition. Temptation is about transgressing accepted behaviour, doing someone else down for personal advantage, or compromising our honesty to gain something we perceive to be to our benefit.
Of course, it is mostly an illusion that what we desire is actually for our own benefit. Usually when we get what we want we aren’t truly satisfied and merely go on to lust after something else. We find ourselves chained to a treadmill of unremitting craving for one thing after another. It is an addictive process.
Sometimes we are tempted to tell tales about other people; to gossip about matters that we would be wiser to keep quiet about. Often this is just so we can gain the esteem of others by telling them something salacious that they do not yet know. We think that having ‘inside information’ makes us more important people. But, of course, it doesn’t.
So, what are we to make of these Biblical temptations? Well. actually, I think that they do go to the very heart of what a temptation is about even though they might seem a bit unlikely or even bizarre to us. They go to the heart of the problem because temptation is fundamentally about a distortion of the way things really are.
In the case of Adam and Eve they are tempted by the idea that they could become like God and be able to exercise the same sort of power that he does. They think that if they possessed this secret of the knowledge of good and evil they would be on a par with God. But this could never be, they could never achieve equality with their creator; indeed, it is the height of arrogance for them to think in this way. The root of the temptation is a distortion of the realities of their relationship with God.
If we are to translate this to a modern day setting, we could see a parallel with those who declare they have no need of God. They do not deny him but simply live without him. They ignore him who cannot be ignored! This is a rejection of their true place in relation to God. They are refusing to acknowledge the one who created them and believe they can live without the very one who keeps them in being.
In the case of Jesus in the desert, he is presented with a series of temptations which if yielded to would distort his relationship with the Father. If he were to accept these temptations he would be rejecting his position as the Son of God, and therefore as our Divine Saviour.
Accepting the Devil’s suggestions would in some way mean that Jesus was putting the Father to the test and to imply that he distrusted him. This would be in clean contradiction to the closeness and trust that exists within the Trinity and the consequences would be cataclysmic for us.
The compilers of the Lectionary are also making a point when they put these two stories next to each other: Adam yields to temptation, but Christ, the New Adam, does not.
We began Lent on Wednesday with the imposition of ashes as a sign of our mortality and our wish to do penance in recognition of the great mercy shown us by God by means of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
It is always interesting to observe the reaction of the children at the school when they receive the ashes on their foreheads. Most of them had it rubbed off within two minutes, but some are very careful to keep the ashes on their foreheads as long as they possibly can.
But Lent goes beyond Ash Wednesday, it lasts much longer than the few minutes we manage to keep the ashes on our foreheads. In fact, it lasts the best part of six weeks, and it is important to make a decision to do something positive. I don’t know about you, but each year when Lent is over I often have to reproach myself for not having done very much in the way of penance.
I often start full of good intentions but before the first week is over I discover that I didn’t do anything serious. It is because I easily get distracted by other things and don’t make my Lenten penance a real priority. I often feel that a penance, even if self-imposed, is a burden and something irksome. One thing I never seem to take into account is that it is a reflection of my faith.
We undertake penance because we believe. We believe that what Christ did for us on that first Good Friday brought about our salvation from sin and opened up the way to eternal life for all of mankind. Now if we really believed this with every fibre of our being we would want to do some penance every day in recognition of Jesus’ sufferings.
In fact, if we really had faith our penances could get out of hand. The Church, in its wisdom down the centuries has recognised this and actually sets limits to our fasting and other penances. Too much would not be good for us. We are meant to enjoy life. But we are also meant to do some moderate penance. Of course, the very best penance is not to be saying all kinds of extra prayers, attending numerous masses or fasting at starvation levels.
No, the best kind of penance is to carry out the will of God as revealed in the Gospel. The best kind of penance is perhaps summed up in that line from the Prophet Mica: Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God. (Mica 6:8)
Perhaps what we should be concentrating on is getting the basics of our faith right and leaving the extras for another day. After all, the height of hypocrisy is to spend hours on religious observances and then go home to kick the dog. I came across an expression recently which sums up this sort of person quite well: ‘The man who hugs the altar rails often doesn’t hug his own wife!’ Let us do penance by all means, but don’t let us fall into that trap.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket