Mar. 28, 2017

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT

THE REALITY OF TEMPTATION AND THE POWER OF GRACE IN US

"But it doesn't matter", that's the language. Temptation comes subtly in those tones; "No! You will not die..., your eyes will be opened..." (Gen.3:5); "He has given his angels orders about you" (Matt.4:6). First, we need to recognize how clever the devil is. Look at how it strikes: -those cravings for food and sensuality (tell these stones to turn into loaves); for power and fame (throw yourself down); for wealth and material possessions (I will give you all these). The first reading begins with the second account of creation. God forms humanity from the dust of the earth and breathes into him the breath of life in order that he may live. God placed humanity in the beautiful garden of Eden with various trees delightful and good for food. Of all the beautiful trees, God gave man injunction not to eat just one.

Then the serpent creeps in, cunning and smart. It targets the woman. His question is also well articulated, "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" Maybe Eve would have simply answered yes without stretching the matter. She would have made the discussion short by saying yes, God did. Rather, she volunteered answers to the advantage of the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, "You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die" (Gen.3:2-3). The serpent cashed on her weak point. Maybe if the serpent gave Adam the fruit first, he wouldn't have reserved for the wife. The serpent knew that the woman would like to keep for her hubby. And it worked. "You certainly would not die!". The woman was excited hearing the words., "The moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened". The fruit was "pleasing and desirable"- these are the qualities of sin.

The symbolism of the Fall narrative and the tree of good and evil help us to appreciate the continuous struggle of humanity in the face of sin. The serpent symbolizes the lurking nature of temptation. The woman and her husband symbolize the weakness of the human flesh. The tree of good and evil symbolizes divine status. Their inability to refer to God symbolizes human vulnerability once distant from God. God gave the man and the woman the command not to eat of the tree in the middle. The quickest way to answer the question from the serpent would have been to say, "I'm sorry, maybe I need to go ask God more about the reason why we shouldn't eat of the fruit". But that's human nature and sin, our eyes open once we sin. Think about the prodigal son.

In the gospel, Matthew presents the battle between Christ and the devil. He illustrates the power of fasting and prayer in our Christian life. Scripture says, "He fasted for forty days and forty nights..." The devil comes with different tactics to tempt Christ. "If you are the Son of God", is the devil's joker for Christ. He flatters him. The Old Testament tactic for the woman was, "Did God really tell you not to eat from the trees in the garden?". The devil always comes with a plan. Christ is the Son of God, for sure. He didn't need to be reminded of that. He didn't need flattery. Then the devil tries Christ's appetite. As son of God, he should have the capability of performing miracles. So turn the stones into bread. That will make you a champion among the people. And the fact that Christ is hungry was another gimmick. Satisfy your hunger through the bread you will convert from stones. Christ foils his game plan, "One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God". Christ is that Word through whom humanity will live. He is the true Bread that came down from heaven. So he didn't need earthly bread to survive.

How about fame? Maybe that would make him fall if he doesn't fall for food. The devil takes Christ to the parapet of the temple. He plans to experiment Christ's quest for power, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down"... He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you". The devil repeats exactly the words of Psalm 91. Jesus replies, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deut.6:16). It doesn't stop there. The devil grows bolder. Since he can't succeed with the scriptures, he resorts to claiming ownership of material possessions to make Jesus bow down before him; "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me". The love of possession is the last attempt to rope Jesus in. At this point, Christ forcefully rebukes the devil demanding that he recognizes his authority as Son of God. Think of the calming of the storm; how Jesus had rebuked the wind in the gospels, "Quiet now! Be calm!" (Mark.4:39). Jesus allowed the devil to exhaust his powers. He has to take charge again, "Get away, Satan" (Matt.4:10). When the devil left, the Angels came and ministered to him same as in the calming of the storms; those in the boat recognized his authority and exclaimed, "Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him" (Mk.4:41).

In the triple temptation from the gospel, we learn how much efforts the devil commits in the bid to have his way. He manufactures different tactics to win over his target. If it is not bread, then it is wealth. If it is not wealth, then it is power. The first reading describes it as that which is pleasing to the eyes and attractive. The devil knows how attractive earthly possessions could be to the human eye, and he uses them to set traps. And the language is, "But it doesn't matter". Assuming you want to resist the temptation of eating meat on Fridays of lent. The devil says, it doesn't matter if you eat it or not. It doesn't matter if you don't go to church. It doesn't matter if you drink alcohol in excess. It doesn't matter if you do drugs. It doesn't matter if you tell lies or cheat. It doesn't matter if you watch pornography. It doesn't matter if you don't live a holy life. That's the devil's voice speaking. Your antidote is to rebuke the devil and run back to God.

The first Adam succumbed to temptation, compromised the privilege given to him and the woman in the garden. Christ, who is the second Adam comes to undo what the first Adam did. He comes to save us from the sins caused by the first Adam. By conquering sin and temptation, Jesus does not only overcome the powers of Satan, he frees humanity from the effects of sin. Saint John writes, "From his fullness we have all of us, received grace upon grace" (Jn.1:16). In the second reading, Saint Paul remarks, "But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!" (Rom.5:15). Note the following: 

  1. Temptation is real. The devil is constantly moving around in search of a prey. He picks his target.
  2. He doesn't give up. His assignment is to make us fall. He uses every tactic.
  3. Temptations are attractive. The pleasures of the eye, sensual feelings and the seductions of the senses form a big part of the devil's focus.
  4. Food, material wealth and power (fame) are his strong weapons.
  5. As in the case of Eve and Adam, sometimes the devil could come through your partner, friends and beloved ones. Be careful when those you admire lead you into sin.
  6. Spiritual objects can also be his tools. Beware, the devil can quote the bible.
  7. We must be able to counteract the devil. Fast, pray, be equipped with the right scriptures. In the words of Peter, "Be sober, be vigilant; because your enemy the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, strong in the faith..." (1Pet.5:8-9).