Sunday Scripture: The First Sunday of Lent (Year C)



Welcome to this, the thirtieth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Temptation of Christ.

The Mount of Temptation which I visited on Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in November 2010.

  • First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:4-10.
  • Psalm 90 [91]:1-2, 10-15; Response: v.15.
  • Second Reading: Romans 10: 8-11.
  • Gospel: Luke 4: 1-13.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Deuteronomy bears the title Haddebharim in Hebrew meaning 'the words' (1:1) and indicating the book's central contents: three long speeches by Moses (1:1-4:43; 4:44-26:19; & 27-34) to prepare Israel for the conquest and inhabitance of the promised land. The speeches address the people in an "I—You" language of person-to-person discourse. It is existential; it puts us on the spot by challenging us to enter into covenant with the LORD now.

Deuteronomy is the last will and testament of Moses. His speeches in the first four sections follow the outline of a covenant renewal programme, beginning with a historical prologue recounting God's faithfulness to the Israelites throughout their wilderness journey (1:1-4:43) followed by a presentation of the general laws of the covenant (4:44-26:19), and the specific precepts deriving from the laws (12:1-26:19), concluding the speeches with the rites of the covenant renewal at Moab. The final section of the book brings to a conclusion the Pentateuch as a whole by communication Moses' last words and account of his death (31:1-34:12).

This week: The offering of the Firstfruits corresponds to the sanctuary law at the 12:1-14. It also celebrates the fulfilment of the territorial promise in function of which the law is to be obeyed. The wandering Aramaean passage is viewed by the great biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad as being the first Israelite creed. The figure is probably Jacob, Israel's common ancestor; a wanderer, he is without land and the rights which come with the possession of land. The beautiful declaration of faith and expression of gratitude in 5-10 instantly and profoundly transform an old agricultural feast; the offering is referred, not to the rhythm of nature and a god inherent in this nature, but to historical events and the God behind them. The essential dimension is that this passage reveals the typical deuteronomic pattern of oppression, cry for help, divine action in response to prayer, and this is our Lenten theme.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

This week's psalm is a psalm of trust frequently used at Compline. The psalm is unusual in that it speaks not of protection from enemies, but from 'pestilence' (vv.3, 6). The one who dwells in God's presence will suffer no harm and v. 11 is cited by Satan in the Gospel reading when he tempts Jesus. I always think this is particularly didactic in respect of those individuals who suggest a personal interpretation of Scripture; the devil knows Scripture very well, and in the Bible, he is quite prepared to use it to tempt and to justify wrong action. As Catholics, we believe that only the Church, who compiled the Sacred Scriptures, has the authority to explain what they mean.

Romans is a letter whose theological wealth touches most of the theological themes of the New Testament: Election, Faith, Law, Life, Righteousness, Salvation, Sin, and Spirit. It is in Romans that Paul sets out, more explicitly than in any other epistle, the meaning of Christian Salvation, the powerlessness of man and the fullness of the redeeming work of God.

Modern opinion is that Paul wrote Romans during the final months of his third missionary tour (Acts 18:23—21:16), probably during the winter of late AD 57 or early 58.

The body of Romans divides neatly into three parts:

  • Salvation in Christ (1:16-8:39)
  • Restoration of Israel (9:1-11:39)
  • Christian Living & Epilogue (12:1-16:23)

Rome clearly has a glowing reputation of faith by the time Paul writes to the community there: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world." (1:8) and I have to say that this is one of my favourite things about this Epistle! Paul is writing in order to introduce himself to the community there in preparation for his planned visit (1:11-13). This is unusual in itself as Paul didn't always do this. Paul hoped to establish the Roman Church as his missionary base for a new phase of evangelisation, having completed his work in the eastern Mediterranean. Paul's plan was to now turn his gaze towards Spain in the west (15:23-24) and to this end, he attempts to enlist the support of the Roman Church in carrying out his apostolic plan.

This week: the reading from Roman's retains the Lenten theme. Paul's message is that prayer leads to salvation. The reading begins with an interpretive paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. Paul, in the spirit of Moses in that Deuteronomic passage, insists that Israel cannot escape responsibility for obeying the Word of the Gospel, as though it were forced to look high and low for Christ. On the contrary, Israel cannot plead ignorance because the Gospel has come to its doorstep through the Scriptures and the missionary efforts of the Church (10:17-19). Paul quotes Joel 2:32 in v. 13, envisioning a time of judgement and salvation in the messianic age, with the Spirit pouring down on all flesh and a remnant of Israel being saved.

The Gospel According to St. Luke: The Gospel According to St. Luke: Luke is not only a theologian; he is also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. Luke begins his Gospel with a clearly stated aim: “to draw up an account of the events that have happened”. Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four gospels, this despite the fact that it only represents half the Lucan writings; Luke’s Gospel was originally joined to Acts as part of a two-volume work. This is evident in the Gospel itself, which frequently looks forward to Acts and Paul’s mission.

Brown indicates that the Gospel was written for churches in Greece and Syria, areas affected by Paul’s mission either directly, or indirectly. Lucan thought and proclivities can be detected in the extent to which the author changes the Marcan material, which makes up about thirty-five percent of Luke. Luke certainly improves Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary, as evidenced in 4:1,31 and 38. Luke alters the Latinism kēnsos (= census) in 20:22 from Mark 12:14 and substituting the more exact “craftiness- treachery” for “hypocrisy” in Mark 12:15 .

Luke alters the Marcan sequence to accomplish his goals as stated in the prologue: to write carefully and in an orderly manner, for example he puts Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth at the opening of the Galilean ministry (Luke 4:16-30) rather than after some time had elapsed (Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum.

Christologically, Luke is more reverential about Jesus than Mark and he avoids Marcan passages that might make Jesus seem weak, harsh or emotional (e.g. Mark 10:14 where Jesus is indignant). He also stresses detachment from possessions (Luke 5:11,28), the Twelve are even forbidden to take a staff!

Adrian Hastings, in his book Prophet and Witness in Jerusalem, makes particular capital over Luke’s allusion to the guilt of Jerusalem. Hastings suggests that this is because Jerusalem represented the old, exclusive Israel. Brown also draws attention to this point in An Introduction to the New Testament, where he asks if Pilate’s triple declaration of Jesus’ innocence represents an attempt to convince Greco-Roman readers that the Jews were totally responsible for the crucifixion. For Hastings, Luke demonstrates a strong affinity for the universality of Christianity and its apostolate to the Gentiles and points out to the Jews that they are the ones who have constantly rejected the messengers of God:

Hence it is not surprising if they now find themselves cut off from the new church and Holy People of God. Hastings states that this demonstrates that Luke was writing so that Christians might understand that Jerusalem had rejected Our Lord and thus had been rejected and was no longer the centre of God’s church, which had turned to the conversion of the Gentiles. It would seem to me that this idea would have been greatly aided by the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Brown however, notes that Acts 4:25-28 clearly blames Pilate and mitigates that this may have been an attempt to persuade Roman officials to deal fairly with Christians. Brown eventually concludes that the description of Jewish leaders resisting the spread of Christianity springs from a desire to explain why Christian preachers and especially Paul turned to the Gentiles.

The fact that the last half of Acts concentrates on Paul’s career raises the likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to the churches descended from the Pauline mission. Talbert concludes his study of Luke-Acts with the finding that the Gospel was indeed motivated by the “churchly situation”; The community was troubled by a concern for the true Christian tradition. Luke writes to aid Christians in these communities in their self-understanding, helping them to know that there was nothing subversive in their origins that should cause them to come into conflict with their Roman rulers.

The Lucan Gospel differs in many ways to Matthew making it seem likely that this Gospel was addressed to a different church (q.v.). The end of Acts attributed to Paul also indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles, which makes the intended audience unlikely to be Jewish Christians. This is corroborated by the way that Luke drops Marcan Aramaic expressions and place-names in his work.

Luke intends to trace the history of God’s plan from the coming of Jesus, to the fulfilment of the mission He gave to His disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The earthly ministry of Jesus and all the events before the Ascension are the turning point in human history for Luke.

If this post on Luke sparked your interest, there's a post on the historicity of the Synoptics here.

This week:
St. Thomas says:
Christ of His own free-will exposed Himself to be tempted by the devil, just as by His own free-will He submitted to be killed by His members; else the devil would not have dared to approach Him. Now the devil prefers to assail a man who is alone, for, as it is written, “if a man prevail against one, two shall withstand him.” And so it was that Christ went out into the desert, as to a field of battle, to be tempted there by the devil. Hence Ambrose says on Luke 4,1, that “Christ was led into the desert for the purpose of provoking the devil. For had he,” i.e. the devil, “not fought, He,” i.e. Christ, “would not have conquered.” He adds other reasons, saying that “Christ in doing this set forth the mystery of Adam’s delivery from exile,” who had been expelled from paradise into the desert, and “set an example to us, by showing that the devil envies those who strive for better things.” —SummaTheologiae, III, q.41.
The temptation of Jesus in the desert is really a stand alone narrative. One of those stories in the Bible which has so much theological depth, you could study it forever. Luke's narrative plots the course of Jesus' ministry. The temptation begs the question what kind of Messiah will Jesus be? What is the nature of His mission? Satan's aim is to commandeer Jesus' trajectory away from the path of suffering to a path of earthly power (4:6) and sensationalism (4:9-10). Ultimately he brings Jesus before Jerusalem, which alludes to His Passion and Holy week—Satan's defeat by the Cross (Heb 2:14-15; 1 Jn 3:8, CCC 538-40, 2119). Allegorically, we see a link with the story of Adam and Eve. Christ goes into the wilderness to rescue man from his exile in sin. Since Adam's expulsion from Eden, man has languished in the desert of spiritual death, cut off from paradise. Christ pursues man in the desert to wrest him from the grip of the devil (St. Ambrose, in Lucam). Adam is tempted and capitulates, but Jesus does not. Dodd goes further in his book The Founder of Christianity, demonstrating how Matthew’s account recalls the testing of Israel in the desert as recorded in Deuteronomy 6, 13, 16, and 8:2-3.

“…each stage of the story in Matthew refers to one of these incidents in which Israel was tested in the desert and now the Israel-to-be, in the person of the Messiah (the Servant of the Lord) is put to the test. But where ancient Israel failed to pass the test, he stands firm.” — Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978), p.116.

The account of the temptation in the desert given in Mark’s Gospel (1:13) even hints at the restoration of proper communion; one community of those who belong to God. We can see here evidence of how the Church understands the transmission of Original sin by propagation and not merely by imitation.

Drawing them all together...

We really do have some great Scripture to reflect on this week, from the ancient creedal story of the first reading to the beautiful poetry of the psalm, and the cosmic drama played out in Jesus' lonely confrontation with Satan. There is an inescapable sense of immense significance, heightened all the more by our temporal position, standing, as we are, on the threshold of Lent. We have received our ashes, and have been called to repentance. Now the desert of our fasting and penance lies ahead of us and one cannot help but look ahead with a little trepidation. Perhaps even more so for those who, like me, are off alcoholic indulgence for Lent, the forty days ahead look particularly arid.

One pointer to the significance of the story in today's Gospel is the number '40', especially in the context of '40 days'. This constitutes a biblical cipher which is used to indicate events of decisive importance in salvation history. Consider the great flood (Gen 7:4, 17), the wanderings of the Hebrews in the wilderness (Deut 8:2), Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:28), Elijah's fasting (1 Kings 19:8), Nineveh's opportunity to repent at the preaching of Jonah (Jon 3:4) and Jesus' Ascension after His Resurrection. 40 is symbolic of probation and testing in the Bible.

Just as we stand on the threshold of our Lenten fast, so Jesus stood on the threshold of His public ministry, seeking to prepare Himself. As true man, He had no option but to live through the various options open to Him.

Thus, each of the temptations touches on huge issues in human life and development. Should He save by performing miracles, such as the spectacular provision of bread? Should He save by military force and be a conquering Messiah? Should He save through the establishment of His own scheme, re-writing Revelation so as to challenge God's plan with His own interpretation, and put God to the test? Each challenge He responds to forms part of His profession of faith, a faith in the unbreakable love between the Father and the Son, nurtured, sustained and consecrated by the Spirit.

Each of the Scripture readings this week in fact constitute a confession, a proclamation of faith. Jesus' answers come from Deuteronomy, and take us straight to the profession made at the Firstfruits. St. Paul, meanwhile, in his letter to the Romans, presents us with a one-line Credo which sums up all we believe. In each case God is seen as one who saves. It was God who saved the Hebrews from their slavery and brought them into the Promised Land.  Jesus now becomes the new Moses: it was Moses who received the Law on Sinai and led the people through the wilderness; Jesus is the Word, the Law enfleshed, who leads us through the confusion and sorrow of life to new spiritual lands. The key lies in His unshakeable love for the Father, a love sanctified and empowered in the Spirit. The message through all the readings this week is sung with beautiful clarity in the psalm: if we too set our love on the Father, He will rescue us. The Spirit will empower us to follow Jesus through the desert of Lent to the other side, because in His humanity, Jesus has already confronted every temptation—and overcome it.



Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 2/ December 2012.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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