Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin our First Sunday of Lent with the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses described where he came from and how he came to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt with the Lord’s help. Further, they journeyed to the Holy Land. Luke’s Gospel tells us how Jesus came out of Jordan to the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. The devil them promises “all the kingdoms of the world.” Jesus refused these offers and the devil left him.
Mental health professionals eagerly tell us that feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. Our moral compass doesn’t kick in based on how we feel, but what we do with our feelings. We may feel jealousy when someone looks at our loved one, but there’s nothing wrong with that. We sin only when we act on this jealousy and harm the other person. And despite what we may have been told as children, there’s no sin in feeling anger at our parents or at God.
I like to look at temptation in the same way. We don’t have a great deal of control over what tempts us and we shouldn’t be ashamed of what does. And much like feelings, some temptations want us to do good things, and some want us to do bad things. But we often think of temptations as bad things, as calling us to sin. If I asked what kind of things tempt us I think most of us would answer by talking about donuts or laziness or revenge.
And while they can all tempt us, I also think we can be tempted to act with generosity or kindness or love. Our best moments begin with the desire to be our best selves and act on it.
Last Wednesday we began our journey of Lent. Lent calls us to reform our lives, examine our behaviors, and look toward Easter with a renewed spirit. Part of this journey calls us to recognize that not all of our temptations lead us in a positive direction. Today’s Gospel shows us that the devil himself used temptation to derail the very salvation of the world.
Reading this, 2000 years later, we can read this without fully appreciating how serious this was. I’ve spoken about this before, but we can read this Gospel and dismiss the devil’s temptation by thinking that Jesus had already been promised a kingdom by God. I don’t wish to wander into the weeds of whether “the devil” or “Satan” are creatures who exist: suffice it to say that Jesus was tempted to take the easy way out and not suffer the passion, death, and resurrection that promises our salvation.
That’s the trap: we can too easily look at the temptations of others and not take their journey seriously. We think Jesus strong enough to easily blow off the promise of an easy journey. In the same way, we can look at obese people and decide all they need to do is eat less. We can look at people addicted to nicotine (in all its forms) and expect that they should quit and only don’t because they are weak.
In reality we are all tempted all the time. When Moses spoke in our first reading he was fully aware that when he liberated his people from slavery they were barely on the road before some of his followers reverted to worshiping false gods. Time and again we’ve seen leaders and followers succumb to the desire to be powerful, or liked, or believed.
And frankly, we see temptation in our own lives. In high school we remember with shame that we ignored good classmates in the hope to we would be accepted by the “in crowd.” In college we wandered into the sexual world and did things we’re not proud of because we wanted to be admired or liked. In our jobs we “drank the Kool Aid” in the hopes that we would advance our career at the expense of our own integrity.
Today’s reading, the season of Lent, and the call of Jesus forces us to choose a different direction. I’ve often spoken about the fact that Christianity isn’t for wimps and this season makes my argument clearer than ever.
Lent, in its best form, doesn’t settle for giving up candy or the things we like. It doesn’t give us the right to brag on Easter that we were successful and we can eat what we want with abandon. Instead Lent should remind us that we are masters of our feelings and temptations.
Lent should call us to read accounts of Moses and Jesus (and many others) with humility. Many of us live our lives caring about others. We take seriously our call to feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, and clothe the naked.
In six weeks we’ll celebrate that Jesus did something nobody expected. After being crucified by the Romans he rose from the dead and promised that he made that possible for all of us.
As we begin this season we might think about doing things that nobody expects. Maybe it’s reaching out to a marginalized coworker and just being kind. Maybe we can decide that each time we go to church we introduce ourself to someone we don’t know. As an aside I’ve always been puzzled when, before mass, the music director asks anyone who is new to introduce himself. Somebody does, and is ignored at the end of mass. Maybe we can find that person and welcome the stranger.
Lent is along season but it’s never too soon to start.