Why do we listen to the Gospels we hear during Lent? The chosen texts have a long history; it’s good to know what our church is trying to teach us as we prepare for Easter. So for the next several weeks I’m going to be writing about the Gospels that are assigned for the Sundays of Lent. 1
On this First Sunday, we hear of Jesus’ temptations. If you think carefully about them, they don’t seem to be what we usually think of as “temptation”: they’re…odd. In fact, each of the things Jesus is tempted to do in this Gospel He eventually winds up sort of doing anyway. Turn stones into bread? How about feeding several thousand out of a few loaves and fishes? Jump from a high wall to attract notice? How about rising from the grave? Win “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence”? Well, yes – that’s what we believe He did by his cross and resurrection. So why are these things called temptations? And (more to the point) what does the church want us to learn by hearing them at this particular time?
The key to understanding is to think about Jesus’ mission. Each temptation is a subtle turning away from carrying out His Father’s will. Bread? – To use His power for his own sake, rather than the sake of others in need. Jump? To call attention to himself as a wonder-worker, rather than to suffer for sinners. Rule? Yes, but as a hero, rather than a servant. The church reads this story about Jesus so that we can learn about the hazards we face as we try to live our mission from God. We, too, can be misled into using God’s call to us for selfish reasons: for the satisfaction of our physical impulses (hunger), or emotional needs (feeling of “specialness”) or even spiritual goals (to have things “go according to what we believe is God’s plan” through the exercise of power, rather than service).
The point? If we are to be effective co-workers with the Risen Christ in bringing the Father’s will to fulfillment, we need to admit that in many cases our work will “go against the grain” of our natural instincts. Most of us know this about the desires we call gluttony, lust, and avarice. Fewer of us are aware that our desires to be praised, or powerful, or simply to have our own way can be equally or more damaging to a disciple’s work.
Our Lenten disciplines – fasting, praying, almsgiving – are meant to open our eyes and strengthen our wills so that we can be effective and wholehearted disciples. If you haven’t yet chosen a particular discipline for yourself for Lent, you might want to think about this Gospel: Are there ways in which you might subtly pervert the vocation God has given to you? Can you be led into a dead-end by unruly desires for pleasure, for admiration, for power? What is God inviting you to see about yourself and your relationships as we listen to this Gospel this Sunday? More next week: Until then, peace.
1 There is a three-year cycle of assigned readings. This year (Year A in the cycle), we hear the most traditional texts (which are also used in Years B and C when people preparing for Initiation at Easter are present). Otherwise in Years B and C the Gospels for Sundays Three, Four, and Five are more recent choices by the church.