1 March 2009 1st Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9, 8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3, 18-22; Mark 1, 12-15
Mark is very economical with his words about the temptations of Jesus in the desert, unlike the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Mark tells it in brief simplicity. The Spirit leads Jesus in the desert. He was tempted and tested there for forty days. God’s angels protected Him there. And Mark tells his readers, that Jesus withstands the test and He is ready for His saving service to God and His people. Mark assures them that just as Jesus was tested in the desert and protected by angels, we too will have the protection of God in our weaknesses and in our desert experiences.
I have three brief points. First, I believe we have to change our way of regarding temptations. The infinitive, “to tempt”, is commonly defined as to seek to lead one to sin like a seductress to a man or a seducer to a woman. It is to lure people to do evil. But the Greek word, peirazein, is better translated as “test”. In the Old Testament, God tested Abraham’s loyalty by seeming to demand Isaac’s sacrifice. “And it came to pass that God did tempt Abraham” (Gen 22,1). In the Gospel today, Mark said that the Spirit drove Jesus to the desert. With our first definition of temptation, it would seem that God lured Abraham and Jesus “to sin”. But God does not lead us to sin or to commit evil. The Bible’s idea of temptation is ‘peirazein’ — to test our loyalty, our commitment, our obedience, and our strength. Therefore it is not designed to make us fall. Temptations are designed to make us better persons, as gold is tested in fire. Temptations are not sins yet, how we respond to them will determine its morality. The idea is not to yield but to overcome it. Therefore we should regard temptations as a challenge to our holiness.
Second, the idea of the desert. In their journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites became God’s people in the desert. They journeyed for 40 years, learning of the wisdom of the desert. Prophets would encourage the Israelites to go back to the desert whenever their love and faithfulness to God began to wane and weaken. John the Baptist and some of our early Fathers in the Church spent and lived in the desert. And here, Jesus too finds wisdom in the desert. What is in the desert? The desert is harsh. There is no water, and food is scarce. In the desert one is stripped to the bare minimum. There is no room for extravagance. One becomes dependent on God for everything one needs. One becomes aware of the importance of water and food, when these basic needs are scarce. One becomes aware of the importance of relationships, when you don’t see people around you often. In the desert, one is powerless over the forces of sandstorms and the vast wasteland. In the desert, one’s security and life lies on the hands of God.
Third, we bring these two points together. We do not need to live in the desert to realize our total dependence on God. There are many situations when we are led to the desert, sometimes reluctantly. When our pockets are empty or when we lose our jobs, we are tempted to steal from others, to cheat on our transactions and covet our neighbor’s goods. When we feel alone and there is no one to talk to, we are tempted to enter into illicit relationships and find pleasure in pornographic materials and videos. When we are insecure and we are given a position of leadership, we tend to be intoxicated by control and we abuse power.
The desert drives us to these situations in order for us to learn. Just as universities give us examinations to pass, so too life’s desert experiences enable us to be better individuals. Great people went through all these. We know the stories of heroes and great leaders of our time like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. We know the lives of saints and even the lives of scientists like Galileo Galilei. In the desert, we are led to decide on what is important in our lives. A high paying job that would sacrifice family time. To fight for what is just but to be vulnerable to death threats. A moment of pleasure vs one’s reputation, dignity and honor. To save one’s face now, but to lose one’s self-worth in the future. When we are able to withstand the test, we are now ready to be truly a true servant of God and humanity.