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FEBRUARY 25, 2007: First Sunday of Lent

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Romans 10:8-13
Luke 4:1-13

Problems abound when we pull a few lines of Scripture from the context in which a sacred author originally put them. But we do this during every Eucharist. No biblical writer ever intended his or her work to be employed in the way we use it in the liturgy. Liturgies, as we know them today, didn't even exist when our sacred texts were composed.

Biblical writings were intended to be read as a whole, not chopped up and offered in bite size hunks. We know how aggravating it is to have someone come in late to a movie or TV show and constantly badger us with questions like, "Who's she? What are they talking about? Why's he crying?"

On the other hand, Scripture scholars are grateful when someone asks similar questions about a liturgical text. Rarely does anyone inquire why the author wrote this book, or how this particular section fits into the whole writing. We falsely presume the passage should make sense as it stands. And even though it doesn't, we hesitate to let anyone in on the secret.

Just as we cringe when someone quotes us out of context, our sacred authors must wince when we do that to their words. Each of today's three readings has a context - a place in which the author put it or a situation that prompted its writing - that doesn't always come through in the few verses the liturgy gives us.

The Deuteronomy author, for instance, wants no Jew to forget that Yahweh has been part of their history. Only because God entered the lives of their ancestors, liberated them from slavery and guided them into the Promised Land, can these particular Israelites even offer the first and best part of their harvest to Yahweh. This profession of faith in God's saving actions parallels our eucharistic profession of "the mystery of our faith." Jesus' dying and rising has immersed him in our history just as deeply as Yahweh is embedded in Israel's history. That's why it's important to note how a third person narrative quickly morphs into a first person account. "My father (Jacob) was a wandering Aramean . . . But when the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us . . . ." There's no past to God being part of our lives. What Yahweh did for them, Yahweh does for us. What a context!

Paul carries this concept a step further. One set of circumstances against which all the Christian Scriptures must be heard is the admission of Gentiles, as Gentiles, into the church. Though Jews would agree with the Deuteronomy quote Paul employs - "Yahweh is near you, in your mouth and in your heart." - most would limit such intimate nearness to Jews alone. Paul, and some of his fellow ministers, stepped over the religious line by noticing God's presence even in non-Jews. "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek," he writes; "the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'" God's always pushing people to go beyond the faith limits in which they're comfortable.

That's why Luke places these three specific temptations at the start of Jesus' public ministry. Before Jesus steps into his role as the itinerant preacher of God's kingdom, he clarifies his priorities.

He's not giving up a secure carpenter's position in Capernaum to supply people with enough to eat, or to acquire a position of power, or to accomplish stupendous feats. Luke clicks off these temptations in the context of some in his community who believe Christianity should accomplish the three things Jesus rejects.

It's certainly not newsworthy or prestigious to go around pointing out that God's present and working in our day by day, often boring lives. Yet unless we regard this insight as the central part of our faith, we're not living that faith in the context in which our sacred authors thought it should be lived. Outside that context, no biblical faith makes sense.