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FEBRUARY 10, 2008: FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

As with so many essentials of faith, Scripture gives more than one response to questions about temptation and evil.

The Yahwistic author of Genesis (thought by many scholars to have been a woman) provides us the best known myth of how sin and evil entered our world. According to this 10th century BCE theologian, Yahweh created humans without sin's disorder. The last line of chapter 2 states, "The man and woman were both naked, yet felt no shame." If evil is to break into our human existence, it must come from outside. No one can be tempted from within.

As this point of salvation history - more than 500 years before our familiar concepts of a devil began to appear - the serpent takes on the role of tempter. After the "fall," evil becomes embedded in our nature. "The eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked." Things will never be the same again. (In chapter 4, Cain doesn't need a serpent to tempt him to kill Abel. Murderous thoughts can now come from within.)

Though our catechism doctrine outlining the precise transmission of original sin is found nowhere in Scripture - even the phrase "original sin" is non-biblical - many of our sacred authors regard our first parents' sinful actions as somehow influencing our own weakness in dealing with temptations.

As a biblically formed Jew, Paul integrates his belief in the risen Jesus into his prior beliefs about Adam and Eve's sin, leading him to pen one of his most famous lines. "Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one, the many will be made righteous."

Without going into detail, Paul is convinced Jesus' dying and rising has brought us the means to achieve the life our original parents lost.

This is why Matthew begins Jesus' ministry with a temptation narrative. Just as the Yahwistic creation narrative begins with temptation and failure, so Matthew's new creation narrative begins with temptation and success.

Scholars presume the earliest version of Jesus' desert temptation - as found in Mark - simply describes him being "generically" tempted by the devil; it contains no list of specific enticements. Matthew and Luke found their famous list of three in the "Q" document. Since no one seems to have known exactly how the historical Jesus was tempted on this occasion, the "Q" author reflected on his or her second generation Christian community's temptations, and inserted them into this collection of Jesus' sayings. Since all early Christians presumed they were as one with the risen Jesus as Paul and the Yahwistic author presumed all humans are one with Adam and Eve, then their temptation becomes Jesus' temptation and vice versa.

Reflecting on these three specific attractions, we realize few of today's Catholics are tempted by them. This wasn't the case 20 centuries ago when some of Jesus' followers were inclined to care only for people's physical needs, to exchange their day by day humdrum faithful living for high profile, spectacular exploits, or to sell out Jesus' values in order to have power over people and their lives. Once the church developed a hierarchical system of government, we presumed only our leaders could give into such allurements.

Most of us still are bogged down in the same temptations and sins we confessed a few days before our first communion. After all these years, we're not involved enough in Jesus to actually be tempted as he was. Perhaps the inclination to think we're personally unworthy to carry on Jesus' ministry might be the biggest temptation any of us will face.