Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday in Lent

I have to confess that today’s gospel contains what I think is one of the funniest lines in the Bible. After telling us that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert, we’re told: "And afterwards, he was hungry." To which my response is, "No kidding!"

Seriously, however, the mention of Jesus’ hunger is an important factor to consider when reflecting on Jesus’ first temptation, in which the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. Considering Jesus’ profound hunger, that sounds like a fairly reasonable thing to do. Jesus was able to do it, so why not? How could that possibly be a temptation to sin? Because it would have been a misuse of Jesus’ power. Jesus did many mighty miracles that no ordinary man could do. But he never did them for his own benefit. Jesus only used his divine powers for the benefit of others. To use them selfishly, especially at the devil’s suggestion, would have been contrary to the Father’s plan. Even when he was starving in the desert.

The fact that turning stones into bread sounds so innocent is what makes it such a sinister temptation. It’s deceptively reasonable- like many of the temptations you and I face. Temptations like exaggerating a resume to get the job we think we deserve; fudging our tax return because we’re tight on cash; overindulging in something because we’re convinced it will make us feel better; abandoning a marriage because we don’t find it satisfying; living with someone before marriage to "test things out;" gossiping about someone while presenting it as a "prayer intention;" getting even with someone in the name of justice; lying to stay out of trouble; receiving in vitro fertilization because you really want a child; having an abortion because a baby will interrupt your studies or career; destroying human embryos for stem cells, because of hoped-for medical advances.

These are just a few examples of things that can seem so reasonable to do, considering the circumstances. Given the state of our consciences, we might not even see them as sinful at all. Or even if we do suspect they’re sinful, we’re tempted to make excuses or rationalizations so we can go ahead and do them anyway. We’ll say things like: Everybody’s doing it; it’s not that big a deal; it’s not against the law; nobody’s getting hurt; there’s no chance of being caught; to err is human; the ends justify the means; or Hey, I’m not a bad person, I deserve a little fun now and then.

Sound familiar? If it does, Jesus’ first temptation should remind us that when we face subtle temptations ourselves, we need to recognize that we can be deceived, and that we can easily deceive ourselves. You might say that the temptation to deception is one temptation we face, when we’re facing temptations.

Another temptation we face, when facing temptations, arises when we’re contending with one really big sin in our life, especially when it’s become an addiction and we’re struggling to get free of it. The temptation to this sin is so strong, and it becomes such a fixation and demands so much of our attention, that it blinds us to other temptations we’re facing and other sins we’re committing. It’s not uncommon for people in this situation, when they go to confession, to confess their one big sin and fail to confess anything else. If this describes you, I commend you for struggling with your big sin. But I challenge you, next time you prepare for confession, to say, "Lord, you and I know I’ve committed this sin. The temptation to do it is staring me in the face all the time. I need your forgiveness and strength! But please show me what else I’m doing wrong, and where else I need to grow." That’s a prayer our Lord is happy to answer.

A third temptation we face, when facing temptation, is to think that we’re not really capable of sin in the first place. This is especially true of what one psychologist has called the "Don’t Blame Me Generation." She writes, "it is based on a belief system like this: ‘I am more important than most people; I am good; therefore I am incapable of doing bad things.’" What we have, she concludes, is a generation of people who don’t think they need to change anything about themselves. And when they get caught for doing something wrong, they think of themselves as victims. They make excuses for their actions, instead of taking responsibility for them. There are no sins, only symptoms.

Sometimes the elderly fall into a similar trap. They too can think that they’re incapable of sin. Not because they consider themselves too important, but because they think they’re too old. "O Father, I’m too old to really commit any sins," is something I’ve heard many times. If that’s really the case, then thanks be to God! At the same time, we need to remember that sin involves much more than missing Mass, using the Lord’s name in vain, and violating of the 6th and 9th commandments. So whenever we think we’re not committing any sins, that’s an invitation to examine our lives for sins we may have overlooked, like resentments toward children or spouses over how they’ve treated us, not using our retirement time to pray more and serve others, envying those who have more or are able to do more, bitterness over our present circumstances, prejudices and racism, or using our resources for self-indulgence instead of building God’s kingdom.

Perhaps, then, recalling Jesus’ temptations today should challenge us to accept our capacity for sin, regardless of our age or how important we think we are; open our eyes to all the sins in ouor lives, not just the big obvious ones; and be careful to avoid being deceived into thinking that something is good, when in reality it’s not. And then, as Jesus himself taught us, we need to place our reliance on God and pray: "Our Father…lead us not into temptation."

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

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