In our opening prayer this morning, we prayed, "Oh God, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and then teach us to reflect it in our own lives." That's why we celebrate Lent, so that we can take some special time during our church year, special time in our life, to really probe the meaning of who Jesus is, why he came, and what happened, what he taught, and what are the consequences for us if we reflect his teachings in our lives.
If we listen very carefully to the Scripture lessons today, we begin (and we'll have a chance every Sunday and even through the weekdays of Lent) to continue to listen to the Scriptures to teach us that meaning of Jesus and how we reflect it in our lives. The first thing that we learn today is about obedience. But we have to know what that word really means. It comes from a Latin word, which means to listen: the verb, audire. But then with a purpose, ob audire — it means to listen deeply and listen carefully, to probe what we are hearing, get full meaning from it.
First Sunday of Lent
Our first two lessons today show us a failure to listen. In the myth that is recorded in Genesis about creation — not a scientific description of creation by no means, but a religious understanding of creation, the theology behind creation — we hear how God formed humankind from the dust of the earth. Humankind was intended to follow God, love God, be grateful to God, to listen to God. But as we heard in that story, Adam and Eve in the myth, the first people created by God, failed to listen.
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They refused to hear what God says. They turned in a different direction, they sinned, they disobeyed, they refused to listen to God. Then as we all know, the story goes on to show how they're punished and so on. But it also shows, in a way, how evil comes into this creation that God has made and that God saw was good. In the second lesson, St. Paul, this is, writing after the death and resurrection of Jesus, shows us how Jesus was the one who reversed what Adam and Eve had done.
Jesus did listen. He listened deeply to what God asked of him. He followed the way of God. That comes up so clearly in our Gospel lesson today. Jesus had just been baptized by John and experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon him. Then, as Mark says in his Gospel, he was driven into the desert. He spends 40 days and 40 nights in deep prayer, deep listening and penance, fasting. At the end of it, he's confronted by three temptations.
First, it's clear at the end of those 40 days and 40 nights he would be hungry. So the devil tempts him, but not just as we hear this. It's not just have one meal, but it's to have an abundance, an overabundance, turn stones into bread, have bread, have all the good things you want any time you want. If you're the Son of God, you could do that. Jesus reaches into the Scriptures because he knows them so well, and he quotes God speaking to Moses and the chosen people, "It's not by bread alone that you live, but by every word that comes from God." So there's spiritual food that we need.
If we're going to be full persons, really fully developed human beings fulfilling our call to be the image and likeness of God, then we do listen deeply to every word that comes from God. That's what Jesus did. Then the devil invites Jesus, in a sense, to do wonders, be a magician, a wonder worker, draw attention to himself, "Go to the pinnacle of the temple and throw yourself down. God has promised that God's angels will care for you. So if you're some god, exploit that, be big on the human scene, make everybody know who you are, flatter yourself." Jesus again goes to the Scriptures, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God." Satan had said, "God will protect you." Jesus said, "No, you don't put God to the test." He had listened.
Thirdly, in this story about the temptations, the devil takes Jesus to the highest mountain. You can imagine looking out over the whole world and seeing all the riches, the kingdoms, the power, the armies, the forces. "All of this I'll give to you," the devil says, "if you worship me." Again, Jesus had listened; he knows God and he says, "Be gone, Satan! Get out of my sight." He doesn't hesitate; he knows God, and he will not worship anyone but the one true God. Those temptations can teach us a lot about the meaning of the life of Jesus and how we are to reflect it.
First of all, I think it's very clear and very simple that one of the things we should do to learn about Jesus and learn how to reflect Jesus in our lives: Read the Scriptures. Listen carefully and deeply every time you come to the liturgy, but even on your own, get to know the Scriptures, get to know Jesus in the Gospel. That's what he did. He listened deeply to God's word so he was ready to confront the devil when the devil confronted him. But then those specific examples today of the temptations of Jesus, if we listen to what is happening in each of them, we discover a meaning in the life of Jesus, but also how we can reflect that.
The first temptation is one that I think afflicts us in our highly secularized society, highly materialistic society where it seems that wealth is the main goal of people's lives. We make a big thing about who are the 400 richest people in the world. We seem to glorify people who have wealth. We fall into the trap of wanting more and more ourselves, not realizing that it's not material things that fulfill us, but it's God's spirit entering into us more deeply, transforming us, making us fully human, spirit and body — not just putting material things first, but our spiritual development. Jesus was quick to point that out to the devil.
We, too, must struggle for ways to understand that wealth is not the most important thing, material goods. We must understand about them — all the good things of this earth, yes, God wants us to enjoy them, to be blessed with them, but also to understand that they're a gift. You and I didn't and can't earn what God has given to us in creation; it's a gift. Our response should simply be thanksgiving, responding to God with thanks. But also understanding that God made the world for all and not for a few.
It's wrong that a few people have as much wealth as over one half the population of the earth. It's something like 80-some people have as much wealth as half the population. What a distortion! But it almost seems to be a thing that we're all striving for that. I want to be one of those 81. I know I never will be, but if I can come even close, I'd be really good — wrong! It's spiritual things that count. The other thing we need to learn about the goods of the earth is, when we have enough, we need to share.
In the first letter of St. John, he writes, "If anyone enjoys the riches of the world, but closes their heart when they see a brother or a sister in need, how will the love of God remain in that person?" How will the love of God remain in the person who refuses to share? "My dear children," John says, "let us love not only with words and with our lips, but in truth and deeds." If you heard the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, one of the things that we were taught that we should do during Lent is share, almsgiving. We all have the opportunity to do that.
I'm sure every one of us has seen people begging on our street corners, and sometimes I think we get resentful when we see that. We wish they weren't there, but we should reach out to them. I find it's amazing; Pope Francis spoke about this recently. And yesterday, in The New York Times, the lead editorial was an editorial about what Francis did and said. Now this is a secular newspaper — they're holding up Francis as a model for our country and certainly for us, who are followers of Jesus, if we take that seriously. It's a beautiful tribute to the pope and his relationship to the poor.
One of the things it says, where Francis talked about giving to the poor, in the editorial they say, "He posed even a greater challenge. He said the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hand." The reason for that, Francis says, is to preserve dignity, to see another person not as a pathology or a social condition, but as a human being, with a life whose value is equal to your own, a human being who is made in the image and likeness of God.
It's not just what we give, but how we give — with respect, seeing in every person God's image. That's very hard to do, but it is understanding the meaning of Jesus, and if we can do it reflecting the meaning of Jesus in our own life. Jesus never ever treated a poor person or any person with brusqueness. He always interacted in a loving, personal way. That's what we must try to do. But also, learning about Jesus from the temptations in the desert, the third thing, having power and might.
That, too, is a temptation that afflicts us. It afflicts us in personal relationships. Sometimes even in a marriage, one person will try to dominate the other instead of being equal and mutual. Certainly, we seem, as a nation, to want to be the most powerful nation in the world. Our president now is calling for us to increase how much we spend on armaments when already we spend more than the seven next nations combined. We're not a weak nation. We don't need to buy more weapons and try to be the most powerful nation in the world.
The way of Jesus is the way of love. When he was attacked, Peter tried to defend him with a sword. "Put away the sword," Jesus told him. "If you live by the sword, you'll die by the sword." No, we don't need power and weapons and might; we need to become inflamed with love. That's the way of Jesus. During this season of Lent, if we continue to listen carefully to the Scriptures, listen to what Jesus said and did in those temptations today, but continuing on through Lent, we will come to know Jesus. Perhaps with the help of the Holy Spirit, as we know Jesus more deeply, we will follow him more faithfully, and we will find our own lives much more fulfilled than ever, but also we will be spreading the message, the love and the goodness of Jesus into our world.
[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich., March 5, 2017. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]