Homily for 1st Sunday of Lent 2014
One of the things we do in Melbourne seminary while in formation is to gather into smaller groups every Sunday evening after dinner, to reflect and share about the words in the scriptures. One evening, the gospel being read was the gospel today which is about the temptation of Jesus. Obviously the topic for sharing was about temptation and how to overcome it. An older seminarian, now a priest said in the words to this effect: ‘I think a way to overcome temptation is to give in to temptations and then after we’ve given in, then we no more have temptations. So no more worries.’
I knew that seminarian was joking of course but that kept me thinking though. I thought, giving into temptation could really work if and only if temptation comes only once. Yet, we know through our experiences that temptations come in many ways and in many different forms. There is a temptation to be self- centred or selfish and we know we are giving in to this when we think only of ourselves or when we exploit others for our personal gain and glory. There is also a temptation to be self-righteous and when we are judgmental towards others or think of ourselves as superior to others, then we are giving in to the temptation to be self-indulgent.
There is good news for us though. Temptation in itself is not a sin. Jesus himself was tempted as we heard in the gospel today. What makes temptation a sin is when we succumbed to it, when we give in to it.
And there is even much better news for us. We have the power, the capacity to overcome temptation- not just something in us but someone who according to the Letter to the Hebrews: One who able to empathize with our weaknesses, one “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” (cf Heb 4:15 NIV). It is Jesus Christ our Lord.
So we heard in our gospel today an account of how Jesus was tempted and how he overcame all temptations of power, fame, and glory. Being a Christian does not give us immunity from temptations so as followers of Christ, we are to learn from Him, imitate his ways of overcoming temptations.
First, Jesus knew the scriptures by heart and so are we. Knowing the scriptures by heart doesn’t mean memorizing the Bible word for word, but rather it means ‘personalizing the word’ to borrow the phrase of Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (EG 149). To explain this Pope Francis quoted the late Pope John Paul II’s Exhortation ‘I will give you shepherds’ (Pastores dabo vobis), and this means developing a ‘great personal familiarity with the word of God…[and] to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate [our] thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in [us].’ By personalizing the Word, we become not only knowledgeable of the Word of God but also servants or doers of the Word. This differentiates us from the devil, the tempter who (as can be reflected on the gospel) also knew the Scriptures but not as servant of the Word because he was only using or manipulating the Word of God for his own personal gain and glory.
Moreover, we need to understand the scriptures and take it to heart because it is the Word of God, the ‘word of God [which] is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ (Heb 4:12). Furthermore, by knowing and understanding the Scriptures by heart, we come to know God better, and grow in a more real and personal relationship with Him. Also through understanding the Word of God in the Scriptures we come to encounter Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
The second way Jesus overcame temptation is to go beyond our material needs and strive for the good of our soul- to strive for holiness. This doesn’t mean that we can just neglect our basic needs. This means however that we look up to God, trust in him, and even be dependent on Him. This is a big challenge for those who are living a luxurious life, those who have got everything they think they need, those who can easily get the things that they want at the press of a button. Jesus would say: “Man does not leave on bread alone, but also on the word of God.” This means no amount of material gain or material possessions can really make us absolutely happy, or absolutely self-sufficient. This goes to show that no matter how much we deny God, or set him aside or not give him role to play in our lives, we still need Him. Thus, we are to strive for holiness- the holiness which ‘consists in not trying to get God to do our will but in trying to get ourselves to do God’s will’, as Fr Flor McCarthy a Salesian priest put it rightly.
A call to be holy is a big call because we can’t become holy overnight. We need faith, we need hope, we need a lot of patience, and it is hard work to be holy in fact, we can’t be holy on our own, we need God’s grace. Yet, this takes time and it definitely is a test of our perseverance. And we can learn from Jesus on how he handled the temptation to take matters into his own hand immediately. After 40 days of fasting, he was hungry, and the tempter came to him and offered him a quick-fix or a fast-food to appease his hunger by turning stones into scones. To overcome that temptation Jesus made the point that it is not good relying only on our skills, power, abilities and capabilities without God in our lives.
The third way to overcome temptation is to stand on our ground by having Christ as our foundation. This means we are to be convinced and be courageous as a follower of Christ. This also means we have to be that dedicated and committed to our mission as people of God and as people with God in the world today. Jesus in the gospel knew his mission so well. He was sent by the Father to show the Father’s love, forgiveness, care and concern for everyone. That mission is so real and strong in him that he would face everything just to carry it out, even death. In the gospel he ‘exhausted’ the devil of all his tricks in temptation. He remained firm and strong because He knew well who he is representing to and what he is sent for. And so must we.
Like Jesus our mission is to be loving as the Father loved us, to be forgiving as the Father forgives us and to be caring as the Father cares for us. This lent is an opportune time for us to make this resolution. When we make this resolve we have to be aware that there is always a temptation to quit, or to ignore or to neglect this noble vocation. But like Jesus we need to stand up for it, against all odds, trials and temptations, and as Jesus showed us, we wouldn’t have regrets in the end, because there is glory awaiting for us if we endure to the end, there is resurrection beyond the cross.