|The Sánchez Archives
FIRST SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
How serendipitous it is that the liturgical season of Lent and the season of Spring coincide, at least in part, each year. As the world of nature sheds the winter doldrums, as trees remember their leaves and blooming flowers discover the sun, as birds return from their southerly migrations to reestablish their nests, believers are also invited to engage in similar activities. Just as Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, so the six weeks of Lent afford an opportunity for rediscovering God, not because the sense of God has been lost or forgotten but because each season offers yet another new venue for finding God and for deepening the ever evolving relationship which each of us shares with God.
In the book How Can I Find God? (Triumph Books, Ligouri, MO: 1997) James Martin has compiled a collection of responses to that question, having posed it to people from as many faith traditions as possible. Martins hope is that those reading one or more of these essays will be drawn closer to God.
In her response, Sr. Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and author of Dead Man Walking, a chronicle of her experiences in prison ministry, said that she found God in the faces of the poor and struggling people. Rabbi Michael Lerner recommended that those who would find God should become partners with God in healing, repairing and transforming the world. Dont look for God, said Lerner, but become Her ally and She will find you (sic).
Paul Goulet, a consultant and a volunteer who works with people with HIV/AIDS, and who, himself contracted the HIV virus, finds God even amid tragedy, pain and disappointment because God is in the human heart, loving, compassionate and forgiving. Joseph Lumbard, an American who embraced Islam in his early twenties, finds God in that prayerful dialogue wherein he admits his complete and utter dependence on God and trusts in the divine mercy, forgiveness and guidance.
Holly Lyman Antolini, an Episcopal Vicar, suggests that a good place to start looking for God is by becoming part of a eucharistic community: a community of people who support each other to awaken to gratitude, day by day, and week by week, by coming together in a service of holy thanksgiving, which centers on the self-offering gift of Jesus Christ. Child psychiatrist, Robert Coles believes that God is found through others, through the love we learn to offer them, through the love we learn to receive from them, no small achievement, and indeed a lifelong effort. Avery Dulles, the Jesuit theologian and author explained, Theologically, it is correct to say that the very desire to find God is evidence that God is drawing us to himself. To find him, in the last analysis, is to be found by him (sic).
In its continuing effort to aid believers in their individual and collective efforts at finding God, the church keeps the gathered assembly in touch with the living word of God. Todays first reading from Deuteronomy features Moses counseling the community to find God in the telling and retelling of the story of salvation. Whenever this story is retold in our midst, God is present, mighty in power, tender in mercy, constant in love.
Paul, in his correspondence with the house churches in Rome, advises his readers to look to the scriptures and to call upon the name of the Lord.
By his example in todays Lucan gospel, Jesus teaches that even in the midst of temptation and trial, God is ready and waiting to be found; there is no place and no suffering which is devoid of the divine presence. Strengthened by that presence, Jesus was able to resist all attempts to thwart his saving mission.
As we are renewed by our annual experiences of Spring and Lent, it may prove helpful to remember the words of Jeremiah, who relayed the following message from God to his contemporaries, When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, your God (Jeremiah 29:12-14).
In counseling his congregation, Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein, the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, advised, I would tell the Jew who is looking for God to read history, the gift of the commandments, the covenant and the enduring values which are part of each historical circumstance. This is precisely what the author of Deuteronomy recommends to his readers in todays first reading, viz., that Israel review its salvation history and, in the course of that review, confess its faith in God, by whom it had been conceived and engineered. Israels confession of faith recapitulated three decisive events that shaped its evolution as a people: (1) the demographic shift from Mesopotamia to Canaan to Egypt motivated by Gods call of Abraham; (2) the deliverance from Egypt of the enslaved, their passage to freedom and their formation as a people covenanted to God (Exodus); (3) the promise of Canaan and Israels eventual possession of it. By telling and retelling their story of salvation, Israel affirmed its connection with, and responsibility to, the God who continued to inform its ongoing history with saving power.
Regarded by many scholars as the most ancient and important credal recitation in the Pentateuch, this confession of faith may have been part of a liturgy of thanksgiving that accompanied the ritual offering of the firstfruits. Thankful for the crops being harvested, the people acknowledged that the abundance they enjoyed was due to Gods provident care. An agricultural feast which predated Israel, firstfruits was celebrated by other tribal peoples with the awareness that their world was governed by forces, laws and entities that were unfathomable to their finite minds. The ancients regarded nature as greater than themselves and the gods as greater still.
Israel adopted this feast, conformed it to its monotheistic beliefs and historicized, i.e., associated it with certain events of its history, viz., the exodus from Egypt and the infiltration and conquest of Canaan, the promised land. Moreover, the Israelites celebrated firstfruits (and all their other feasts) in the recognition that the one great God who commanded all the forces, laws and entities of nature had chosen to become personally and intimately involved with humankind. Having ordered and ordained the created universe, this one true God had also ordered and ordained human history. Therefore, Israel celebrated Gods might acts of power as manifested in the harvest and even more importantly as manifested in its own historical experiences.
With the advent of Jesus, born into human history, the credal formulation within the Judaeo-Christian tradition was expanded to include: (1) a new exodus, i.e., a new passage from slavery to freedom, from death to life; (2) a new and eternal covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus on the cross; (3) a new manna in the gift of the Eucharist; (4) a new promised land over which God would reign: and (5) a new people of God, inclusive of all the peoples of the earth.
At the outset of this new Lenten season, contemporary believers might add to this credal recitation, those events within their own personal histories wherein the saving power of Gods mighty deeds have been experienced. Then, in telling the story of Gods continual involvement with the faithful, God will once again be found.
British author and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis (1998-1963) once wrote, You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarreling with other people because they use a different formula from yours. No doubt Paul would agree with Lewis, on the condition that, each believers credal formula contain the essential elements of the Christian faith, viz., that Jesus is Lord, and that through his death and resurrection, Gods saving plan for all of humankind has been realized. Moreover, as he stressed in his correspondence with the Romans, Christian faith must be a lived response to God wherein the faith in the heart must be confessed with the lips. As William Barclay (Romans, The Daily Study Bible, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh: 1975) once put it, Christianity is belief plus confession; it involves witness before men. Not only God, but also our fellow men, must know what side we are on. (sic)
In citing this particular credal statement (For if you confess. . . and believe. . . you will be saved, v. 9), Paul was repeating one of the earliest formulations of Christian faith. Some scholars believe that it was sung as part of an early baptismal liturgy. In the context of Pauls letter, this statement formed part of Pauls lengthy defense of Christianity over and against those Jews who refused to accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Romans 9-11). Paul pleaded, cajoled, coaxed, and challenged his fellow Jews to come to faith in Jesus, supporting his argument with text after text from the Hebrew scriptures. At the heart of the Jewish-Christian debate was the concept of justification.
Having grown up within the heritage and traditions of Judaism, Paul was fully cognizant of the Jewish understanding of justification as a process whereby a believer was made just or put in right relationship with God by his/her obedience to the Torah or law. Many Jews could not reconcile their beliefs regarding justification with Pauls claim that justification was no longer attainable through the law but only by faith. Elsewhere in his argument, Paul conceded that the law had served a purpose, albeit a temporary one, in that it safeguarded and instructed humankind until such time as God saw fit to send the messiah. But with the coming of Jesus, and through his saving words and works, the works of the law have been superseded.
And whereas observance of the law defined and distinguished Jews from Greeks (or gentiles), faith in Jesus, and justification by him, affords a unity to the community of believers. All who confess, Jesus is Lord!, whether they be Jew or Greek, are united by that shared creed. In the last verse of the reading, Paul again appealed to his Jewish brothers and sisters through the words of their scriptures (v. 13). Quoting the prophet Joel who had promised, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 3:5), Paul would have his readers understand that the Lord Yahweh had become flesh in the person of Jesus; therefore everyone who calls on Jesus will be saved.
To understand Pauls teaching on justification and to avoid feeding the controversy that has threatened to erode Christian unity for centuries, it is necessary to shake off the notion that salvation can be earned by meritorious behavior. Rather salvation is Gods gracious gift to undeserving sinners whose sole responsibility it is to call upon God for mercy and by faith to appropriate that saving mercy as it is extended to us in Jesus.
Although many think it passé to speak of the devil and choose to reject the notion of personified evil or the existence of a tempter, nevertheless, on every first Sunday of Lent, Satan rears his ugly head and commands the attention of the gathered assembly. The tradition that Jesus was tempted was widely attested in early Christianity. Treated briefly by Mark (1:12-13), it was more elaborately described by Matthew, Luke and the author of Hebrews (2:14-18; 4:15). As Luke Timothy Johnson (The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1991) has explained, Matthew and Luke used the vivid account of Jesus scriptural debates with the devil as a means of revealing the inner character of Jesus sonship as one of simple obedience.
The entire account should also be appreciated against the backdrop of the political upheaval and popular messianic expectation that characterized first-century Palestine. Lukes portrayal of Jesus, resisting temptation, makes a statement against the notion of a militant messiah whose reign would be established by force and whose power would be exercised for personal gain. Jesus, full of the Spirit and led by the Spirit into the desert (v. 1), would not realize his messiahship in a political or popular manner but as a faithful son and servant of God.
Each of the temptations in Jesus desert dialogue with the devil unfolds like an act in a three-act drama. In the first act, Jesus is tempted to use his saving power to his own satisfaction. By turning stones into bread, he would be manifesting God-like power (as when God provided manna in the desert for Israel) but only for his own advantage. Jesus response to his tempter was reminiscent of Israels desert experience. Quoting from Deuteronomy (8:3) Jesus recalled Israels longing for the foods they had left behind in Egypt (bread, onions, meat) and their dissatisfaction with the sustenance (manna, quail, water from the rock) which God provided. Unlike the grumbling Israelites, Jesus was pleased to be nourished by the food that God provided for him, viz., every word that comes forth from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3) and doing the will of the Father (John 4:24).
In his second proposal to Jesus, the devil suggests that Jesus exercise a universal kingship and reign over a universal kingdom that he, i.e., the devil, would confer upon him if only Jesus would agree to worship him. Faithful only to God and to Gods dominion over all, Jesus rebuked the devil, again with a quote from Deuteronomy (6:13). Unlike Israel, Jesus could not be enticed by the power, glory, and/or cults of any other kingdom.
As if in an attempt to beat Jesus at his own game, the devil couched his third temptation within a citation from scripture. Quoting from the Psalter, he goaded Jesus to exercise his saving power in a dazzling and ostentatious display, by throwing himself from the parapet of the temple. If Jesus were truly the Son of God, then surely the Most High would command the angels to bear him up lest he dash his foot against a stone (v. 11 = Psalm 91:11-12). Perhaps the devil was also alluding to the popular expectation that, at his coming, the messiah would appear suddenly on the pinnacle of the temple. According to a rabbinical saying, When the king, the messiah reveals himself, he will stand on the roof of the temple (Pesiqta rabbati # 36). Unmoved by this third and gravest temptation, Jesus responded, again in the words of Deuteronomy (6:16). His command, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test (v. 13) silenced the devil and also affirmed his identity as both Lord and God.
Luke leaves his readers with the assurance that this was only a skirmish in Jesus protracted battle with evil; the devil left Jesus, but would wait for another opportunity. Indeed, the tempter would return to lure Jesus away from his mission and weaken his resolve many times during his ministry. As Luke tells us, Jesus was able to survive each foray because, as was his custom, he often withdrew for a while to find God in prayer. Through those moments of encounter with God, he was strengthened and was being prepared for the ultimate conflict with evil on the cross.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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