The First Sunday in Lent, 9 March 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
St. Matthew 4:1-11

Arnold Böcklin, Self Portrait

                                                                                                               
Background:  Temptation

The First Sunday in Lent is replete with examples of temptation, from both Adam and Eve to our Lord.  So what is temptation?  In the world religions it is only the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) that entertain the notion of temptation.  That is not to say that the ideas that surround temptation are absent from world culture, they are not.  The Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrestles with the idea:

“We should every night call ourselves to an account: what infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptation resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abate of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.”

Here, however, the notion has more to do with civic virtue and mores than with religious behavior.  For Seneca, the resistance to temptation was the responsibility of the good citizen.  For the People of the Book, there is a deep religious sense that accompanies the idea. 

We live in a society that perhaps even values the notion of temptation.  Almost any advertisement that you see in the media can be seen as a temptation of some sort.  Temptation has a value in our society – it creates jobs and product, and it undermines our values as a people.  In this sense, we ought to heed Seneca’s warning.

The Seventh Petition of the Our Father gives us a different perspective if we wish to approach temptation from a theological or religious point of view.  In the old version of the prayer, we pray, “lead us not into temptation,” and in the newer version that phrase is translated as “save us from the time of trial.”  What is the difference?  It might be best to look at the story of Adam and Eve to gain a clue as to the difference.  The temptation to eat from the tree came outside of their relationship with God, or from Satan, as the story describes the action.  What results is a rift in their relationship with God.  The old phraseology tempts us to think that God is the actor in temptation.  Luther corrects that assumption in his explanation to the Seventh Petition:

“God tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God may so guard and preserve us that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into unbelief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, but that, although we may be so tempted, we may finally prevail and gain the victory.”

The Greek word that is used in the prayer is peirasmos, or “being put to a test.”  It gives us a perspective of the world that is a bit more honest about its effect on us.  The reading from the Gospel attempts to give us this interior dialogue between the self and the world (here seen as Satan).

“We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.”
Thomas a Kempis

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Ferdinand Leger - Adam and Eve (1939)

There is an over-arching theme to this story that is introduced in the fifteenth, or first verse of this pericope.  Our translation reads, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”  There is an emphasis in the Hebrew that is blunted in our translation.  Robert Alter translates this phrase as, “for on the day that you eat from it you are doomed to die.”[1] The effect of the verb to die is doubled.  It forms the effect that will result from the actions that will be described in the story.

The key to the concluding pericope of the reading, the bulk of the story, is not the eating, nor the fruit.  Rather, it is the notion of the eye, of seeing and perceiving.  It (vision) is a route to wisdom, and it is wisdom that is the real temptation that the Serpent offers here.  Also interesting is that the prohibition that God announces in the first pericope, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” is actually expanded in its scope by Eve.  She acknowledges to the Serpent when she quotes God’s prohibition, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden,” and then adds, “nor shall you touch it.”  The promise that the Serpent makes, as it speaks against Eve’s understanding of what God has said, is that these first people will have the ability to see, “your eyes shall be opened…knowing good and evil.”  Vision and wisdom, the perspective, if you will of the gods, is what is being offered here.  The story goes on to note how their sight betrays them: “saw that the tree was good for food,” and “it was a delight (or “lust” as Alter translates it) for the eyes”.  The gift is immediately given, “their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”  It is an interesting revelation and expansion on the notion of the eye and lust.  Even more than that, they are absent not only the protection of clothing, but soon of God’s protection as well.

Breaking open Joel:

1.     How are you tempted by this world?
2.     What do you know about good and evil?
3.     Who is responsible for the evil in your life?


Psalm 32 Beati quorum

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!

While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.

I said," I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.

You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

"I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.

Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you."

Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the LORD.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

Arthur Frank Matthews - Youth

This psalm describes the complexity of human life in this world.  It has aspects of joy and of wisdom, but also of confession and thanksgiving.  Indeed, the initial phrase clues us into two of the themes: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven.”  What follows are expansions on the human condition of sin, and the dialogue and relationship with God that results.  The initial five verses all resound on this theme, while the sixth verse is probably an interpolation from some other source.

At verse eight, the theme changes to Wisdom and how we acquire wisdom.  There is a new speaker, perhaps an instructor, whose intent is to “counsel you with my own sight.”  The instruction is contained in three concise proverbs: the first about the horse or mule, the second about the tribulations of the wicked, and the third about God and mercy.  There is a reprise of the notion of happiness that was introduced in the first verse.  Here however, the status has been changed from one of being “forgiven” to one of being “righteous.”  The result is a “shout for joy.”

Breaking open Psalm 32:
  1. What are your emotions when you have been forgiven something by another?
  2. What are your emotions when you have forgiven someone else?
  3. Do you have any wisdom about the act of forgiving or being forgiven?

Romans 5:12-19

As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

Norman Adams - Christ's Cross and Adam's Tree

Paul wants to teach us about “sin” and “death” and does so by contrasting Adam and Jesus.  Adam is the source of “sin”, and Jesus, the Christ, is the source of grace and life.  Paul uses the device of antithetical comparison in order to show all the aspects of the righteousness that flows from Christ.  But what flows from Adam?  This is a matter of some controversy.  Is there a notion here of “inherited sin” or is Paul just making a connection for us between Adam’s deed and our deeds?  What he does do is describe a template in which Adam’s sin and our sin are aspects of the same difficulty.  Likewise, then, Christ’s salvation and our salvation are similarly linked.  There are other aspects of the human condition of sin and death that Paul uses as well – the Law, sin as the Accuser, and Disobedience as a reaction to God’s rule.  The comparison between Adam and the Christ is maintained throughout the pericope, even in the resolution in verse nineteen, “For just as by the one’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the One’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Breaking open Romans:
  1. In what way are you like Adam or Eve?
  2. How are you like Christ?
  3. What do you experience as righteousness in your life?

Matthew 4:1-11
After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written,

'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written,

'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.



“’Someone came last night in my sleep,’ he murmured under his breath, as though he feared the visitor were still there and might overhear him.  ‘Someone came.  Surely it was God, God…or was it the devil?  Who can tell them apart?  They exchange faces; God sometimes become all darkness, the devil all light, and the mind of man is left in a muddle.”[2]

I am always reminded, in reading this pericope, of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus is pursued by a “dark angel” in the wilderness.  Soon we find out that the “dark angel” is the Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness in Matthew’s Gospel.  What we meet in Matthew is a Jesus who experiences a great number of things in an interior fashion.  At the baptism, “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God” (Emphasis mine).  Likewise it is Jesus alone who experiences the temptations in the wilderness, and it is his internal conversation with the devil that enlightens Jesus about the ministry that is rushing upon him.  He is driven by the Spirit. 

In a way, Matthew is deploying a device similar to Paul’s in the reading from Romans.  In Matthew, Jesus mirrors the life of Israel, and the temptations that come to him in the dessert can be seen in the life of the whole people, as well.  What does Satan use to tempt Jesus, to tempt Israel?  Is it hunger, or his relationship to God (Father), or the gift of land?  In each of these Israel also participates, in the hungers that drove them for forty years in the wilderness (see Numbers 11), or that God was their Father (see Exodus 19:5-6), or finally that God had given them the land (see Deuteronomy 6:10-15).  Thus Jesus as the continuation of Israel confronts his own lot and his unique son ship.  It is not only the baptism that opens up this new world of ministry to Jesus (as it also does to those of us who have died with him in baptism) but also this confrontation with the past (Israel) and the future (Calvary). 

Lent is a time that should probably not be given to a personal comparison with the temptation of Jesus, but rather a personal identification with his confrontation with the Spirit.  Yes, the devil confronts us, but it is also the Spirit who drives us as well.  As it will be for the disciples following the resurrection, it is for us now to follow Jesus to Galilee.

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     How are you alone in life?
2.     What does the world challenge you to be?
3.     What does your faith challenge you to be?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:



Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


[1]Alter, R. (2004). The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, page 21
[2]Kazantzakis, N. (1960). The Last Temptation of Christ, Simon and Schuster eBooks, New York, Page 15.

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