1st Sunday in Lent – March 13, 2011

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

By David J. Lull

Focal themes:
Readings from Genesis and Matthew offer contrasting stories about human responses to “temptation.” They also offer contrasting stories about the presence and absence of God at times of “temptation,” reminders that we need to reconsider what we think the final double petition in the Lord’s Prayer means: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Mt 6.13 KJV). The psalm and the reading from Romans offer contrasting “solutions” to this human condition: whereas Psalm 32 focuses on God’s forgiveness of sins, rooted in God’s “steadfast love,” the “solution” in Rom 5.12-19 is God’s transformation of human existence through one person’s “act of righteousness.” Matthew’s story of Jesus’ “temptation,” read alongside the Romans text, offers a similar “solution” to the human condition: Jesus’ faithfulness to God makes him a credible and worthy savior/messiah.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
The lectionary omits the section about God’s creation of a helper/partner for the first human, fashioned out of the human’s rib and called “woman” because “out of man” she was “taken,” which ends with the now fateful conclusion: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2.18-25). The lectionary’s slice-and-dice handling of this text gives the preacher permission to sidestep these controversial issues! On the other hand, it’s tempting to face squarely those parts of the text the lectionary committee didn’t want you to read. The history of interpretation of these omitted verses and their use—and abuse—for the oppression of women and same-sex partners illustrate well the limitations of human judgments about “good and evil.” With that we segue to the rest of the lectionary reading.

After sidestepping one set of sticky issues, we are snagged by stickier ones! Some traditional theologies appeal to Genesis 3 when they blame “Eve,” and all women thereafter, for spoiling life in the Garden of Eden and for handing sin on to their offspring. Since the lectionary stops at verse 7, we are again off the hook on issues in the rest of the chapter! Nevertheless, we might want to take this occasion to show how the limitations of human judgments about “good and evil” can lead to misreading and abusing scripture, and why some things the Bible says do not pass the test of time (like tracing labor pains to the disobedience of the first humans, or the view that husbands are to “rule over” their wives). Or, let go of the issues the lectionary chose to ignore, and focus on the primary theme/topic implicit in the selection of readings for the first Sunday in Lent: sin as endemic to the human condition, and forgiveness and/or Jesus’ faithfulness as its solution.

I offer two observations about this story. First, although many have identified the snake with Satan, remember that the snake is one of God’s creatures. It is a symbol of cleverness or shrewdness (as in 3.1). Second, the woman’s reasons for eating the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” are not in themselves bad; on the contrary, they sound natural and good. Although the snake tells the woman, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God [or gods], knowing good and evil” (3.5), the woman and her husband do not desire to be “like gods.” They only wanted to eat good food and become “wise” (3.6). How can we—or God—fault their desire for food and wisdom? It was not the desire, or the object of their desire, that was wrong: what was wrong was their disobedience to God’s explicit instructions.

Like the couple in this story, we hear lots of clever voices in our world trying to persuade us—usually successfully—to disregard what God would have us do, or not do. We know that God wants us to care for the earth and for the poor, the sick, and the hungry. And yet we all participate in an economy that is destroying the earth, forcing more people into poverty and expanding the gap between the poor and the rich, keeping the sick from receiving healthcare, and failing to feed millions of children who die from hunger. We know that God wants us to “love our enemies,” and not kill them; and yet, our elected politicians wage war on our behalf, and we pay taxes that pay for the killing of people our government tells us are our enemies.

This story is good at naming the problem we face but, apart from reminding us to what God would have us do, or not do, it offers no solution to the problem of our disobedience. For that we should turn to the readings from Romans and Matthew.

Psalm 32
This psalm is a beautiful—if not also practical and didactic—ode to the penitent and contrite heart. It opens (verses 1-2) and closes (verses 10b-11) by noting the happiness and joy that comes with confession and experience of God’s “steadfast love,” which grants forgiveness of sin. In between, in typical Wisdom tradition fashion, it contrasts two ways of approaching one’s sin: “silence” (verses 3-4) is contrasted positively with “acknowledging” and negatively with “not hiding” (verse 5). These contrasting ways are then taken up in reverse order by giving practical advice to the “faithful” (verses 6-8), followed by advice to the “wicked” (verses 9-10a).

One of the beauties of Psalm 32 is that it does not pin the terms “sin” and “confession” to any particular acts, attitudes, or values. It encompasses any and every act, attitude, or value that violates God’s all-embracing “steadfast love.” It lets us fill in the relevant, concrete details ourselves.

For example, Psalm 32’s description of the one who is “happy” offers an alternative to its definition in our time and culture, in which everyone is hell-bent on pursuing the “unalienable right” of “the pursuit of happiness,” which has come to mean the pursuit of pleasure, success, wealth, and security. If instead the psalm opens with the word “blessed” (as in the KJV, RSV, NIV, and NET), then it offers an alternative to the definition of the one who is “blessed,” which has come to be measured in our time and culture by the degree of pleasure, success, material comfort, and physical security one has or feels one has. Both “happy” and “blessed” have been hijacked by the dogmas of “economism,” “national security,” and “American exceptionalism,” and by theologies of “God’s preferential option for the rich.”

Psalm 32 pins true “happiness” or “blessedness,” not to what we are or do, but to what God is and does. God is “steadfast love” and, out of that love, “forgives” sin. The psalmist uses a variety of terms for what God does. In the first half of verse 1, the base meanings of the verb the NRSV translates as “forgiven” are to lift, take away, or remove; and the object of the verb is either the act—an offence, crime, or wrongdoing—or the guilt attached to the act. In the second half, the object of the verb is clearly the act (“sin”), and the verb the NRSV translates as “is covered,” in the sense of “concealed or kept secret,” could also be translated “pardoned” (NET). Then, in the first half of verse 2, the psalmist’s verb is “impute” (NRSV) or “count against” (NIV), and the object of the verb is either the act (iniquity, wickedness, or sin, as in the NRSV and NIV) or the guilt or punishment attached to it (as in the NAB and NET). In other words, God relates to the penitent, not in terms of their offensive acts or their guilt; rather, in God’s love, those acts and the guilt attached to them are erased or hidden. God keeps them “secret,” out of sight.

For the psalmist, “happiness” somewhat surprisingly also comes from an honest “spirit” (v. 2). The Hebrew, “in whose spirit there is no deceit” (as in the NRSV, NIV, and NAB), obviously cannot mean that the penitent is without sin; rather, in the context of this ode on confession and forgiveness, it means that the penitent honestly admit their sin to God, instead of remaining silent and attempting to hide their sin from God (as in verses 3-5; also see the NET note on v. 2).

So, honesty before God is the best strategy for those who desire to be “happy” or “blessed.” Silence and hiding allow our acts to go unexamined, and unexamined sin is the most dangerous, since one is bound to repeat it. Also, silence and hiding deprive one of the benefits of God’s “counsel” (v. 8) and of the joy and protection of God’s “steadfast love” (verses 7 and 10-11). Because of this note of joy in the “sheltering” love of God, the psalmist cannot have in mind the kind of self-loathing that sometimes infects and spoils the season of Lent. Confession has its home—its beginning and end—in God’s “steadfast love.”

Romans 5:12-19
Most preachers understandably prefer to preach on the Gospel reading. Their second choice often is the reading from the First Testament. Readings from New Testament letters seem to be too daunting to tackle. Against that grain, I propose a two-step approach to this reading: first, grapple with Paul’s recasting of the story in Genesis 3; then segue to the practice and benefit of confession, in dialogue with Psalm 32.

It is noteworthy that the focus of Paul’s recasting of the Genesis 3 story is on the disobedience of “Adam,” and that he doesn’t mention a serpent, Eve (though see 2 Cor 11.3), and the tree with the forbidden fruit. His recasting shows an interest in only one thing: the way one person’s disobedience brought about a change in the world. From that point on, everyone had to deal with the possibility of disobedience to God as a way of life. That everyone subsequently participates in that way of life is an indication of its power—attraction—in the face of which human will is too weak to resist. So, Paul’s customary way of talking about the human condition focused on human “weakness” in the face of the power of “sin” that invaded the world when “Adam” introduced disobedience as possible a way of life.

It’s not just that individuals decide to disobey God as a way of life, but also, and more fundamentally, that “Adam’s” disobedience changed the world, the human condition. For Paul, “sin” and “death” are powers present in the world from the time of “Adam,” but before and apart from any subsequent individual’s decision to disobey God. “Sin” came into the world as a power from outside the created order but as a result of the first act of human disobedience to God. “Death,” however, came into the world as the form of God’s punishment for disobedience. But “the whole creation” was affected—changed—by this chain of events. As Paul says later in Romans: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8.19-23 NRSV).

Paul’s view of sin as a power that invaded the world, like an alien force from another galaxy, and of death as a new factor in the human condition, might seem more than a little strange to us today. Actually, in spite of differences in worldviews, Paul’s views resonate more today than we might think. For instance, at least some of us are aware of the disastrous effect of human sin on the environment. If trends continue, vital ecosystems on the planet are doomed to die: “sin came into the world…, death came through sin.” Humans and other living things are not the only ones to suffer as a result of human disobedience to God. Moreover, the environmental crisis also illustrates the reality that sin is an objective force or factor in the world, and not just a subjective individual decision. Acid rain and excessive carbon emissions are created by systemic dependence on the type of fuels required for our preferred modes of transportation and the centralized generation of relatively cheap electricity. The industrial/consumer complex is fiercely resistant to more eco-friendly changes. Another example is the systemic dependence on low wages for workers, unemployment, and poverty in today’s economy, which favors the stockholders more than the common good and God’s “preferential option for the poor.” And another example is the suppression of political freedom—including constitutionally protected civil rights—in our own constitutional democracy under the demands of “national security,” which also demands military dominance in regions deemed hostile to U.S. security interests. None of these systems of sin and death are easy to change!

For hope in this hopeless human condition, Paul pointed to the world-changing effect of Jesus Christ’s “free gift”! Paul argued that, just as one person’s “trespass” changed the world, so Christ’s “act of righteousness” also changed the world. The change, which Paul calls a “free gift” (in Greek a charism or dōrea), is of two kinds. The first is God’s “justification” or “vindication” of everyone (since “all have sinned”), in contrast to the “judgment” that brought “condemnation” (verse 16). So, the first hopeful change is that in Jesus Christ we are offered a new life oriented to God’s justification or vindication of all, instead of God’s judgment and condemnation. That’s not only a shift from condemnation to vindication; it’s also a shift from the temptation to try to secure our vindication ourselves, to trusting that God has already vindicated us. We no longer need to feel we have to justify ourselves in the face of our failings. As the psalmist said, God promises to shelter the penitent from their failures.

The second form of the “free gift” of Jesus Christ is “righteousness” (verse 17). This form of the “free gift” empowers those who receive it to “exercise dominion in life through … Jesus Christ.” The Greek verb here (basileuō) evokes the image of ruling one’s life like a monarch. That’s a far cry from the old, “Adamic,” human condition under the strong grip of sin and death!

This new freedom and “dominion” comes “through … Jesus Christ.” Paul doesn’t explain how Jesus Christ brings this “free gift of righteousness” here—his explanation came earlier in this letter and, more fully, later in the next three chapters. The first half of Romans 5 (verses 1-11) dealt with “justification” and “reconciliation,” which came in a demonstration of God’s love: “while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (verse 8). Earlier in this letter, when Paul spoke of how we participate in “God’s righteousness,” he spoke of participation in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ by those who put their whole life-orienting faith and trust in Christ (see the discussion of 1.1-16 and 3.31-26 in Cobb/Lull, Romans).

It is to this faithfulness of Jesus Christ that Paul alluded when he wrote of “one man’s act of righteousness” and of “one man’s obedience” (5.18 and 19); and it is this “one man’s” righteousness that is the “free gift” that creates freedom and “dominion” in one’s new life in Christ. In the next three chapters, Paul explained more fully that this participation in Christ’s faithful righteousness/obedience is the work of God’s Spirit. That is the solution to the “Adamic” human condition: creative transformation through participation in Jesus Christ’s righteousness.

Confession is first and foremost about being open to this creative transformation. It is not about drowning in guilt. As today’s Psalm so eloquently says, it is about opening up with full honesty in the sheltering presence of God’s “steadfast love”; it is about letting God, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, teach and counsel you about the way to new life, in the knowledge that God’s loving “eye is upon you.”

Matthew 4:1-11
I need to begin by flagging two common traps readers today, especially preachers, fall into. The first is a kind of tunnel vision endemic to the lectionary, which can mislead the reader into thinking the assigned text stands alone. To avoid this trap, look to see how the narrative led to this point and where the narrative leads after this story. In the previous narrative segment, “a voice from heaven” repeated the witness of the birth narrative, that Jesus is God’s “beloved Son,” with whom God is “well pleased” (3.17). This public pronouncement came after Jesus persuaded John the Baptist to baptize Jesus, “to fulfill all righteousness” (3.15). Since John’s baptism was a sign of repentance for those who confessed their sins in response to the pronouncement that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3.1-12), the reader at this point naturally might think, “So, Jesus also confessed his sins and was baptized as a sign of his repentance.” Today’s Gospel reading responds to that thought! Stay tuned.

This story leads directly to the story about Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee when he heard of John’s arrest (4.12). As if to head off the inference that Jesus withdrew out of fear, which would be in tension with the story of Jesus’ “temptation” (4.1-11), Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: Jesus withdrew in order to be the “light” that “dawned” on people who sat in “the shadow of death” (4.13-16). Then we learn that “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (4.17). In short, today’s Gospel reading is wedged between Jesus’ baptism, and what that says about Jesus’ identity, and the beginning of his public ministry following John’s arrest. So, the question is, “How are all these stories about Jesus connected?” Stay tuned.

The second trap for today’s readers, especially preachers, is the desire to find oneself in the story. I am not going to try to talk you out of doing that, but I do want to try to persuade you to slow down that move. Finding yourself in the story prematurely will almost always find you misplaced in the story. That’s because this story is primarily about God, Jesus, and Jesus’ world. First pay attention to what the story wants you to pay attention to, and only then look for yourself in the story. This is not a hortatory text: it does not say, “so, you, like Jesus, must resist temptation,” no matter how true the latter is. You and I are not at all like Jesus: look at 3.17! It’s a story about Jesus, and by implication God and the world, and it invites our response to this Jesus, God, and world.

First, God: This story begins by telling us that “the Spirit”—God’s Spirit—led Jesus into the desert for the purpose of putting him to the test “by the devil.” Like the story of Job, God and the “devil” are in the temptation business together! The traditional translation of the Lord’s Prayer—“Lead us not into temptation!”—in effect says to God, “Don’t be the kind of god who does the devil’s business!” But here God is setting Jesus up with a date with the “devil”! What’s up with that?? As Russell Pregeant points out, this story is about a test of Jesus’ faithfulness, and it is God who puts Jesus to this test (see his Matthew).

Second, Jesus: The Greek word traditionally translated “temptation” also means “test” or “trial.” After having just announced to the public that Jesus is God’s “beloved Son,” with whom God is “well pleased” (Mt 3.17), Matthew now has Jesus demonstrate to God and the public that he is worthy of God’s good judgment. Three times Jesus’ faithfulness to God stands up to the test. Later in the Gospel, Peter’s threefold, unfaithful denial of Jesus will echo—by way of contrast—this story of Jesus’ faithfulness.

Third, the world: In this story, the world is full of temptations to make idols of food, to live dangerously and test God’s providence, and to make an idol of power and wealth. It’s not bad to ask God for “our daily bread”! It is not bad to trust God’s “angels” to protect him from harm. It would not be bad if Jesus exercised dominion and even had great material wealth: Think of the good he could do! The problem is that the world—here, the “devil”—seeks to tempt him to make idols of otherwise good things, which would make him unfaithful to words that come from God and to give up his devotion and service to God. The point of this story is that Jesus refused to make food, dominion, and wealth idols; and he refused to exploit God’s “angels”—God’s “steadfast love”—for his own self-interest (compare Phil 2.6-11).

Now we are ready to ask, “What does this story about God, Jesus’ faithfulness, and the world say about and/or to us?” First, a God who tests Jesus: One way of understanding a god who leads us into temptation or times of testing as diabolical, or at best a trickster or joker whose words and actions cannot be trusted. That’s not the God I encounter in the Gospels. The God I do encounter does, however, call and send people to callings and situations that test their faithfulness. Faced with hostility toward him, Jesus could have taken sides with those who sought to exercise dominion through violence, or he could have recanted his words under pressure from Jewish and Roman leaders, or he could have returned to life as a construction worker (“carpenter,” the traditional term for his former trade, is probably too narrow). The Gospels portray one or more of his disciples as taking these paths (see Mt 26.51, 69-75; Lk 24.13-21a; and Jn 21.1-3). Jesus, however, stands fast in his faithfulness to God’s calling in the face of trying circumstances, even in the face of death. So, too, God may call us to callings that will test our faithfulness. That’s when we have to discern whether a particular calling is from God, and whether we are up to that calling. Today’s Gospel reading shows Jesus answering these discernment questions, as he will again at the end of his life in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26.36-46; par. Mk 14.32-42 and Lk 22.39-46).

Second, Jesus’ faithfulness: In this story we are assured of Jesus’ faithfulness to God. He is no self-centered, power-hungry, charlatan! We can trust that in him we encounter someone who is transparent to God’s purposes in the world, to God’s “steadfast love,” to God’s dominion “on earth as in heaven.” We see in Jesus a model of faithfulness to God and God’s purposes in the world: a person whose will conforms to God’s. Through faith, we trust in Jesus’ faithfulness and are shaped by it. With the help of Jesus’ faithfulness, we are transformed into more faithful persons, ever more faithfully living out God’s purposes in the world.

Third, the “bedeviled” world: Even if we don’t believe the “devil” is wily person out there somewhere, everyone has had the experience of being seduced by some desirable possibility. Food is necessary to sustain life, but the mass production of food at the expense of the rights of animals and of the health of land and water violates God’s love of all creation, has as its secondary, if not primary, motivation greed and the idolatry of wealth creation, and ultimately leads to the destruction of the things necessary for food production. Over consumption of food leads to real health crises. Throughout history we see how the seduction of power turns the gifts of “dominion” into tyranny. The lure of wealth can lead to innovation and the enhancement of life for many, but the seduction of wealth is its false promise of happiness and fulfillment, and its voracious drive toward unlimited growth. We have seen that, when economies make the creation, growth, and protection of wealth the purpose of life, they lead to practices that destroy life and degrade vital ecosystems. They also replace “God’s preferential option for the poor” with the world’s preferential option for the wealthy.

Confession names these ways, and others, that the world lures us into unfaithful lives. Confession turns out attention to creative transformation that comes from God’s “steadfast love” for all creation. Confession reorients our lives to Jesus’ faithfulness as the source of our faithfulness.

David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.