The First Sunday in Lent (Year A), 1 March 2020


March 1, 2020

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

by Russell Pregeant

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

It is important to understand the story of Jesus’ temptation in connection with the preceding story of his baptism, where the voice from heaven proclaims him Son of God. The genealogy in Matthew 1 has named him Messiah, and the virgin birth motif and the angel’s declaration that he is to be called Emmanuel (“God is with us,” NRSV) suggest his divine status. However, it is only at the baptism that the actual term Son of God appears, and it does so in connection with a subtle note of contingency. To say that God is pleased with him is to suggest that that his status is dependent upon his actions, in this case presumably his submission to baptism, precisely in order to “fulfill all righteousness”—which is to say, in obedience to God’s command. The temptation story builds on this foundation by having Jesus demonstrate further obedience by resisting the devil’s enticements. We can thus see that although Jesus is born to his status as Messiah/Son of God it remains for him to actualize this role precisely through acts of obedience to the will of God. And for the story to have its full impact, the reader should imagine the possibility that Jesus might in fact fail the test; otherwise, his obedience would be that of a robot rather than a responsible human being. The dynamic, open-ended aspect of his role in the drama of salvation, moreover, remains throughout the entire gospel. In 16:1 Jesus has to resist the temptation to satisfy the Pharisees and Sadducees by granting their demand for a sign from heaven, and in 27:40 he must ignore the taunts of the passers-by who challenge him to come down from the cross. All of these temptations would have subverted his mission and nullified his status. It is an essential part of Matthew’s story that he remains obedient—humanly obedient—until the end.

For Jesus to give in to the first temptation—to turn stones into bread—would have negated God’s intention that Jesus undergo the discipline of fasting. The second temptation was to put God’s faithfulness to the test, and the third was to abandon faith in God for the sake of worldly power. The third, in particular, would have perverted his messianic role by abandoning the path of the nonviolent one who must suffer rejection and death in favor of imperial power such as that of Caesar—a power ultimately derived not from God but from Satan. The lectionary’s use of this passage for the First Sunday of Lent suggests a comparison between the temptations Jesus faced and those we face as Christians today. As M. Eugene Boring points out, however, the parallel is weak since we do not have the option of miraculous deeds. However, “[t]o the extent that Jesus’ temptation serves as a model for Christians, it might teach us that to be a ‘child of God’ . . . means to have a trusting relationship to God that does not ask for miraculous exceptions to the limitations of an authentic human life.”1 I would add that although we do not face temptations of the same exact nature as did Jesus in this story, we all face temptations specific to our own callings in life. We are, for example, tempted to take the easy way out in situations that call for self-denial and to seek illegitimate power over others when called to tasks that demand humility and cooperation. 

The Gospel of Matthew makes clear Jesus’s devotion to scripture in 5:17-48, although the “but I say unto you” sayings show very clearly that his interpretations can actually involve overruling specific passages. In the present passage, this devotion is evident from the fact that Jesus backs up each of his refusals of temptation with scriptural quotations. And 4:6 adds a rather startling twist to the theme of scriptural authority by having the devil quote Psalm 91:11-12. We thus have an important illustration of how evil intention can twist and misuse scripture for its own purposes. In 4:7, however, Jesus nullifies the devil’s point with a counter-quotation of his own, and I can easily imagine making use of this fact in a sermon. Deciding between right and wrong on the basis of scripture involves much more than surface reading and simplistic proof-texting. Authentic use of the Bible involves a soul-searching attempt to discern its deepest intentions. And that often involves bringing various strands of biblical teaching into conversation with one another, as well as tracing out the full implications of each in light of our own human experience. One temptation we face is to act in blatant opposition to scripture, but a subtler (and in some ways deadlier) temptation is to use the surface meaning of individual passages to subvert the fundamental message of the biblical witness. The ancient patriarchal worldview, which the Bible in some ways shares, is manifest in texts that subordinate women or disparage same-sex relationships, but the more fundamental and more consistent biblical message is clearly one of universal love and inclusiveness.

The figure of the devil in the temptation story raises a serious issue. Belief in a personal devil not only strains our credulity; it also compromises the essential Christian doctrine of the sovereignty of God. Nevertheless, the devil-figure plays an important role in the over-all biblical drama by concretizing for our imaginations something that is very real indeed—genuine evil, which we should not write off as mere psychological malfunction. Of course, we should not think of evil as an independent force, parallel to God; a process-relational world view understands it as the privation of the good. We must not, however, underestimate the enormous destructive power that it holds. One danger I see in our Lenten practice of denying ourselves some pleasure is that we trivialize sin. And the true power of the temptation story, I think, lies less in the specific temptations Jesus faces than in the way the tale reminds us that the whole drama of Jesus’s life revolves around a cosmic conflict between two opposing realms that claim sovereignty and vie for human loyalty—that of Satan, or evil, and that of God, or the good. Although the choices we face on the concrete level are seldom between absolute good and absolute evil, but rather among shades of grey, behind them all there is in fact an ongoing conflict of absolutes. This is a point that the readings from Genesis and Romans make very clear.

 

First and Second Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Romans 5:12-19

I treat these two readings together because the second is directly dependent upon the first. And I begin by noting what these passages do not say but has nevertheless played a central role in traditional Christian theology. The Genesis story recounts the sins of Adam and Eve in eating the forbidden fruit and God’s subsequent punishments. In the chapters that follow, we see a continuing descent of humanity into sin-driven chaos, characterized by violence (Genesis 4:8, 6:11). We can thus say that the initial sin in the garden is the event that sends humanity spiraling downward. What we do not find in any of this, however, is any indication that sin is somehow inherited from generation to generation—certainly not, as later theology argued, through procreation. Likewise in the Romans passage, we find that Adam’s disobedience is the event that brings sin into the world, but not that sin is in any sense inherited. That latter notion was based on early Latin translations of Romans 5:18 that suggested that all later human beings sinned “in Adam,” which would mean that, as Adam’s progeny, they carry Adam’s sin with them from birth. More recent translations, however, give a very different impression though their renderings of the key Greek phrase eph’ hō (literally, “upon which” or “upon whom”) in verse 12.  The NRSV, for example, translates it as “because,” so that the verse reads “death spread to all because all sinned.” So the point is not that sin is inherited from Adam but only that after Adam’s transgression human beings themselves began to sin. The CEB translates the phrase as “with the result that,” which suggests that Adam’s sin was the cause of later sin, but here again there is no suggestion that Adam’s sin is actually passed on. 

This does not mean, however, that sin occurs as a result of human volition, pure and simple. Paul is very clear that human beings do in fact live under the power or dominion of sin, that they are in some sense enslaved by it. But how can we understand this today, if we reject the traditional notion of original sin as an inheritance from Adam? John Cobb and David Lull suggest that we can do so in socio-psychological terms. On the psychological level, “abusive parents bring up children in ways that cause them to be abusive,” and “subtler psychological analyses show the many ways in which even ‘good’ parents warp their children.” On the social level, moreover, “[e]ven relatively healthy people are caught up in social and corporate sins.” Slavery was an essential aspect of human society, and today “[i]n some situations, such as our current global economy, workers may be treated worse than were slaves.”2 To this we might add the destructive effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, and innumerable other forms of discrimination and exclusion. 

Aside from the incompatibility of the notion of inherited sin with our contemporary worldview, another problem with the traditional understanding of original sin is that it actually lets us off the hook in a serious way by making sin something utterly beyond our control. There is thus a fine line to walk in dealing with sin in a sermon. We need to make clear that we are in fact individually responsible for our sins, but at the same time we need to stress that we are struggling against forces that are beyond our human capacity to defeat. And that is precisely where grace comes in. Jesus goes into the wilderness as a human being to be tested, but he goes armed with the power of the Holy Spirit given at his baptism. And for Paul, we deal with sin not by the power of our own free wills alone but on the basis of the free gift of grace that comes through Christ’s “act of righteousness” that “leads to justification and life for all” (5:18). When we are “in” Christ, we can participate in his righteousness, through which we are empowered to overcome temptation. The real emphasis of the Romans text is thus not on the sad effects of Adam’s sin but on the proclamation that his disobedience has been reversed and nullified by Christ’s obedience, or faithfulness. And this means that we sinners are made righteous and freed from sin’s dominion. “Abundance of grace” (v. 17), not sin, is the central theme of the passage.

 

Psalm 32

The bulk of this psalm is an exercise in penitence, but the first two verses constitute a celebration of grace in the form of forgiveness and a welcome reminder that life in union with God can and should be a happy experience. This should encourage us to remember that the somber mood of Lent is preparation for the joy of Easter and that penitence is the gateway to renewal. Marty Steussy, however, notes that verses 3-4 and 10 suggest a simplistic causal relationship between sin and suffering, to which the book of Job is an important antidote.3 Happily, though, the psalm ends with an injunction “to be glad in the LORD and rejoice,” and it is important to incorporate this note in our Lenten musings.

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Endnotes

  1. M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 166.
  2.  John B. Cobb, Jr. and David J. Lull, Romans, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice, 2005), 83.
  3. Marty J. Steussy, Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice, 2004), 103.

Russell (Russ) Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus at Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, where he taught a variety of courses, including New Testament, Old Testament, Religion and Politics, and Contemporary Theological Issues. He was also frequently Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. A native of Louisiana, he is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and has served as an associate pastor in New Orleans and as an interim pastor in Needham, Massachusetts. He now lives in Clayton, Georgia with his wife, the Rev. Sammie Maxwell. Russell is the author of nine books, most recently For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision (2016) and Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons (2011). He has also completed a second edition of an earlier book on process-relational theology, Mystery without Magic, which is now under consideration for publication.

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