GENESIS 12:1-4A | 2 TIMOTHY 1:8B-10 | MATTHEW 17:1-9
God’s Word to us this first Sunday of our Lenten journey is very interesting. It begins with a passage from the book of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience. A reflection from Paul’s letter to the Romans regarding their sin follows. Finally, Mathew gives us an account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. How do these fit together and what do they teach us?
The story of Adam and Eve is a metaphor for humankind’s struggle for connection with God. Eve is the spirit in each one of us that’s constantly reaching out to connect with God, symbolized, in the story, by the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam, his name means earth or soil, is that earthly part of us that needs redemption or inner liberation.
In the second scripture passage Paul shares a reflection with the Christian community in Rome. He presents Adam as a symbol of the human family’s struggle with sin defining Adam’s sin as disobedience or disharmony with the will of God. He then shines the light on Jesus as THE example of total obedience to God’s will. Disobedience is what brings sin and death into the world. Being in harmony with God’s will redeems one from sin and restores a life connected to God.
Now we come to Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus. The barren, hostile desert is the stage for the great test. A symbolic number is woven into the scene. The Jewish people were molded by many trials, struggles and even sins during their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai Desert. Those years were a time
when the Spirit challenged their faith, strengthened them, purified them and formed them into a nation. Throughout their time of testing they were guided by the Spirit of God, the burning pillar of cloud.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is driven by that same Spirit into the desert where, for forty days, he confronts his inner demons. The voice of temptation is relentless. Over and over again the challenge comes: if you’re the son of God…prove it! Change these stones into bread! If you’re the Son of God…Prove it! Throw yourself off the roof of the temple; God won’t let you die. If you’re the Son of God… Prove it! Vanquish every earthly power. Let me crown you King of the entire world. If you’re the Son of God…Act like it!
Jesus conquers the temptation to power and fame. He hands himself over in complete obedience to the father’s will. Just before his death he will tell his disciples that “the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
We begin Lent with a call to follow Jesus, and like him, to face our inner demons. The Spirit will lead us just has he led the Jewish people, and Jesus, too, if we submit. Lent is the time when we Christians question the depth of our faith and the fervor of our commitment to the will of the Father. The Spirit is driving us into the desert for forty days. Let’s pray for each other during this time. As Paul instructs us: “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
LEVITICUS 19:1-2, 17-18 | 1 CORINTHIANS 3:16-23 | MATTHEW 5:38-48
We have what we might consider HUGE commandments for reflection our today. The first sentence of the passage from Leviticus zings us with one big fat commandment, “BE HOLY for I, your God, am holy.” Jesus, piggy-backing on Leviticus, commands: “BE PERFECT, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Holy Moly! Where do we go from here? Holiness isn’t enough? We need to be perfect, too? Let’s not panic. Leviticus wasn’t commanding the impossible, and neither was Jesus. Let’s look a bit more closely at the passages.
The passage from Leviticus ends with the well-known commandment which most Christians attribute to Jesus but he was just quoting Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we look closely, we discover that this commandment has a narrow scope. It continues: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.” Holiness is narrowly connected with love of one’s “people.”
Jesus introduces his call to be perfect with a call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” You may remember, when Jesus quoted this same passage from the book of Leviticus to the “teacher of the law” who asked him what the greatest commandment was, the lawyer immediately came back with a question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then laid the parable of the Good Samaritan on him.
Jesus connects holiness and perfection to
our relationship with one another, our friends and our foes alike. Later on, in that Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that our heavenly Father “makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” He’s teaching us that to begin the journey toward holiness and perfection (our journey to God) our hearts must be open to everyone, people who don’t look like us, that don’t speak our language, that hate us, that want to do us harm, that hurt us and others.
During the weeks of Lent we will direct our reflection to the mystery of Christ – the mystery of death and resurrection. Each of us has been baptized into this mystery. Our commitment to Christ demands that we be holy and perfect as God is holy and perfect.
This Sunday is the last Sunday before we begin Lent, the forty days of personal prayer and contemplation on the mystery of death and resurrection. It’s also our communal time of penance and voluntary fasting. It’s so appropriate that we hear God’s challenge to be holy and perfect this Sunday. Our journey to God is going to take place one loving step at a time, one death and resurrection at a time. Being a Christian is a challenge, but it’s full of wonder and miracles and may God touch our hearts during this holy season. May Easter bring us new life.
SIRACH 15:15-20 | 1 CORINTHIANS 2:6-10 | MATTHEW 5:17-37
Jesus had just told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We heard that message last week. He immediately followed that wonderful declaration with a serious caution. “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Why was there so much antagonism between Jesus and the religious leaders? It had to do with religious laws.
The laws contained in the scriptures were considered the voice of God by the religious leadership, the scribes and the Pharisees, and by Jesus. The purpose of these scriptural laws was to lay out principles for harmonious living and personal spiritual development. They were broad so that they could be wisely applied to individual situations. But over time, the interpretations of these laws, these broad principles, were given as much weight as the original laws themselves.
Over time, the scribes and Pharisees squeezed every possible interpretation out of each law. They stretched the basic 10 commandments to 613 laws! This was only the tip of the religious iceberg. Many volumes of interpretations evolved over time, and each interpretation was followed by an interpretation of the interpretation. The law was meant as a universal spiritual guide for better living. The religious leaders, by their proliferation of laws, distracted the people from the beauty and simplicity of the spiritual principles. This was the core of the battle between Jesus and the religious leaders.
We can feel Jesus’ frustration as he continues his teaching. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus gets to the heart of it all. Following the law isn’t a matter of simply not killing. It’s the more serious matter of dealing with anger personal, national, international. “I say to you, whoever is angry with a brother will be liable to judgment.”
He went on. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He continued by extending the law to marriage. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Remember that women in Jesus’ day had very few rights. Being written off by her husband a woman was condemned to a life of poverty and even more seriously, rejection by the community. The commandment wasn’t just about a legal relationship; it was a call for purity of heart and the challenge of emptying one’s life in love for another. The law was a call to respect the dignity of women. Once again, Jesus gets to the heart of the law. “I say to you, everyone who looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus added two thoughts that deepened this teaching. They were very important. “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The second seems simple, but it’s not a common practice. “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” These two principles are the foundation of spiritual life. The commandments rest on them and receive life and spirit from them.
These aren’t easy teachings that we hear today, but if each one of us listens to them, really and honestly listens, each of us will hear a personal message. This is the marvel of Jesus’ teachings; they speak so personally. The law, as Jesus teaches it, challenges us to respect and love everyone including our enemies. He challenges us to value each other, to love purely. The law will point us to areas in our lives that need improvement and development. As Jesus said, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matthew 11:15)
ISAIAH 58:7-10 | 1 CORINTHIANS 2:1-5 | MATTHEW 5:13-16
Last week our reflection centered on the Beatitudes, the introduction to the new set of commandments Jesus was about to reveal to his disciples. In Matthew’s gospel this teaching extends thru chapters five, six and seven, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This week we will look at the first teaching.
Jesus taught by spinning parables and using memorable images. Today we pray with two images: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I say we pray with them because these images are meant to reach into our hearts. They’re meant to feed our souls and energize a response from us.
When we use the phrase: “He’s salt of the earth,” we mean that the person is good and wholesome, honest to the core and loveable. That’s an excellent interpretation, but there’s more to it. Salt has an effect on everything it touches. It has its own taste, a taste we often crave, and it also brings out the flavor of the food it touches. As the salt of the earth we’re in constant search for the divine essence that’s within us, and, following in the footsteps of Jesus, we reach out to season those who haven’t tasted the divine within themselves.
There’s another aspect of salt that was understood in Jesus’ day but lost to us. In the Middle East covenants were often consummated by each of the parties by eating salt. This was even celebrated in the Jewish liturgical tradition. Every animal sacrifice was salted before it was offered to God. This was called the Salt Covenant. The salt clinched the covenant between God and the people of Israel. Jesus is teaching us that we’re a sacred element that cansanctify, add the divine ingredient, not only to the people of the covenant but to the entire world!
If that’s not enough to think about, Jesus adds a second part to the teaching. “But what if salt loses its flavor? It is no long any good but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Remember Jesus always used very common examples to explain his teachings. This reference to salt losing its flavor has to do with cooking. Only the wealthy had full kitchens in their homes. Each village had its common oven that was kept burning all day. These ovens had to stay hot all day and ready to be used at any time. Salt was an excellent insulation for these communal ovens. Eventually, the salt would deteriorate. It would be replaced with fresh salt and the old salt that had lost its flavor (decomposed) was thrown on the ground around the oven and replaced. It had burned itself out. Jesus is encouraging us to carry on our mission of salting the earth for our entire lives.
Jesus reiterates this lesson with a second image, that of the lamp stand. We’re the light of the world! We’re to shine the divine light in every dark place. We’re never to hide it or be hesitant to let it shine. And we’re to shine for our entire lives.
These “commandments” are life-long challenges for disciples. Our personal prayer, our communal celebration of the Eucharist and our labor in the vineyard of the Lord work together in our personal development as disciples. The gospel invites today to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Together, and individually, let’s recommit to take up the mission of the Lord began.