Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-3; Luke 4: 1-13
Today is the official first day of Lent, even though we’ve already spent one day fasting and two abstaining, and many of you came last Wednesday for the imposition of ashes. Ash Wednesday is perhaps the best attended liturgy we celebrate that is not on a major feast of the Church: it is rather what is called a major feria and it supersedes any solemnities or feast days that would normally occur on that day. I love that we in the Church embrace Ash Wednesday with so much vigor. Let’s hope that we embrace the rest of this penitential season with as much spirit. Rites like these go to form us as much as the overt instruction that we get in religious education or through spiritual reading, because we take part as a people in a memorial that binds us to the faithful who lived before us, much like the rituals of the Hebrews bound them to the people of Israel whom the Lord led out of bondage in Egypt.
The first reading describes just one such ritual. Deuteronomy 26 outlines the offering of first fruits in gratitude for deliverance. As the Israelites make this offering, they declare themselves to be descendants of a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt and grew into a vast nation. Now the wanderer could be Abram or Jacob, since both fled to Egypt during times of famine. The land of Aram is what we now call Syria, and the Greek translation puts a slightly different spin on the story here and suggests that the father deserted or abandoned Syria. And after growing into a great nation, they were mistreated and enslaved by the Egyptians. When the Lord hears their cries, he leads them out of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land of the Canaanites and further. In fact, the top-most portion of the land of the twelve tribes of Israel was well into the land of Aram. The Lord, in essence, leads them right back to where they started.
When we see the story condensed like this to its basic elements, it sounds a bit like the story of the prodigal son. The son leaves home, lives the high life for a while, then dwindles into servitude and remembers how it was when he was subject to his father. In away, that makes sense. Jacob leaves his patrimony in Aram to go to Egypt, where he and his descendants become rich. But being away from their own lands, they become subject to the pagan Egyptians, and we assume they also become poor again. When they cry out to the Lord, He delivers them with a strong hand. But there’s a detail missing. Deuteronomy 26 takes place before the Israelites pass over the Jordan to the land flowing with milk and honey and after they spend 40 years wandering in the desert. The Lord has brought them out of Egypt and slavery, but only after they have wandered 40 years in the desert does the Lord lead them out and welcome them back to the land of their patrimony.
That 40 years of wandering was the temporal consequence for the Israelites’ lack of faith—for not trusting in the Lord’s promise. And by the time the forty years are up, the generation who left Egypt have all died off. Only Joshua and Caleb remain and get to enter the promised land. An interesting note here is that Caleb isn’t even Hebrew by birth. His father was a Kenezzite and a convert, and the name Caleb, or kalev (כלב), is the Hebrew word for dog—not exactly what we would consider a proper name. Caleb has been grafted, so to speak, on to the tree of the Hebrew people, just as we as Catholic Christians have been grafted onto the people of Israel. Remember that when you read about the gentile woman who begs for Jesus to heal her daughter. He says to her, “It is not fair to throw the food of the children to the dogs,” to which she replies, “Even dogs eat from the scraps that fall from the table.” Her faith is greater than the children of Israel, and Jesus rewards her, just as the Lord rewarded Caleb for his faith.
Paul tells us today in the letter to the Romans, “[E]veryone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” There is no distinction between Jews and Greek, of Jew and any gentile. We as gentile Christians have also been grafted onto the tree of Israel, as Paul says in this same letter.
In Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the desert. These forty days and nights in the desert are the preparation He undergoes for His earthly ministry. Notice that Satan begins to tempt Him, in this gospel, with the most basic of needs: food. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days—certainly enough to justify breaking his fast. But Satan wants Him to do it for the wrong reason: he wants Him to prove Himself, to justify Himself. In short, Satan tempts Him with something good but attained in the wrong way and for the wrong reason. So it’s not really the food that’s the problem. Food is good. But not all means to food or uses for food are good.
Next, Satan takes Him to a high place and shows him all kingdoms and offers all earthly power. This one is rather ironic, given that all the power of creation already rests in Jesus. So is Satan really offering power to Jesus, or is he tempting Him again to prove Himself? Finally Satan tempts Him to throw Himself down and let the angels catch Him. Again—prove that you are the Son of God. Make your time here all about you and your power.
But that’s not why Jesus came and not why he spent 40 days and nights in the desert. Luke even tells us that Jesus returns from the Jordan filled with the Holy Spirit! But to be like us, He has to become weak like us. To show us an example to follow, He must become like us in our frailty. So He goes to the desert to empty Himself. Satan wants Him to make a show of it all, but Jesus chooses the path of meekness. As Paul writes in Philippians, “Though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied Himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men.”
And if a man can assert His own power, and command the angels, and live independent from the power of God, he is no slave. He doesn’t need God. So Satan is tempting Jesus (or trying to tempt Jesus) with the very temptation he used to entice our first parents: “You will be like God,” which is in truth less than who Jesus already is.
Jesus’ mission wasn’t about Him. It was and is about us. Like Adam and Eve, we’d like to be masters of our own destiny. We’d like to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be like God. We don’t want to be in servitude to God. But as the story of Jacob and His sons shows, you will always wind up serving someone. As Bob Dylan put it, “You’ve got to serve somebody.”
Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a self-emptying to join us where we are and to show us a better way. In every action He performed, Jesus tells us, “This is the way. Follow me on the path of weakness. Don’t be distracted by the fleeting stuff of this world.”
This 40 days is about remembering our weakness, need, and utter dependence on God. Sure, we could allow ourselves all kinds of loopholes and exceptions in this penitential season. But as always, Jesus calls us to be like Him. He calls us to follow Him into the wilderness so He can lead us back to our patrimony as sons and daughters of God. In these 40 days, let us return with Him to that wilderness and empty ourselves out so that we can be filled again and returned to the place of our fathers.