March 10, 2019
Let us talk about temptation. After all, this is the Sunday of the Lord’s temptations in the desert.
Commentators on this event in Jesus’ life have turned his temptations into a kind of catalog of ‘sources of temptation’: the world, the flesh and the devil. Actually, if we follow the order of the Gospel, it should be the flesh (turning stones into bread), the world (throw yourself down from the temple to get noticed), and the devil (worship me and I will give you the kingdoms of the earth).
If we lived in some Third World country (as Jesus did to all intents and purposes) it would be easy to find contemporary parallels to this classic and unholy trinity. But here in a town of relative (or more) affluence and ease, it is a little harder.
However, I am not deterred (quelle surprise!) I want to suggest that the First World version of the flesh is consumerism; of the world, entitlement; of the devil, exceptionalism.
Think about it.
Very few of us are hungry for things we actually need. But all of us grow envious of those who have more disposable income, who toil less and have more, who do wrong and go unpunished.
Entitlement comes from victimization, from being born in the right place, from hard work (even in the land of opportunity).
Exceptionalism, far from being a just dogma in the realm of international politics, is actually the calm assumption that rules were made for others but never for oneself; that limitations of my rights or wants are an injustice; that ‘someone’ should do something (but not I).
Against these temptations, the Church has always offered specific defenses: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Prayer undoes exceptionalism by focusing one’s mind on the one who is always Greater, who is Father of all.Fasting undoes consumerism by focusing one’s attention on what is necessary. Almsgiving overcomes entitlement by a decision to be a gift to another.
But here’s the really big news: prayer, fasting and almsgiving are supposed to be the daily fare of the serious Christian! Some extra Bible reading, giving up chocolate and contributing to an Ash Wednesday collection for Catholic Charities – if these are the limit of our Lent, and if they disappear as fast as the dew on Easter morning, then we have decided to live like everyone else, but not like the Lord.
How dare I say this?
Well, self-knowledge is a great teacher about these things.
But more to the point is a little phrase at the very start of the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent: Jesus went out into the desert under the lead of the Spirit.
Willingness to pray, to fast and to give alms is not something we conjure up for a season. It is the work of the Spirit of God in those who have accepted that Spirit to be their own. To Jesus – and to us who are like him – that Spirit was given at Baptism. Now guess why Lent ends with a renewal of our Baptismal promises!
Really and truly and temptingly (?) yours,