Forty Days and Nights

Familiarity may well be our greatest obstacle in understanding the Gospel for this first Sunday in Lent – the three temptations of Jesus.  We are easily inclined, and I have preached many a homily from this perspective, to transpose the three temptations to ourselves in an attempt to decipher their analogues in our own lives.  That’s harmless enough, potentially beneficial. However, scripture scholars better versed in all this than me suggest this is not what this Gospel writer had in mind.

Today’s rendition of Jesus’ familiar temptations in the desert is from the Gospel of Matthew.  Although the account also appears in Mark and Luke, Matthew’s gloss suggests he had clear and particular intentions.  Matthew’s underlying  purpose and distinctive proclamation in today’s Gospel is not primarily given as a lesson plan for avoiding sin we’d be wise to adapt to our lives.  Rather, Matthew wants to introduce Jesus as our “new Moses”, one whose mission is consistent with, and a grace-filled manifestation of, the Law and the Covenant God has made with a Chosen People.

Therein lies the first point I really need to remember: It’s not primarily about me!  Much of my prayer is really introspective if not navel-gazing.  That’s okay I guess, harmless enough.  One of my Sinsinawa Dominican teachers in grade school told us “prayer is like parting our hair – P, A, R, T!  The four purposes of prayer are Petition, Adoration, Reparation and Thanksgiving.” We are in the picture somewhere with each, but more and more I recognize that prayer isn’t primarily about me, my needs, my aches and pains, my will for the world.  If I really came to know who is this Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel, all my individual stuff would fall quickly into place.  That’s a Lenten meditation I would do well to take with me for the entire forty days!

Another unique twist Matthew gives to his use of the temptations story is his addition of night.  Mark and Luke have Jesus in the desert for “forty days”.  Matthew places him there for “forty days and forty nights.”  If we were doing Scriptural exegesis we would analyze how this gloss enhances Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the “new Moses.”  Our purpose, rather, is prayer and deepening our spiritual lives during Lent.  Let’s pay particular attention to Matthew’s addition in that light, from the perspective of our prayer – what if we consciously brought “night” into our Lenten awareness?  What does night conjure for you?  Is it filled with worry, restlessness and nightmares? How might this inform our spiritual practice this Lent?  Where is God in all of this? Is night a time of rest, intimacy, dreams?  Where is God in all of this? How does this shape our Lenten prayer and practice?

Another observation about today’s Gospel comes from its placement in the life of Jesus.  All three synoptic Gospels are consistent in placing Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.  The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ inaugural address, but his period of prayer and fasting clearly catapulted him into a ministry of healing, teaching and feeding all who were in need.  Rather than looking backward in our lives with a focus on faults and failings, or applying this Gospel as if it were a lesson plan or Lent were a self-improvement program – let’s keep our eyes squarely on our future. Where is this season of renewal, repentance and reformation meant to catapult us?  What mission does God have in store for us as individuals, families, communities or congregations?  To what brokenness, blindness or hunger are we being sent to respond in our future emboldened with Jesus’ Good News?

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I am inspired by Patrick J. Willson for this reflection: Feasting on the World, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. pp. 45-49.

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