Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13.
Folks who trust in the Lord and confess God’s saving deeds are delivered from temptation by God’s Holy Word.
The reading from the Law presents the ritual by which the individual Israelite was to offer up the annual first fruits of the promised land. The ritual included a recital of God’s good deeds for the ancestors and for oneself, good deeds that made this offering possible.
The passage embodies some typical Deuteronomic emphases.
- It affirms that the Israelite possesses the fruitful land only because God has given it.
- It insists that these offerings must be brought to the particular place “which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for [God’s] name” (which was Jerusalem, after the time of King Josiah, see II Kings 23:8).
- The core of the Israelite’s confession is that what God promised God has performed – that the Israelite lives by faith in God’s promise. That faith is justified by the goods now being returned to God at the altar.
- And finally, a typically Deuteronomic requirement insists that needy groups in the society receive a share in the abundance of the land: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (verse 11, RSV).
This confession of God’s deeds, made by the Israelite at the central sanctuary, has been viewed by many scholars as an early “credo” outlining the original sacred story of Israel. This particular version only mentions three of the great deeds of God for Israel, (1) the choice and guidance of the ancestor of Israel (the “wandering Aramean”) who went down to Egypt and there became a populous people, (2) the deliverance from slavery in Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” and (3) the giving of the land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Missing from this brief confession are two components of the later structure of the story embodied in the first six books of the Hebrew Bible, the revelation at Sinai and the many trials and tests in the wilderness.
In this confession, the ancestor is past history, but the exodus and gift of the land are the living present! God led him, the ancestor, and “he” became a great people; but the Egyptians oppressed “us,” and God brought “us” into this place. However long ago that may have been, for the Israelite bringing a first-fruits offering, it is “our” story!
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16.
If we hear this Psalm reading as a response to the Torah reading, an astonishing assurance is here given by God to the favored one who brings thanksgiving gifts. There are many psalms that contain passages of assurance of hearing by God, of deliverance from conspiring enemies, and of security in general, but this psalm is more completely and consistently devoted to assurance of protection and care than any other.
A main emphasis of this psalm is that troubles will come. The faithful one who trusts in the Lord does not lead a sheltered and secluded life; there are dangers on every hand – referred to mainly in verses 3-8, not included in the reading. No, the faithful one is in an active and busy world, but in that world God’s protection from all fatal danger will hold, and God’s angels will “guard you in all your ways … bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (verse 11, NRSV).
The reading from the Epistle continues from where both the Deuteronomy passage and Psalm 91 left off, providing assurance of the nearness of salvation – only finding that assurance in the confession of Jesus as Lord.
To follow what Paul is saying, one needs to hear the passage in Deuteronomy that he is applying to the situation of his own time.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14, NRSV).
The apostle explains, “ ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:8-9). Paul’s emphasis parallels the driving concerns of Deuteronomy – belief in the God who has promised and acted, and confession of that belief – a believing heart and a confessing mouth.
A consequence of this nearness of God’s word is that it is available to everyone. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (verse 12). This passage does not explain how Jewish observance of the Law would prove to be compatible with Christian confession of Jesus, but Paul here sees the work (and word) of God in Jesus as transforming all human destiny and establishing a new solidarity of the human community.
Why we have been listening to Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and the Epistle talk about believing and confessing becomes finally clear when we turn to the Gospel reading. On the first Sunday in Lent the Gospel reading is the Temptation of Jesus, this year according to Luke’s version.
Let’s pause a moment for the bigger picture, in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus has appeared in the wake of John the Baptist’s preaching, with the explanation that John was “preparing the way of the Lord.” Jesus was baptized, became possessed by the Holy Spirit, and was divinely declared to be the Son of God. Now what?
All the Gospel versions assume that the devil has been dominant in the world at large, that Jesus’ empowerment launches a warfare between the forces of good and evil, a warfare in which the sufferings and doom of people are struggled for between the demons and the Spirit of God. Jesus brings that conflict directly into the daily lives of waiting peoples, even though he is not recognized by anyone except the enemy forces. That is the overall setting, and the Temptation is the direct head-to-head kick-off of the contest between Jesus and the devil.
The devil is the challenger and puts forward the propositions. Two of the temptations begin, “If you are the Son of God …” Thus, Jesus’ credentials are being tested. We know, however, that the devil is a tricky dickens, and the real temptation is to do something that would contradict or betray the proper character of the true Son of God.
The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. After forty days of no food, Jesus should be very tempted to do this just for himself. However, the issue is undoubtedly larger: why not solve humankind’s greatest problem by making food as abundant as rocks? Why not transform the world of agriculture by employing an alchemist’s art and giving sufficient food at least to all one’s followers? A better world through technology. Jesus’ reply is, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Where is that written? Why, in Deuteronomy, of course (8:3). If the human pilgrimage is treated only as a quest for bread, it will dehumanize and materialize the human calling to serve God and enjoy what God provides.
The second temptation, as Luke gives it, is the temptation to world power at any cost. The devil shows Jesus all the nations and informs him that he (Satan) has power over all of them. …which he will give to Jesus, IF Jesus will “worship” him, the devil. Worship the lord of all the worldly powers! Think of all the good we could do if we had control of all the centers of power on the globe! Jesus’ reply is, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Where is that found? You guessed it; Deuteronomy – 6:13.
For the third temptation, the devil shows that he is learning. To deal with Jesus you have to quote scripture. This temptation is to become the most spectacular wonder-worker in the world, a possibility opened up by God’s promise of unqualified security to God’s Son. Standing on the highest point of the Jerusalem temple, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (The devil has not learned quite enough; he quotes the psalm, a passage from our reading above. He does not quote Deuteronomy. The implication is the devil can’t twist Deuteronomy to his purposes.)
This temptation, put in terms of our world, might be something like becoming an ultimate sports star, movie star, or top rock performer. What the devil offers here is basically entertainment, rather than a social program or international leadership. Here you could be the ultimate trend-setter, the model for charities, social causes, and political choices, as well as fashions and styles. What does Deuteronomy have to say to that? “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Deut. 6:16). That is, God’s power is not available for show offs, for those who only make a splash in the world while providing it no humble service and living without whole-hearted trust in the Lord for all of life’s needs and joys!
All these temptations have to do with foregoing short-sighted, glitzy, and self-centered courses of action -- foregoing such temptations that come from the devils who (seem to) run the world.
Foregoing, refraining, not indulging – those are the models and the moods that make the temptation narrative appropriate for the beginning of Lent.