The following is a homily for the first week of Lent, Year A. The readings can be found here.
On Ash Wednesday, I had the great opportunity to distribute ashes on campus. Myself and a handful of students stood in the quad, and just met people where they were. It great to see so many students wanting this visible sign of our faith, so many I didn’t recognize.
There was just one problem. The way the it works on campus is that you are assigned a table, and you have to stay at your table. Which was fine… until we realized that the table to our right was for people selling girl scout cookies. Okay, fine. No big deal. But being close to Tate, the wind kept blowing in our face, meaning that whenever the door opened, the smell of Panda Express and Chic-fil-A blew right in our face. This, I remind you, a day of fasting and abstinence. As if those two things weren’t temptation enough, up walks the Georgia Moms at their table, right next to us on the other side, offering freshly baked cookies and brownies—for free! They walked over and held them out, “Go ahead, take one.” I looked at the woman and said, “Get behind me Satan.”
Okay, no I didn’t say that. But I wanted to!
It was a pretty strong temptation all around. Because, really, it would have been really easy to justify, right? I mean, was a little cookie going to hurt my fast? I could count that as a part of my small meal. Even the chicken: Jesus never said that we couldn’t eat meat on Ash Wednesday, it’s just a Church rule. I was really hungry, it was slowing me down; think about how much better of a minister I would be if I wasn’t hungry. I could serve more people. And Jesus doesn’t want me to suffer. Easy to justify.
I didn’t, don’t worry, but sadly, I do this sort of thing all of the time. Maybe you do too. We know we’re not supposed to do something, but we come up with a good justification why it’s okay. I know I shouldn’t eat this whole pint of ice cream… but I’ve been working hard lately. It’ll motivate me to work out harder tomorrow! I know I shouldn’t watch this movie, have a drink, I need to write this paper… but, maybe a drink will loosen me up, I need to relax before I start.
This sort of thinking, this justification, is on display in our readings today. In both Genesis and Matthew, we see how people of faith are tempted to do something they know is wrong by justifying their actions.
In the case of Adam and Eve, they know that they are not supposed to eat of the tree, but Eve notices that the fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. Good things. Jesus is in the desert with Satan, and notices that everything being offered, believe it or not, is a good thing: Food for the hungry, safety and protection, king of the earth. Think about how all of this would make the propagation of the Gospel much easier. He could use these things for others.
In both cases what is being offered is good, and it would be easy to see how they could look past knowing that it was wrong and do it anyway. Look at all the good it would do!
And so Adam and Eve fall to temptation… but Jesus doesn’t. Why? I think it comes down to this: he didn’t forget who he was. You see, the devil isn’t just a snake, he’s a snake oil salesmen. He gives us the illusion that he is giving us just what we want, the fulfillment of our wildest dreams, when in fact… all he can offer us is a worse version of something we already have. He tricks us into forgetting. Remember how he tempts Adam and Eve: “If you eat this fruit, you will be like gods who know the difference between good and evil.” Sounds great! Who wouldn’t want that? Only, what happened just a chapter before in Genesis 1:27? “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” They are already like gods because they are created in the image and likeness of God. They are already in God’s presence, already higher beings than anything on earth, capable of free will, capable of reason, capable of loving and serving God.
But they forgot this.
In the moment of their justification, they forgot who they were, who they were created to be, who the source of their life is… and so they fell to a foolish temptation. They gave away everything… for a chance of gaining what they already had.
Jesus faces the same temptation, but acts very differently. The devil says worship me and I will make you the most powerful king of the earth. Again, sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be King? Think of all the things you could do to make the world better! Except, there’s just one problem: Jesus is already a King. Just three chapters earlier in beginning of Matthew, we hear that long genealogy from Christmas, showing that Jesus is in the line of David; in chapter 2, the magi refer to him as the “king of the Jews” and Herod seeks to kill him because he sees him as competition. What is abundantly clear all throughout the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is a king… but not like the kings of this earth. He does not desire to rule nations, to command armies, to have subjects beneath him: he is a servant king, one who leads through humility and sacrifice.
At no point does he forget who he is, at no point does he forget his purpose, and so at no point is he truly tempted. What Satan offers is ridiculous, and he sees right through it.
Too often, I have to admit, I forget what I already have; I forget who I was created to be; I forget who I am… and so I fall to foolish temptation And I don’t think I’m alone. As a people, we make compromises all of the time, justify what we know is wrong by telling us that it will ultimately serve the good.
On a macro level, I see it in the way that some support deeply flawed politicians, men and women who are against the teachings of Jesus in 100 ways… but offer a chance to get the issue we really want passed. “Sure, he may be an awful human being… sure, she might lie and cheat, but if we elect them, they’ll do good for this one thing.” Like Adam and Eve, we justify doing sinful things because some good will come out of it. We forget who we are and who we were created to be.
On a more individual level, I see it, and trust me, I hear it in confessions, when it comes to, shall we say, the sins of the flesh. You know what I mean. Drinking, eating, lustful actions. “I know I’m not supposed to do certain things, I should be more respectful of my body, shouldn’t look at certain things, do certain things with my girlfriend or boyfriend… but, you know, I am really stressed, I need to relax, it will bring us closer together, a little bit won’t hurt.” Like Adam and Eve, it is very easy for us to justify certain things because some good will come out of it. The fact of the matter is that all of these things can be good things. They bring pleasure, comfort, safety. These things are certainly created by God. The problem is that we’re trying to buy knockoffs. We don’t look for the real thing, we buy the cheap version. We forget who we are and who we were created to be.
This Lent, remember who you are and what you were made for. You are a child of God, wonderfully blessed and infinitely loved. You already have everything you could ever want, and you will never be happier, more comfortable, or as fulfilled as you will be with God. We can justify just about anything we want, but what good is it to gain the world if you lose your soul?