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Introduction To The Scripture For The First Sunday in Lent - Year A
Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The First Sunday in Lent - Year A


     The liturgical season changes from revelation to repentance in
     preparation for the celebration of Jesus' Passion and
     Resurrection at Easter.  The colours of the candles and drapes on
     pulpit and table reflect this change too.  Purple symbolizes
     repentance.

GENESIS 2:15-17,3:1-7    "In Adam's sin, we sinnŠd all," said an old New
England catechism based on the alphabet.  That is the thrust of this
passage.  A modern interpretation adds that our consciousness of good and
evil is what makes us truly human.  The choice between good and evil, right
and wrong, creativity and destructiveness, is always ours to make.  Ours
too is the responsibility for making that choice and being accountable for
the consequences.

PSALM 32                 This is a witness to the assurance of God's
forgiveness for the penitent soul.  It acknowledges both the universal
sinfulness of humanity and the prevenient mercy of God, a grace that
precedes even our willingness to repent or confess.


ROMANS 5:12-19           Here Paul describes the universal sinfulness of
humanity in terms of the myth of the disobedience Adam and Eve as we read
in Genesis 2-3.  And then he gives God's antidote: the free gift of
forgiveness that makes us right with God (justification) through the
obedience of Jesus Christ in his life and death which were affirmed by God
in the resurrection and exaltation.  


MATTHEW 4:1-11           Lent recalls the forty days in the wilderness
Jesus spent in preparation for his ministry.  However the experience of his
being tempted may be interpreted, Jesus had to make some very meaningful
choices.  How was he to carry out his mission? The three temptations were
options he had to consider and reject because they were not God's will for
him.  Had he chosen any of them, he would not be our Saviour and Lord.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

The Season of Lent was instituted in the 4th century as a period of
fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter.  In the Eastern
churches, Lent lasts the eight weeks before Easter except for
Saturdays and Sundays which are regarded as festival days.  In the
Western churches, the 40-day period begins on Ash Wednesday and
extends, with the exception of Sundays, to the Easter Vigil on Holy
Saturday, the day before Easter.  The observance of fasting and other
forms of self-denial during Lent varies within Protestant and Anglican
churches where the emphasis is on penitence.  Recent changes in Roman
Catholic practices have relaxed that church's laws on fasting too.  Since
1966, fasting and abstinence are obligatory only on Ash Wednesday and Good
Friday.


GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-7   "In Adam's sin, we sinnŠd all" read an old
New England catechism taught to children as their first reading
lesson.  That is the thrust of this brief excerpt from the myth of the
Garden of Eden, albeit greatly elaborated by the gospel lesson below.
Some may prefer the literalist view which regards it as something
other than a myth, but there is little strength to such a position.
The documental theory of the Pentateuch regards it as the beginning of
the J document.  The geography of the story appears to have been drawn
from an ancient Near Eastern tradition of an idyllic garden from which
rivers flowed.  Some have placed it in the Tigris-Euphrates River valley in
modern Irqu.  Other cultural dependencies have been identified by
scholars who view it nonetheless as a literary masterpiece.
        
In Genesis 2-3, however, this garden is no simple paradise, but a place
created by God in which humans live, eat and work.  It thus functions as a
symbol of the unbroken relationships between God and humanity, and between
humanity and nature.  The story told in 2:4-3:15 describes how these
relationships were broken by the deliberate disobedience of the humans to
whom God had given exclusive but limited oversight of the garden.  In
Ezekiel the expulsion from Eden after the Fall serves a metaphor of
judgment against nations (Ezek.28:11-19; 31:8-9,16,18); and in Joel 2:3 as
a metaphor for the coming "day of the Lord."
 
Other ancient legends contrasted a lost time of perfection with the present
state of human suffering.  Despite the temptation of Eve by the serpent and
of Adam with the fruit offered to him by Eve, a unique aspect of the
Genesis story implies that the degradation of humanity came about as result
of deliberate choice freely made by both of them.  For this they bore the
inevitable consequences of being punished, driven from Eden and condemned
to suffer.
        
The serpent represents another link with the common mythology of the
ancient Near East.  Among the Canaanites, for instance, the serpent was
symbolically portrayed as both beneficent and hostile.  The narrator of J
altered the figure so that this craftiest and best informed of creatures
(3:1,4-5) appears as friendly to Eve, but also as Yahweh's antagonist
opposing the divine purpose with disastrous results for all concerned (vss. 
14-19).  This had implications for later eschatological references to
serpents (e.g. Isaiah 11:8; 65:25) as well as in the
exegesis of the story by apocryphal and NT authors.
       
A modern interpretation adds that our consciousness of good and evil makes
us truly human.  The choice between good and evil, right and wrong,
creativity and destruction, is always ours to make.  Ours too is the
responsibility for making that choice and being accountable for the
consequences.  

During Lent we have the opportunity acknowledge our failures, turn back to
God, receive forgiveness and begin anew to walk in God's way.


PSALM 32   At first glance this psalm offers assurance of God's forgiveness
for the penitent soul.  It acknowledges both the universal sinfulness of
humanity and the mercy of God that brings joy to the forgiven.  But this is
not the prevenient mercy that precedes our willingness to repent and
confess.  Rather it speaks of the forgiveness which follows repentance. 
This insight came to the psalmist when he realized that there was a direct
relationship between an unspecified illness and his sin (vss.3-5).  Thus
the basic intent of the psalm is to instruct the faithful how to act when
sickness comes upon them.  As such it reflects the common attitude to
sickness held throughout the ancient Near East and still so regarded by
many people of different faith traditions.

The psalm also contains elements closely associated with wisdom literature
of the post-exilic period.  Both its didactic character and its choice of
words point in this direction.  Of special note are the various synonyms
for the cause of spiritual isolation which the forgiveness of God had
overcome.  Thus in vss.1-2 we find four words, each of which expresses a
slightly different aspect of the experience: transgression, sin, iniquity
and deceit.                                                                 
    
Transgression means a willful disobedience to divine commandments.  Sin is
to miss the goal of righteousness and duty through neglect.  Iniquity
refers to guilt that has not been expiated.  Deceit is actually
self-deception, the excusing of oneself to evade responsibility for one's
behavior.  Each form of sin is repeated in vs.5 as the psalmist
acknowledges and seeks forgiveness.  He then turns his attention to the way
of maintaining a right relationship with God in the typical style of a
wisdom teacher.  The psalm ends with a reminder of the sharp contrast
between the rewards for wickedness and those for righteous living
(vss.9-10).  


ROMANS 5:12-19   As we read in Genesis 2-3, Paul described the  failure of
all of us in terms of the myth of the disobedience of Adam.  Notably, he
totally omitted Eve from his argument.  His exegesis was  somewhat
convoluted, however, as most modern exegetes complain.  It depended on both
the rabbinical style and doctrine current in his time.  He adopted
typology, a system which used representative symbolism, as the means of
explaining both the universality of human sin and of salvation through
Jesus Christ (vs. 14).

For Paul, Adam represented all unredeemed humanity.  Moses represented the
consciousness of sin which knowledge the law brings to the human mind.  The
result of Adam's sin was death for all humanity (vs. 12b).  For Jews, death
held a particular horror.  It meant nothing less than separation from God
(cf. Ps. 115:17).  This was the condemnation all humanity suffered as a
result of Adam's disobedience (vss.15,17).  For Paul, one of the greatest
blessings of the Christian faith was that death no longer held such terrors
if one died in fellowship with Christ.
        
Whether or not Paul actually believed that Adam was the first human being,
the concept of human solidarity or the corporate personality lay behind his
attempt to explain both sin and salvation.  That brief Puritan saying
taught to children placed the whole story in a context Paul would have
easily understood: "In Adam's sin we sinned all."  He would have gone
further to say: "In Jesus Christ we are all redeemed."  God's antidote for
human sin is the free gift of forgiveness that makes us right with God
(justification) through the obedience of Jesus Christ in his life and
death.  

This passage is difficult to read in almost every English translation. 
Understanding what Paul said is lost in a confusion of words and phrases no
longer meaningful to the modern mind.  Yet as William Barclay said: "There
is no passage in the New Testament which has had such an influence on
theology as this passage; and there is no passage which is more difficult
for a modern mind to understand."

Barclay puts into simpler terms what Paul attempted to say to the Romans:
"By the sin of Adam all men became sinners and were alienated from God; by
the righteousness of Jesus Christ all men are now considered as righteous
and are restored to a right relationship with God....  Whatever else we may
say about Paul's argument this we can say - it is completely true that man
was ruined by sin and rescued by Christ." (*The Daily Bible Study: The
Letter to the Romans*, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955.)
        

MATTHEW 4:1-11   Lent recalls the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness
in preparation for his ministry.  At the same time, we must recall that
Matthew drew this idea from the OT passages in which both Moses and Elijah
are said to have spent similar periods of fasting in the wilderness
(Ex.32:28; 1 Kings 19:8).  As for them, so for Jesus; the sojourn in the
wilderness involved a deep spiritual experience.

This is implied in the synoptic account that the Spirit guided Jesus into
the wilderness.  The difference in the Matthean account is not the person
of Satan, or the devil as the tempter; but the extensive elaboration drawn
from the hypothetical Q document of a supposed conversation between Satan
and Jesus.

Our word *devil" translates the Greek *diabolos" which originally meant
*accuser* or *slandered*.  In the Septuagint (LXX), it was used to
translate the Hebrew word *satan*, meaning *adversary*.  By 200 BCE the
name *Satan* had become the embodiment of evil and by NT times it had
become synonymous with *devil*. 

Matthew saw the temptations as satanic interference in Jesus' pursuit of
God's will and purpose for his life.  Whether or not we believe in the
person of Satan, we can regard them as the options before Jesus as to the
means of carrying out his mission.  Even good people with manifestly good
intentions frequently have to consider such options in an extended and very
personal meditative process.  Whereas the spiritually oriented person may
need to pray, the secular person may merely say, "I must think about that."
In the wilderness Jesus had both the time and the opportunity to do both.  

The "forty days" had no great significance other than as a reminder of the
forty years the Israelites' wandered in the wilderness under Moses'
leadership.  That Jesus had some very similar experience in order to make
significant choices emphasized the human aspect of his person and the
worldly aspect of his mission.  The use of the term "Son of God" and
quotations from the Old Testament pointed to the spiritual reality of his
struggle juxtaposed with his humanity.
        
Four of the five scripture quotations are from Deuteronomy.  Jesus'
response to the first temptation came from Deuteronomy 8:3.  Significantly,
the first part of that verse, which was not quoted, referred to hunger as a
means of humbling the unfaithful Israelites and bringing them to a deeper
consciousness of divine providence.  This temptation held out the
opportunity for Jesus to think of himself first and to use his authority as
the Son of God to offer the multitudes food for the body instead of
spiritual food.  For Mark and much later for John's Gospel, if not for
Matthew, the feeding of the five thousand created just such a problem (cf.
Mark6:52; John 6:25-40).  Twentieth century historian Arnold Toynbee wrote
that Communism was a Christian heresy because it offered to the proletariat
of the world the same temptation that Satan offered to Jesus - food in
exchange for loyalty.

As Shakespeare said in *The Merchant of Venice,* (Act I, Scene 3, line 99)
"The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose".  The saying has become
proverb in our English vernacular.  So in Matthew 4:6 Satan used that
device to tempt Jesus to demonstrate his authority in a spectacular feat. 
The quotation came from Ps. 91:11-12 to which Jesus responded with a
quotation from Deut. 6:16.

Technically the temple had no pinnacle, so the place of the temple to
which Satan transported Jesus must have been the highest point on the
temple.  Today tourists are shown a corner of the wall of the temple
platform as the probable site, but this particular part of the walls
of Jerusalem was not erected until the 16th century by Suleiman, the
Moslem of sultan Constantinople who rebuilt the walls against potential
invasion by European Christians.
        
The third temptation presented Jesus with a bold choice between worshiping
and serving God or another deity, however configured by the one who cast
himself in that fraudulent role.  The mountain to which Satan took him
symbolized Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Decalogue.  The vista
provided Jesus with an option to use his authority to be the typical
triumphalist warrior-messiah of Jewish tradition.  There is a site on the
edge of the Judean wilderness overlooking the Dead Sea near Jericho where
Greek Orthodox monks still practice an isolated life of religious devotion. 
If this site is the site of the third temptation as tradition contends, the
bare rock and burning sun do nothing to commend it as a desirable kingdom. 
The imposter was offering Jesus a glory he could not produce.

As before, the Deuteronomic law stood as the sole authority for Jesus to
follow.  The choice did not give him a prescribed plan.  Instead  he would
learn the details of his spiritual path as he went forward in faith.  The
way would become clear as he walked humbly in the service of God.  The
prophetic message of Micah 6:8 may well lie behind Matthew's quotation of
Deuteronomy 6:13.

However we may choose to interpret the temptations, the choices Jesus had
to make are also those which we confront in our own moral and spiritual
decisions.  It is not too much to say that his temptations are also ours.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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