The psalm response for the First Sunday of Lent sets the tone for the entire season. It is one of the most familiar biblical prayers for divine mercy: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; In the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.”
In this simple verse we find two technical words that are regularly associated with the covenant: goodness (hesed), and compassion (rahamim). The word for compassion appears in the Bible for the first time after the Israelites sinned with the golden calf. “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Ex 34:6). This is the prayer of a sinner who is in covenant with God and who appeals to that covenant while calling on God for mercy. It is with a similar realization and with these same sentiments that we enter the season of Lent.
If this psalm is the prayer of the sinner, then the first reading for today is the story of the sin. Like every biblical story of sin, it begins with an account of the graciousness of God. It is important that we recognize this order, lest we think that sin is simply the transgression of law, rather than a breach in a loving relationship. The passage describes how God first creates the man just as a potter forms a piece of art, and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. The man then becomes a living being. But life itself is not enough. God provides this earth-creature with the nourishment and beauty of the natural world. And why did God so act? Because God is gracious.
Not satisfied to be a humble earth-creature, the man and his new companion desire to “be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” This is the universal and perennial sin, to want to be “like gods.” And who has not “fallen” into this trap? Humankind seems prone to sin. We set ourselves up as a law unto ourselves; we seek to control others; we reject God and enthrone human ingenuity. “Have mercy on me, O God.”
Lent is a time to acknowledge our sinfulness, but not to dwell on it. We must acknowledge it if we are to appreciate the extent of God’s goodness. This is precisely what Paul teaches us today. The sinfulness of humankind cannot be denied, but as grievous as the sin may be, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” Paul contrasts Adam and the evil of human sin with Christ and the grace that comes because of divine mercy. According to Paul, there is no comparison; grace far surpasses sin. “In the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.”
The Gospel reading shows us human nature at its finest. Jesus is tempted, yet he does not succumb. Many scholars believe that this account reflects more than simple temptation. Rather, it draws its meaning from past events in the history of ancient Israel and focuses on the messianic ministry of Jesus.
And what are the temptations? Jesus successfully resists temptations similar to those to which the ancient Israelites fell victim: hunger in the wilderness; demand for a demonstration of divine power; worship of a false god. The Israelites failed, Jesus remained faithful. The Gospel writer sought to show that finally here was a faithful Israelite. If this narrative does in fact reveal the character of Jesus’ messsiahship, how are we to understand it? It suggests that he will seek to satisfy spiritual, not merely physical, hunger; he will refrain from using divine power simply to attract followers; and he will be submissive to God’s will, not his own.
We enter Lent this year sobered by world events. The horrors and inhumanity of terrorism and war have embittered our spirits; the devastation of natural catastrophes has seared our hearts. We have been forced to face our own human failings and the vulnerability of humankind generally. Despite all of this, the graciousness of God is offered to us. The unselfishness of which we are all capable is seen in the willingness of so many to step forward and help those who suffer terror, loss and confusion. This unselfishness is really the face of our gracious God, encouraging all of us to put differences aside, to repent of our offensive attitudes and to work for a caring and harmonious world.
Jesus’ resistance to temptation is placed before us today as an example for us to strengthen our own resistance to temptation. He would have us move beyond a superficial pursuit of the pleasures of this world to discover what satisfies our spiritual hungers. He shows us how to trust in God’s tender providence rather than test God’s almighty power. He challenges us to worship God rather than power, or possessions, or celebrity. What will be our response?