Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 90; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
6 March 2022
We’ve spent a week wondering what else can go wrong. Thinking that we are emerging from the pandemic, we have been confronted by catastrophic flooding up and down the east coast and by an increasingly uncertain, unprincipled and indiscriminately bloody war in Ukraine. No matter what strategic rationale or historic explanation might be offered for President Putin’s aggression, there is no excuse or justification for an invasion marked by indiscriminate targeting of innocent civilians. What’s happening in Ukraine is evil.
It’s been usual for us moderns, particularly in times of peace, economic growth, and technological development, to interpret the world without too ready recourse to good and evil. Unlike people in Old Testament times, we don’t see floods as punishment from God. They are the natural consequence of nature taking its course, perhaps that course being shaped in part by human contributions to climate change. Many people think the wrongful actions of a Putin can be classed as breaches of international law, without the need for further moralising about the state of his soul.
There comes a stage when we can’t make sense of what’s going on in us and around us without having recourse to the idea that there is a contest unto the death between good and evil. In New Testament times, that contest was often personified between God and the devil, or Satan. Petr Pokorny who was the Director of the Centre for Biblical Studies at the Czech Academy of Sciences says, ‘False human decisions influence directly or mediately supra-individual structures – social, religious, political. Satan was obviously the personification of the almost mysterious fact of the misuse of the structures, traditions and ideas that become independent of men and often exert an almost personal pressure on them.’ Commencing our Lent, we set out on Jesus’ public ministry which is preceded by his conflict with evil. We contemplate the evil in our contemporary world, the evil in our own hearts.
At his baptism, Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit descending on Him while he heard a voice from heaven declaring, ‘You are my Son; today I have fathered you.’ Having traced Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph all the way back to David and to Abraham and even to Adam himself, Luke places this Son of God in the wilderness for forty days – just as Elijah wandered in the desert for forty days, and just as Moses fasted for forty days before inscribing the Covenant, and just as the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years awaiting entrance to the Promised Land, being tested by Yahweh to know what was in their hearts and whether they would keep his commandments. There obviously has to be an epic showdown between good and evil, between this one with the solid pedigree as Son of God and the forces of evil personified in the devil.
Jesus first temptation is: ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.’ Resisting the temptation, Jesus quotes the Book of Deuteronomy from when the people were being tested in the desert: ‘Human beings live not on bread alone.’ Pokorny says, ‘We can rightly say that human hope cannot consist only in “bread” – in the fulfilling of social needs – provided we ourselves at the same time help starving people’.
Jesus’ second temptation from the devil as the personification of evil is: ‘Do homage to me, and it shall all be yours.’ Once again Jesus, following the path of the Chosen People in the wilderness, responds with words from Deuteronomy: ‘You must do homage to the Lord your God, him alone you must serve.’ Luke Timothy Johnson says ‘service is owed only the ultimate source of all life, the creator God (and not the flashier surrogate of idolatry)’.
Unlike Matthew, Luke places last the temptation on the parapet of the Temple in Jerusalem: ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here’. For Luke, this is the ultimate temptation taking place in Jerusalem which is Jesus’ destination for death AND resurrection. Jesus responds, ‘Do not put the lord your God to the test.’ Pokorny says, ‘We…have to warn against hope that is built upon miracles. Every interpretation has to culminate in the statement that the promised Kingdom of God, the hope of a new community, cannot be based on violence, on conceit and on human self-glorification.’ He goes on to say, ‘We cannot accept the idea that the defeat of what is called Satan is a matter of the immediate future. But the promise of his defeat makes resistance to all evil in social life, religion and politics meaningful in spite of all the bad experiences of the past.’
Luke’s first Christian readers were fully familiar with the parallels between Jesus and the Chosen People in the wilderness awaiting entrance to the Promised Land. ‘But the meaning of the testings goes far deeper for Luke’s Christian readers, who learn something of their own path from the conscious decision of the “Lord Christ” to choose another than a violent way to be Messiah, who rejected power over nature to serve his appetite, over humans for the sake of glory, over God for his own survival.’
Though we be on the other side of the world, we are beholding and encountering the face of evil with what is unfolding in Ukraine. For more than 70 years, we have presumed that evil cannot triumph with an international rules based order overseen by a UN Security Council giving the victors of World War II a veto over any authorized incursions into the borders of nation states.
None of us can give a definitive analysis of what has gone wrong to bring us face to face with evil in Ukraine at this time. But Gareth Evans one time Australian Foreign Minister and longtime CEO of the International Crisis Group has just published a book Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency. Beginning our Lent when we are urged not only to pray and fast but also to give alms, we can reflect on Evans’ prescriptions individually and collectively. He says:
‘There are four practical benchmarks which matter above all else when one is assessing any country’s record as a good international citizen. Being a generous aid donor. Doing everything we can to protect and advance universally recognised human rights. Being an actively committed participant in attempts to meet the great existential risks posed by health pandemics, global warming and nuclear war. And – most relevant in the Ukraine case – doing everything we reasonably can to achieve international peace and security: to prevent the horror and misery of war and mass-atrocity crimes, and to alleviate their consequences, including for refugees fleeing their impact.’
It’s not to allocate blame to suggest that the crisis in Ukraine might not have occurred if all nations had measured up to these benchmarks according to their capacities, and if we had all done a little more to counter the temptations to self-advancement or self-promotion through violence, conceit or human-self-glorification – the evil in our hearts. It’s half a century ago that Pokorny wrote: ‘The image of the victorious Jesus who abandons violence and miracles has never lost its attraction in history. There have always been people who confess him as the Resurrected One. In this century of atomic weapons his way has become the only hope for humanity. The way of Jesus is not only right, but also realistic.’ These words hold true in this troubled twenty first century whether we be facing fire or flood, pandemic or war. We pray with hope yet to be realised:
The one who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
and abides in the shade of the Almighty
says to the Lord: ‘My refuge,
my stronghold, my God in whom I trust!’
Upon you no evil shall fall,
No plague approach where you dwell.
For you has he commanded his angels,
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you upon their hands
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
On the lion and the viper you will tread
and trample the young lion and the dragon.
There are still evil vipers, lions and dragons roaming our world in Ukraine and closer to home. Lead us not in temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He has been appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.
 Petr Pokorny, ‘The Temptation Stories and Their Intention’, New Testament Studies 20 (1973–74) 115–127 at p.127
 Ibid, p.126.
 Petr Pokorny, ‘The Temptation Stories and Their Intention’, p. 127
 Gareth Evans, Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency, Monash University Publishing, 2022
 Petr Pokorny, ‘The Temptation Stories and Their Intention’, p. 127