Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jesus the New Adam: Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent

The readings for today’s Mass are exceptionally rich and could be the subject of several weeks' worth of lectures, so we will have to limit ourselves today to a few central themes.

(Disclaimer to my students: many of you have heard this before.  In fact, all of this is in the tradition.  I claim no originality.)

The First Reading is the account of the Fall, in which Eve, followed by Adam, gives in to temptation by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The classic scriptural formulation of the nature of temptation is found in 1 John 2:15-16:

 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.

In the Christian tradition, this threefold love of the world—Lust of the Flesh, Lust of the Eyes, and Pride of Life—is known as the threefold concupiscence, and lines up roughly with the sins of (physical) lust, avarice (greed), and pride.

We see this threefold pattern at work when Eve gives in to temptation:

The woman saw that the tree was (1) good for food,
(2) pleasing to the eyes, and (3) desirable for gaining wisdom.

“Good for food”—this is physical lust.  “Pleasing to the eye”—this is avarice, the desire to have more, to possess things for their beauty or value.  “Desirable for gaining wisdom”—this is pride, because the purpose for gaining wisdom is to make herself equal to God.  As the serpent says, “You will be like God” (RSV).

Although Eve is the one tempted into sin according to the narrative, the biblical and post-biblical tradition often attributes the Fall just as much, or even primarily, to Adam, probably because he was considered “head of the family,” and should have known better.

The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 51, the most famous psalm of penitence in the psalter, recited every Friday in the Liturgy of the Hours.  By tradition, David wrote this psalm after his sin with Bathsheba.  David was a New Adam figure in his own right.  He was a royal priest (wearing an ephod in 2 Samuel 6:14; see also Psalm 110) and king of creation (see Psalm 89:19-37).  Like Adam and Eve of old, he fell to the threefold concupiscence (see 2 Sam 11), first ogling the beautiful Bathsheba (Lust of the Eyes), then sleeping with her (Lust of the Flesh), then being too proud to admit wrongdoing, but instead committing murder to hide his sin (Pride).  Like Adam (Hosea 6:7), David was the recipient of a divine covenant (see 2 Sam 7:4-17; Ps 89:28, etc.), who promptly broke his covenant relationship by sin.  David represents an advance over Adam, however, inasmuch as David repents with great contrition (2 Sam 12:13-16, Psalm 51).  David prayers for a “clean heart” and a “new spirit” within him, which is an anticipation of the cleansing of our hearts by the Holy Spirit through baptism in the New Covenant (Acts 2:37-38).  The sacrament was not available to David but he longed for its reality.

In the Second Reading (Romans 5:12-19), St. Paul explicitly sets up a typological relationship between Adam and Christ:

For just as through the disobedience of the one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one,
the many will be made righteous.

This passage illustrates what I said above about Adam being attributed primary responsibility in the Fall.  Be that as it may, the Church is calling our attention to the parallel between the Fall and Christ’s victory over temptation.

For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.

The “gift of justification” usually means different things to Protestants and Catholics.  For many Protestants, “justification” is more or less synonymous with “forgiveness” or “acquital” in the divine court, i.e. justification is juridical.  For Catholics, “justification” is an actual “making just,” a changing of our very nature, i.e. justification is ontological.  So, just as Adam changed human nature by his sin, corrupting it and passing it down to his descendants, those who have faith in Christ experience an actual change in our nature (justification) which enables us to live lives of righteousness.

St. Paul’s words in this passage remind us of how dependent we are on Christ for our Lenten observances to have any spiritual effect.  By themselves, practices like fasting and almsgiving do not necessarily effect our souls.  There are plenty of people, for example, who have experienced hunger and yet have remained bitter or selfish; likewise many have given away money, or had it taken away, without experiencing spiritual transformation.  Our Lenten efforts are not effective by themselves.  They are only effective when we unite our small, token efforts with the work of Jesus.  His redemption infuses our humble efforts with meaning, value, and effectiveness. 

We move now to the Gospel, where Jesus is tempted three times by Satan.  The temptations follow the pattern of the threefold concupiscence.  First, there is the Lust of the Flesh: “Turn these stones to bread!”  Our Lord was certainly hungry after forty days of fasting.  He was likely in physical pain as his body, having used up fat reserves, was beginning to break down his muscle tissue to stay alive.  Fresh baked bread would sound very good to a starving man ....  And yet Our Lord knew that the use of his divine powers to spare himself the suffering of the human condition was not the will of his Father. 

Next is the Pride of Life.  “Throw yourself down from the temple and let the angels catch you!”  This was the temptation to perform a public stunt which would lead to fame and celebrity status.  Jesus would be an instant national sensation.  Yet Our Lord knew his mission was one of humility.

Finally comes the Lust of the Eyes.  The devil “showed him all the kingdoms of their world and their glory (or ‘riches’).”  So much could be gained with such a small act of worship—and think of the good Jesus could do as ruler of all these earthly kingdoms!

In each of these cases, Jesus opposes the temptation by quoted from Scripture, specifically the Book of Deuteronomy, the quintessential “Law of Moses.”

A subtheme of this passage—besides Jesus overturning, as it were, our first parents capitulation to the threefold concupiscence,—is the idea of Jesus as the new Son of David, one greater than Solomon.

Solomon was charged to keep the Law of Moses (1 Kings 2:1-4), which gave specified three prohibitions for the king to observe (do not multiply horses, gold or wives; Deut 17:14-17).  Solomon later spectacularly broke the three prohibitions of the Law of Moses (see 2 Kings 10:14-11:8), which, by the way, correspond to the threefold concupiscence (Lust of the Flesh=wives, Lust of the Eyes=gold, Pride of Life=horses [i.e. military power and arrogance]).  Jesus is the better Son of David, who upholds the Law of Moses three times to undo the threefold capitulation of the first Son of David.

We as Christians are called to overcome, as Jesus did, the Lust of the Flesh, the Lust of the Eyes, and Pride.  Those in the religious life do so in a radical way, as they vow to follow the three “evangelical counsels”=poverty, obedience, and chastity.  Chastity involves the putting to death (mortification) of Lust of the Flesh.  Poverty mortifies the Lust of the Eyes.  Obedience mortifies Pride—it’s hard to be proud when you are obeying someone else (in poverty, too, no less).

It strikes me as odd that Evangelicals do not practice the “evangelical counsels.”  Despite the emphasis on “being Biblical” and even “taking the Bible literally” in some quarters of Protestantism, you find almost no Protestants taking literally Jesus’ call to celibacy (becoming a “eunuch” for the sake of the Kingdom; see Matt 19:12) or poverty (“sell all that you have and come, follow me ...”; see Matt 19:21).  These words of Jesus are followed radically only within the ancient Churches (Catholic and Orthodox).

But the mortification of the threefold concupiscence is not just for monks, nuns, and priests.  According to our state in life, all of us have to overcome this temptation to sin.  Our traditional Lenten disciplines (Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving) are intended to help us in this.  Fasting mortifies Lust of the Flesh.  Almsgiving mortifies Lust of the Eyes (greed, avarice).  And prayer mortifies Pride, by acknowledging our dependence on God (“give us our daily bread ...”; Matt 6:11) and submitting our will to His (“Thy will be done ...”; Matt 6:10).  Let’s unite our efforts to Jesus powerful work of redemption by faith, and let his Spirit work in us this Lent through the means our Lenten disciplines.


Matthew Kennel said...

Dr. Bergsma,
Even as your posts go, this is a great post! Thanks for this wonderful reminder.

One interesting note on Evangelicals, by the way: at least in the tradition that I grew up in - the Mennonite tradition - this radical call to following Christ is often taken up by missionaries. For example, I have several friends who are living lives of chaste celibacy and living in relative poverty (one of whom even has a degree from Harvard) by living out a missionary life.

I think that this living out of a life more in keeping with gospel simplicity stems from the classical Mennonite emphasis on discipleship (classical Mennonite views on justification resemble Trent far more than they do Luther).

Sister Mary Agnes said...

These posts on the Sunday readings are so helpful and much appreciated. I liked how you brought the 3 vows of religious into it. I also never connected Solomon's breaking of the commandments for kings with the 3 fold lust before. Thanks for the head's up!

Randy said...

Good post. Maybe you should be a professor or something :)

John Bergsma said...

Thanks Randy, Sister, Matt. @Matt Kennel: you're right that Protestant missionaries come closest to living the evangelical counsels. I can think of some examples in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Also, Hudson Taylor was a great hero of mine, with China Inland Mission, and he lived the counsels for years, although I can't remember whether he eventually married or not. Memory's going.