Homily, 1st Sunday of Lent Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.
Back in 1991, I was living at home for a few months before I entered the seminary. And I remember very vividly Good Friday of that year. I was at St. Jude’s participating in their beautiful Adoration of the Cross service. And during those three hours, from noon till 3pm, a violent thunder storm swept through town. As you can imagine, it added a little extra dramatic atmosphere to the service. Well, the storm ended, and when I got home, something was missing. Outside our second story kitchen window, we could see a big beautiful oak tree. It was special to us because a raccoon had made his nest there, right in view of the window, and he used to sit there and watch us eat our dinner and we’d watch him eat his dinner, and we grew fond of him over the years. Well, when I got home after the storm that day, the tree was gone - looking out the window, I just saw empty sky, no tree. So I went outside, went around the house, and sure enough, the tree had been blown over by the wind and slid down a hill into the pond. And when I looked at the base, I found out why: termites. The inside of the tree was completely rotted out and eaten up by these termites, and we were lucky the tree didn’t fall on the kitchen. Here this big, healthy looking, strong tree was rotting away on the inside all those years, being eaten by seemingly insignificant little bugs, so much so that when the winds blew and the storms came, the tree couldn’t stand.
Well, as I sat out on the back porch looking at the fallen tree, I couldn’t help but reflect on what this meant spiritually. How appropriate that this happened on Good Friday, during Lent, because Lent is a time that we, as Christians, need to be aware of the termites that eat us up on the inside, those little everyday temptations and sins that we don’t think too much about, but that if we don’t take care of, may cause us to fall when the winds blow and the storms come.
In today’s Gospel, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil. The devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, “All these I will bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me.”
Well, commenting on this passage, Ronald Knox said, “the devil is not going to offer you and me all the kingdoms of the world. He knows his market, and he offers, like a good salesman, just as much as he thinks his customer will take. [He thinks that most of us could be had for much less than the whole world. And he doesn’t] propose his conditions to us so openly; his offer comes to us wrapped up in all sorts of plausible shapes.” In other words, the devil will tempt us with whatever it takes us to fall, but unfortunately, for most of us, that’s not very much. And we make it even easier for him by not avoiding the small temptations of everyday life, by letting the termites slowly eat away at us.
St. Francis de Sales, in his book, “Introduction to the Devout Life”, talks about resisting these small temptations. He says, “It is easy enough to avoid murder, but how difficult it is to avoid anger over little things. It is easy enough to avoid adultery, but how difficult it is to guard our glances, to refrain from lustful thoughts, or to avoid flirting. It is easy enough to avoid stealing our neighbor’s belongings, but how difficult it is to not desire them. It is easy enough not to lie in front of a judge, but how difficult it is not to lie in our idle conversations behind our neighbor’s back.” (IV.8, p.287-8) These are the types of temptations that lead to small sins that slowly eat away at us, so that when the larger storms of temptation come, we fall quickly because we have no strength or resistance built up.
Well, where do these temptations come from? In the Our Father, we pray, “lead us not into temptation”, and we’ve all heard the expression, that “God never allows us to be tempted beyond our strength.” From these common expressions, you might come to believe that God is the one doing the tempting, as if he were an adversary.
But God is not the one who tempts us to sin. Perhaps we say “lead us not into temptation” in reference to today’s Gospel where Jesus was “led into the desert” where it was the devil who tempted him. But St. James would say, “No one experiencing temptation should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.” God doesn’t cause but permits temptation so that we might grow in virtue, and he provides us with the strength to overcome it. As St. Augustine commented (OOR 1st Lent), “We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial.”
The real sources of temptation are found in the traditional threefold formulation: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world tempts us with passing pleasures that do not last or completely satisfy, the flesh tempts us with disordered passions, and the devil tempts us with pride and a belief in our own self-sufficiency.
And while all those things are true, we have to be careful about looking at it in this way. If we see the world, the flesh, and the devil as the source of sin, we are looking outside of the true source of sin, which is in the misuse of our free will. We saw this in the story of Adam and Eve, who were given freedom to choose among the many goods God had placed in the Garden of Eden, but instead chose that which was forbidden. We are indeed influenced by all these external factors, but it is our own free will that consents to the sin. St. James (1:15) said, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”
No matter the source of the temptation, the true responsibility lies within, with our own choices. While the devil will only tempt us with the bare minimum he needs to seduce us, God, on the other hand, will provide whatever grace we need to over come sin, as the Lord said to St. Paul (1 Cor. 12:9), “My Grace is sufficient for you.” When we see sin in the world today, many people like to dismiss it by saying, “oh, he’s only human.” When I hear that, I think, how sad, because being a wounded sinner subject to fall is not what being fully human means. Whereas to be truly human means to live in God’s friendship and obey his commandments. The prevalence of sin in the world today attests not only to our human weakness, but most especially to the allure of sin, and to our lack of reliance on God’s grace.
If we do rely on God’s help by turning to the means he provides, namely Confession, which cleanses and renews us, and the Eucharist, which gives us strength for our daily journey, then we can overcome the little temptations that we are constantly fighting, those termites which gnaw at us continually.
I like to look at it this way, when faced with a temptation, don’t use the world or the devil as an excuse, something which is outside of yourself, beyond your control. Don’t even let your own “human weakness” be an excuse. Don’t attribute it to anyone but yourself. Look to your own freedom, turn from your sins, and ask God to help you. Have mercy on yourself when you fall, but never give up the fight and always look to God with trust and confidence for strength. That way, when you do overcome sin, you will grow in virtue, never giving the devil his due or taking credit for yourself, instead giving all the glory to God. And St. Augustine gave some simple advice on how to do this: “If like Christ we have been tempted, in him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to see his victory? See yourself as tempted in him, and see yourself as victorious in him.”
Remember what St. Paul said, (1 Cor. 10:12-13) “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”
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