First Sunday of Lent – A Good Life
What comes to your mind when I say: the good life? You’ve all heard the term used: “Those people are living the good life.” We think about someone who has a lot money, probably a big house and fancy cars. They throw lavish parties and mingle with the rich and famous. So that’s “the good life.”
Now what if I say: a good life: not the good life, a good life? “That person really lives a good life.” It’s very different, isn’t it? And yet it’s just one small word that’s different. A person who lives a good life cares about their family, they do volunteer work, they are kind to the people they meet, they often put others before themselves. And maybe that’s the key difference – people who life the good life tend to put themselves first. Think about the commercials you see on TV for the lotteries. The winners are drinking champagne on yachts, lying on beaches in exotic places. They don’t show the lottery winners serving sandwiches at a food bank or paying for a friend’s medical procedure that’s not covered by health care. The people who live a good life put others first.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus had a decision to make between the good life and a good life. Jesus had been in the desert and he had been fasting for a long time. His body was probably weak and tired. He was hungry and thirsty. And it was while he was in this weakened state that the devil tempted him with the good life. “Use your powers to serve yourself by turning that rock into a loaf of bread. Worship me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world for yourself.” Isn’t it interesting that the devil thought that the kingdoms of the world were his to give? But that was part of the reason Jesus became a human person in the first place – to reclaim the world from the power of the devil. Now you might think as you listen to the news these days that Jesus wasn’t actually very successful in reclaiming the world. It often sounds like the devil still has the upper hand. Well, we know that Jesus scored a decisive victory on the cross, but we humans still have a lot of catching up to do. It’s helpful to remember the words of the Our Father, where we ask God that his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus made that possible, but I think we’re not there yet.
In the first reading, Moses was describing a ritual that the Israelites were to perform at harvest time. They were to offer the first fruits – the best part of their harvest – to God. And after Moses described the ritual to the people, he told them why it was necessary. He retold the story of the Exodus – God freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and giving them this wonderful land “flowing with milk and honey.” They were reminded each year and they understood that it all came from God, and so God would get back the best parts.
We don’t seem to have that same understanding – we tend to think that we did all the work that brought us to the place where we are. We don’t see the need to give the first fruits – the best of what we have – the best of what we are – to God. If we don’t understand our total dependence on God, then all we do, all we accumulate, will be focused on providing the good life for ourselves. We’ve done all we could to achieve the good life – and it’s all ours!
I think that’s another key distinction between the good life and a good life – the understanding that all we have comes from God. If we really understand that, we can respond to our selfish temptation as Jesus responded to the devil – be gone Satan! That phrase was actually from Matthew’s account of the same scene. We hear Luke’s account today.
Some moments in our lives tend to get us in touch with the things that are really meaningful – the things that make a life a good life. The death of a loved one is a moment like that. When friends and family remember someone who’s died, they seldom talk about the money the person made or the type of clothes they wore. They talk about the things they did for other people: their children, their grandchildren, other people in the community. They don’t talk about the good life, they talk about a good life – sometimes through rose-coloured glasses – but they focus on the important things.
Jesus chose to say no to the temptation to the good life. I think we sometimes believe that Jesus didn’t really have a choice – he had to respond the way he did – after all he was God. Well, yes and no. He most certainly was God, but he most certainly could have chosen to be a self-serving Messiah – in fact, that’s the sort of Messiah the people were expecting – that’s one of the reasons they had so much trouble believing that Jesus was the Messiah. But – if Jesus had chosen to be a self-serving Messiah, he would not have been true to who he was as God. And that tells us a lot about God. God is not an arrogant, mean, nasty deity. He’s not the stern old man with the grey beard sitting in the chair up in heaven waiting for us to mess up so he can send us to hell. God is the Jesus we saw in the Gospel today – Jesus who shunned the attraction of physical comfort and political power, so he could serve his people with love.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of preparation for the great Paschal Mystery – a time of prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial. We are at the beginning of journey that will take us to the cross and to the Resurrection. It is a time of remembrance. Remembrance is more than an intellectual activity. Remembrance means participation in the reality of what is being remembered. That’s what the Israelites were doing in the celebration of the First Fruits – they weren’t just going through the motions or having a party, they were participating again in the reality of their deliverance from slavery and their entrance into the Promised Land.
We will be transformed by Lent, only to the extent that we participate again in the reality of what we remember. Today we participate in the reality of Jesus’ temptation – and we examine our own temptation to live our lives for ourselves rather than to follow the example of Jesus in living a life of service to others – the temptation to take credit for what we have rather than understanding our total dependence on God. And the difference is that when we believe it’s all about us – then we seek the good life. When we understand that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we seek a good life.
I pray that this Lent is a time that brings each of you closer to a very good life.