[This homily is worth repeated reading.]
1st Sunday in Lent: Gospel—Mark 1:12-15
“Temptations: Opportunities to Love God”
Fr. Philip Heng, SJ
Church of St. Ignatius-Singapore
26th February 2012
As Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days and as we too often experience temptations, I think it may be appropriate for us to reflect on the meaning of “temptations.” What are “temptations”? They could be understood as attractions that draw us away from God and from living in God’s ways. Temptations could also be seen as the “tests” of how much we love God. Temptations are not necessarily negative or bad for us. In fact, Archbishop Fulton Sheen says, “You are not tempted because you are evil; you are tempted because you are human.”
Moreover, it is not a sin to be tempted for “temptations” are merely what we could have done, but have not done. Temptations become sin only if we act on them. There is a story of storekeeper noticing a boy pacing up and down outside his store which had a great variety of juicy fruits. After sometime he went out to the boy and said, “What are you trying to do, young man; are you trying to steal my apples?” “No, sir,” said the boy, “I’m trying not to.”
And so, when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, it was not a sin. Jesus was tempted because He was not only fully divine, but also fully human. In the Bible, the “wilderness” or desert is a symbol of evil and darkness. This means that even as Jesus was being tempted and thus, tested by Satan to turn away from His Father’s Will, He nevertheless defeated Satan on his home ground.
There is a true story of Matthew Talbot who was born in 1856 into poverty in Dublin’s inner city. After only one year in school he left to begin work with a wine merchant to help support his family. Occasionally, some crates were damaged and the workers helped themselves to bottles of stout. One day Matt sampled a bottle. It was a new taste and was good, but he was only twelve years old. Soon he began to open more and more bottles.
The first thing he thought of when he woke up every day was alcohol. His mother knew he had taken to the drink and prayed a great deal for him. As Matt loved his parents, he always made sure to come home sober because he did not want to cause pain to his mother.
But one evening he came home drunk. His father found him another job in the hope that he would be less tempted to drink. However, Matt could not part with his addiction. Deep inside he wanted to cry and shout and beg for help, but he felt helpless. He kept drinking for sixteen years; he was then 28 years old; because of his drinking he had ran into debts and even once stole a fiddler to feed his addiction; he was penniless and the pubs would not give him any more credit.
One day, while he was waiting outside his pub in the hope that someone would invite him in for a drink, nobody did; even the closest of his drinking companions shunned him. Feeling disgusted, he went home to tell his mother that he would take a pledge to stop drinking for good. His mother who has been praying for his conversion all these years was sceptical. However, she brought Matt to a priest who helped him with his pledge. Matt took a pledge for three months, then six months, then for life.
These months of abstinence were months of great struggle, but Matt never looked back. He used his wages to pay back all his debts. He lived modestly. He prayed every chance he got. He attended Mass every morning and made devotions like the Stations of the Cross or devotions to the Blessed mother in the evenings. He fasted, performed acts of mortification, and financially supported many religious organizations. He read biographies of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Catherine of Sienna.
He later joined the Third Order of St. Francis on October 18, 1891 even though a young pious girl proposed to marry him. Physically, he suffered from kidney and heart ailments. Eventually, Matt died on June 7, 1925 while he was walking to Church; he was 69 years of age. To quote Matt he has this advice for us. He says, "There are three things I cannot escape: the eye of God, the voice of conscience, the sting of death. Therefore, when you are in the company of others, guard your tongue; when with your family, guard your temper and when alone guard your thoughts." Matthew Talbot was declared Venerable in 1973, which is a step on the way to canonization.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in today’s Gospel, when Jesus proclaimed, “Repent and believe in the Good News,” of Salvation, Jesus does not mean it to be simplistic. On the contrary, Jesus who Himself was tempted by Satan and fought hard against it, knows very well that to overcome temptations, like Matt Talbot in our story, it demands heroic courage. This is more so for us when we have to confront habitual sins of addiction, infidelity, pride, sloth, selfishness and the like.
Lent is a season of joy and great blessings from God. To have temptations is to be human; to fight against our temptations is to live in integrity, and to finally be able to overcome our temptations and habitual sins is to experience the transforming grace of God, as Matt Talbot has shown us.
We all know that the temptations of life are complex and never easy, even as we are given much grace from God to fight them. The Good News of Salvation is a promise of eternal life, not a promise of peace without the pain and the crosses that come with eternal life; Jesus Himself was not spared of the Cross.
God wanted Matt Talbot to be happy in his life, but he had to learn it the hard and painful way of the cross. However, for Matt it was all worthwhile, as when he eventually was able to find and develop a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus too wants us to experience these graces during this Lenten season; the joy and blessings of loving Jesus in our daily living and eventually even becoming a holy person like Matt Talbot.
There is one further complication that is worth pointing out here as we each endeavour to live a more Christ-like life during the season of Lent. One of the main obstacles of fighting the temptations of our lives is that we tend to worry too much. Fr Joseph Galdon, a Jesuit says, “Worries paralyse us, immobilise our human talents and make us only half the person we could become. Worry is fear or agitation about something in the future. We cannot enjoy the present because we are worried about what is going to happen tomorrow. The stupidity of worry is that most of the time what we are worried about never happens. Our worries also seem to multiply as our life gets more complicated. There are more worries in the hectic city life than in rural countryside.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, as I began this homily, I said that “temptations” are not because we are sinners, but because we are human; Jesus was Himself tempted. “Temptations” are tests of how much we love God. Matt Talbot whose life was potentially heading for depression and disaster due to his alcoholism was able to turn his life around because of his heroic determination to live in God’s love and ways.
Likewise, for us; regardless of the challenges that we are facing in life, regardless of the sadness, sorrow and suffering we may be going through, like Matt Talbot, a lot depends on our attitude in life and how much faith, trust and confidence we have in God who is always there for us. As God sent His angels to look after Jesus when he was tempted for forty days in the wilderness, so also will God constantly send us His Guardian angels to help us change our lives for the better during this Lenten season. Can we believe this? Will we take up the challenges to make this happen? I would like to conclude with a poem by Fr. Hedwig Louis,S.J.
My life is but a weaving,
between God and me;
I may not choose the colours,
He knows what they should be;
For He can view the pattern
from the upper side;
while I can see it only
on this, the under side.
Sometimes, He weaves sorrow,
which seems strange to me;
But, I still will trust His judgment,
and work on faithfully;
It is He who fills the shuttle,
He knows what is best;
So, I shall weave in earnest
and leave with Him the rest.
At last when life is ended,
with Him I shall abide,
Then, I may view the pattern
upon the upper side;
Then, I shall know the reason
why pain with joy entwined,
was woven in the fabric
of life that God designed.