1st Sunday of Lent – Needing Both Jesus and Neighbor

Christ in the Wilderness

Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoi, 1872 (Tretyakov Gallery)

Filled with the Holy Spirit,
Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
(Luke 4:1–2)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:4–10
March 6, 2022

Very few sections of the Bible are oracles of a wise teacher from a distant perch. The Jews believed in a God who was involved with their history and demanded that those who would speak for him be the same. Christians hold the same belief, and we find in Jesus most especially a connection with daily life. Although the scriptures emerge from divine commitment to a particular time and place as we discover in all great literature, this makes them more relevant for and applicable to every time. Yet there are some events which will make a certain passage shed an almost uncanny light. Recent events have made today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy unfortunately revealing for today, indeed perhaps the very day you read this.

The book of Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch or Torah the first five books of the Bible. It is written as discourses by Moses to the Israelites as they are about to enter the promised land. This would have been about 1250 BC. But as we have seen when we have discussed the Pentateuch, its final edition was around 500 BC after a substantial number of the Jewish leadership returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The key event of Jewish history is exile and return, indeed they endured it twice in the Bible and some would indeed add the return to Jerusalem in the 20th century.

“When you have come into the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you as a heritage,
and have occupied it and settled in it,
you shall take some first fruits of the various products
of the soil which you harvest from the land
which the LORD, your God, gives you,
and putting them in a basket,
you shall go to the place which the LORD, your God,
chooses for the dwelling place of his name.

(Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

It is assumed here that Joshua has successfully invaded the land and that the Israelites have become farmers. This would mean that they are settlers and are able to have a permanent sanctuary—a place of worship and a permanent priesthood. As herders, they would not have had a place of worship but would have offered sacrifice whenever and wherever they could. They would also not have had a permanent and hereditary priesthood, but the sacrifices would have been offered by the chief or clan leader. This is a fundamentally different world.

There you shall go to the priest in office at that time
and say to him, ‘Today I acknowledge to the LORD, my God,
that I have indeed come into the land which he swore to our fathers he would give
The priest shall then receive the basket from you
and shall set it in front of the altar of the LORD, your God.

(Dt 26:4)

Having been given the land the Jew is to live in a state of permanent thanksgiving and their rituals as we read today were designed to celebrate this.

The first part is telling the story.

Then you shall declare before the LORD, your God,
‘My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.
But there he became a nation great, strong and numerous.’

(Dt 26:5)

They entered Egypt as a clan not really a nation. In Egypt they prospered and, because of their common worship, became a people. They were then oppressed, but saved by the power of God. Now they offer thanks to God for their deliverance, prosperity, and community.

Therefore, I have now brought you the first fruits of the products
of the soil which you, O LORD, have given me.’
And having set them before the LORD, your God,
you shall bow down in his presence.

(Dt 26:10)

Our selection for Mass ends here, but the celebration of thanksgiving continues with a meal:

Then you and your family, together with the Levite
and the aliens who live among you,
shall make merry over all these good things
which the LORD, your God, has given you.

(Dt 26:11)

As with the more formal temple worship that will develop after Solomon the offering—sacrifice—ends with a meal. The situation assumes a very prosperous farmer. Note that he has a family and Levite, a house priest. Note especially that as the Jews were once aliens, they are commanded to bring those aliens among them to their thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving must be shared and the passage which follows his speaks of a special tithe every three years:

“When you have finished setting aside
all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithes,
and you have given them to the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow,
that they may eat their fill in your own community,
you shall declare before the LORD, your God,
‘I have purged my house of the sacred portion
and I have given it to the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow,
just as you have commanded me.
In this I have not broken or forgotten any of your commandments:

(Dt 26:12–13)

Notice that the care of those who have been ignored or dispossessed is not “charity” and a matter of discretion, but a commandment and thus a matter of Justice. It is part of the covenant that has and is as important and essential as sacrifice itself.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the next section recommits the people to that covenant

This day the LORD, your God, commands you to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then, to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you;
and provided you keep all his commandments,
he will then raise you high in praise and renown and glory
above all other nations he has made,
and you will be a people sacred to the LORD, your God, as he promised.”

(Dt 26:16–19)

This would have been especially important to the Jews struggling to restore the temple but also their way of life in Jerusalem. They needed to be reminded that they must maintain proper worship and that meant one centered on gratitude to God and inclusion of all. It also meant that worship could be conducted with great solemnity and precision, but if it was not matched by care of the poor and obedience to the commandments, it would be not only ineffective but blasphemous. They would not be peculiarly the people of God.

Most of this essay was written for the first Sunday of Lent 2019. I alluded to the many Syrians who had to leave their homeland with the shirts on the back and little else and the children separated from their parents on our own boarders. These are horrific but somewhat distant from our daily lives.

Now however we find ourselves with a major homeless problem in our city, people exiled from a place to live, and this week we saw cell-phone coverage of not only the damage inflicted by the Russian military on the people of Ukraine but intimate family tragedies as lives and homes are destroyed.

Jesus revealed to us that when we are not joined with him and his people, we are in exile no matter what our other circumstances. We must be as sensitive as the Jews to those who find themselves exiles, homeless, whether on our streets or in Ukraine or Syrian refugee camps.

Let us be reminded this Lent whenever we hear a homeless person mumbling or more likely screaming in the subway and see the pictures of destruction in Ukraine that, just as we cannot have a covenant with God without Jesus, we cannot have it without them as well.