1st Sunday of Lent – Committing to the Lord

Christ in the Wilderness

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

 At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
(Matthew 4:1–2)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
First Sunday of Lent
Romans 5:12–19
February 26, 2023

The Sunday Mass readings are organized in a 3-year cycle. During “Ordinary Time” the weeks of the year in which the priests’ vestments are green, the first reading is from the Old Testament and is chosen to reflect the Gospel. The second reading, usually from St. Paul, is on a separate theme. During other times, all three readings are chosen to reflect a single theme.

We discussed the letter to the Romans during the summer of 2020. It was at the height of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. This Lent, we will read from Romans this week and then again the weekends of March 12 and 26. We will need to ask not only what the passages mean, but why they have been chosen to be read on these days.

Background information on the letter to the Romans may be found here.

In the verses before today’s reading, some of which will read on March 12, Paul assures his readers that in his death and resurrection Jesus has reconciled us with God.

How much more then,
since we are now justified by his blood,
will we be saved through him from the wrath.

(Ro 5:9)

From this Paul can say:

Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world,
and through sin, death, and thus death came to all,
inasmuch as all sinned

(Ro 5:12)

Paul believes that we inherited sin and its consequences from Adam. The great effect was death. God told Adam when showing him the garden, that he was free to eat of any tree in the garden

except the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
From that tree you shall not eat;
the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”

(Ge 2:17)

This of course as we hear in our first reding today Adam and Eve did.

So (Eve) took some of its fruit and ate it;
and she also gave some to her husband,
who was with her, and he ate it.

(Ge 3:6)

Thus sin, thus death.

By the sweat of your face
shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground,
from which you were taken;
For you are dirt,
and to dirt you shall return.”

(Ge 3:19).

This was widely accepted in Judaism. A classic affirmation can be found in Ezra:

You (God) laid upon him (Adam) one commandment of yours;
but he transgressed it,
and immediately you appointed death
for him and for his descendants

(Ezra 3:7)

Far less accepted was that Adam was responsible also for Sin. Also, from Ezra:

For the first Adam, clothing himself with the evil heart,
transgressed and was overcome;
and likewise also all who were born of him.
Thus the infirmity became inveterate;
the law indeed was in the heart of the people,
but (in conjunction) with the evil germ;
so what was good departed and the evil remained

(Ezra 3:21-22)

Ezra seems to suggest that sinfulness was a tendency and perhaps a likelihood but not directly inherited. Thus, it was theoretically possible that someone could avoid sin for their entire lives and thus not need to be saved by Jesus. Although there is evidence that some rabbis agreed with Paul that sin was inherited, Paul provides the first unambiguous statement of this. For Christians, everyone needs to be saved by Jesus. This is why the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady is not optional.

For the sake of completeness, he will next spend four verses stating and then answering very specific questions which educated Jews may have asked. The Roman community to which he wrote had many such people and would have been interested in these issues. This is not of great importance to us so we can resume the main topic:

For if, by the transgression of one person,
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 person Jesus Christ
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so through one righteous act
acquittal and life came to all

(Ro 5:17-18)

Paul compares and contrasts Adam and Jesus. Both have unleased great forces yet there is no equality between them. Jesus’s power is far superior. To restore takes more power than to destroy. The life that Jesus offers is a grace, a gift, which may be accepted or rejected. Jesus made atonement for the whole world in love, and it must be accepted by us in love.

The effect is justification or righteousness that is being in a good relationship with God. It requires a personal relationship with Jesus but as always with Paul assumes participation in the Church.

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

(Ro 5:19)

He also notes that we entered into Sin because of Adam’s disobedience but were saved because of Jesus’ obedience. Paul is reflecting Isaiah’s “song of the suffering servant” (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). We have looked at all the servant songs many times. They are mysterious in their original context. Yet they seem to describe Jesus, who would be born four centuries later. A key line is:

Because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
And he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses

(Is 53:12)

This is a wonderful reading to begin Lent. The theme for the day is temptation. Our first reading is the temptation of Adam and Eve who fail and as Paul explains passed sin on to us. Paul however does not tell us how this sin is transmitted, just that it is. We have come to call this original sin but the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

Original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense:
it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed”
—a state and not an act

(CCC #4040)

The catechism also teaches another sin by analogy.

Sins give rise to social situations and institutions
that are contrary to the divine goodness.
“Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins.
They lead their victims to do evil in their turn.
In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin”

(CCC #1869)

The concept of “Structures of Sin” is closely identified with St. Pope John Paul. (See the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialism.) This is not surprising. He lived under both fascism and communism and saw every aspect of his nation and society turned into a weapon. He understood how this could warp those who lived under it. Yet he also saw, and indeed participated in the resistance. He knew first-hand the power of the prophet. The power to see and choose the good may be weakened but cannot be presumed extinguished. He understood the tension involved and was criticized for it by people who cannot tolerate tension but his description of this part of our human condition seems to be confirmed with every news cycle.

At very least, original sin points to the reality that no one has ever been born into a world that does not require that he or she be saved by Jesus. We as Catholic Christians believe in sanctifying grace which gives us the new life of Jesus. Let us try this Lent to be truly transformed and be less complicit with the world and more committed to the Lord.