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Lent 1, Cycle A

The focus on Original Sin again makes us sense our own unworthiness and need for God’s forgiving grace (Justification by Grace). In some of the texts the consequences of this grace for daily life are also considered (Sanctification). These emphases emerge from the tradition of commemorating the First Sunday in Lent in relation to its roots as the beginning of a period of religious instruction preparing those who would be baptized on Easter to confess their faith.

Psalm 32
A Psalm of thanksgiving for healing attributed to David. It is a Maskil Psalm, which is an artful or didactic song composed with artistic skills, though with didactic elements. Since it is unlikely that David wrote the Psalm or had a role in collecting Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512), it is difficult to determine the date of the lesson.

The psalmist begins by singing that those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered [kasha], are happy [ashar, which also connotes being blessed, for one cannot be happy apart from the things of God, see Psalm 1] (vv. 1-2). This concept of having sins covered is language most consistent with Pauline thinking, and also is present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (Psalm 85:2; Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16) teaching that God’s righteousness covers our sin or at least makes salvation happen (Romans 3:21-26, 4:6-8, 5:18-19; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21). Healing seems to be involved in this happiness, as reference is made by the psalmist to his body wasting away and that the Lord’s hand was heavy upon him (vv. 3-4). Disease was commonly regarded as punishment for sin in Old Testament times. The Hebrew word Selah appearing in the text after verse 4 and other verses refers to the introduction of musical interludes at these points.

Following the acknowledgment of sin and forgiveness, it is noted that healing came (v. 5). The Psalm proceeds to observe that all who are faithful offer prayers at a time of distress and will be preserved, for the Lord is a hiding place (vv. 6-7). (The reference to “the rush of mighty waters” in v. 6 is a common Old Testament image for terrible distress that threatens to overwhelm the one suffering.) The Lord’s word is introduced and he assures us that he will teach us the way to go, always with his eye on us (v. 8). We are warned against being like a horse or mule without understanding, for steady love surrounds those who trust in the Lord (vv. 9-10). Consequently we (the righteous [tsaddiq], not just those who are good but those who are in right relation with the Lord [Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371]) are exhorted to be glad in Yahweh and rejoice (v. 11).

Application: The song affords an occasion to reflect on how sin seems to overwhelm us at times, putting us in the deepest distress. After exploring this kind of empathy with the congregation, the Psalm also encourages opportunities to proclaim the good news that God has forgiven us (Justification by Grace). But we also learn from the song of the happiness that follows from this awareness, for we are surrounded by God’s love (Sanctification). A sermon on the text could also be an occasion to explore how happiness is related to living with and among the things of God (a crucial theme of the book of Psalms) (Sanctification).

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Like all of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis is the product of several distinct oral traditions, all originating between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. This lesson is the account of the story of the fall into sin. This version is probably the work of a tenth/ninth-century BC strand called J because it refers to the Lord as Yahweh.

The story begins with the testimony that Yahweh Elohim gave man the Garden of Eden to keep and till, allowing man to eat of every tree in Eden except the tree of knowledge [ets daath] (2:15-17). It may be useful to consider the narrative parallel in 1:29, written by the priestly oral tradition composed in the sixth century BC. The serpent (nachash, a creature craftier than any wild animal God made) tempts the woman. The role of a serpent here is reminiscent of the snake in the ancient Mesopotamian story The Epic of Gilgamesh (11.287-289), who steals from Gilgamesh a plant conferring immortality. Returning to the Genesis account, the serpent then asks her if God forbade eating of any tree in the Garden, and she responds that only the tree in the middle of the Garden may not be touched (3:1-3). The serpent responds that she would not die, for God knew that eating of the tree’s fruit would open her eyes, and like God (or the gods, for the Hebrew term used in the account, elohim, is plural) she would know good and evil (3:4-5). So the woman seeing the tree a delight to the eyes and that the tree made one wise, ate of its fruit and gave some to her husband (3:6). The idea that eating from the tree would give wisdom links with the Hebraic Wisdom [chokmah] of the book of Proverbs (which seems to make that link in 3:18). Consequently it seems that the disobedience involved in eating of this tree not only involved trying to be like God but also that now behavior is no longer spontaneous obedience, but because of our exercise of freedom and self-reflection we must now be taught through wisdom, and we must be instructed by others (often by existing law and custom) in order to know what is good. Doing good no longer comes naturally.

The narrative continues. Eating from the tree, the eyes of both the woman and the man were opened, and they knew they were naked; then they covered themselves with loincloths — losing innocence (3:7). Sin also seems to make us ashamed of the body (see 2:25).

Application: Although the Jewish community does not read the text as Christians do, this is an excellent text for proclaiming and explaining Original Sin. Focus may be placed on sin as idolatry (trying to become like God or exercise the divine privileges) and how in our state of sin we are now no longer able to do good spontaneously (as the first human beings did), but now with our ability to choose and discern right from wrong, with all the behavioral options presented to us, doing good is hard work, a burden against which we rebel. Embarrassment about the body, resulting from self-awareness, which is really burdensome and the cause of much anxiety, might also be noted as a consequence of sin. Awareness of our unhappy state makes us more eager to hear the word that we are forgiven (as proclaimed in the Second Lesson below and the Psalm above), the gospel’s proclamation that Christ overcomes all temptations, fear, and death.

Romans 5:12-19
Continuing to write his letter of introduction to a church, which to date he had never visited, Paul offers in this text a contrast between Adam and Christ. Sin came into the world through one man, Paul contends, and death through sin spread to all because all sinned and were reckoned sinful by the law (vv. 12-13). Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam. Adam is said to be a type [tupos, that pattern or model] of Christ who is to come (v. 14). By contrast, Paul notes, the free gift is not like the trespass, for if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more will the grace of God in the gift of grace of the one man Jesus Christ abound for many (v. 15). The free gift is not like the effect of one man’s sin. The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification (v. 16). If because of one man’s trespass [Adam] death exercises dominion [basileuo, reigns] through that one [Adam], so much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness [dikaiosune] exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus (v. 17). As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification [dikaiosin] and life for all (v. 18). Just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience many were made righteous (v. 19).

Application: This is another text for helping people see how they are mired in Original Sin. Use insights from the application for the First Lesson. Also note the idea of how, because of Adam’s sin, death and so sin now reign in us, dominate in us. The law (commandments of God) now condemns us, for we need these commands to direct our behavior amidst all the choices, and it functions as a mirror now again and again to show us how far short we fall.

In articulating the free gift of forgiveness, it is important to sort out the role of Christ’s righteousness in saving us or justifying us. Both terms have a similar Greek root, for justification resembles the Greek equivalent of righteousness (see above). You cannot be declared right without “rightness” or “justice.”

We have previously noted the controversy in New Testament scholarship that exists about what Paul means by the righteousness of God and the righteousness of Christ, a tendency to critique the idea it entails that God declares us righteous. This argument is made on grounds that there are no Old Testament precedents for such an idea. But the concept of righteousness as having to do not with distributive justice but with relationships (with God’s relationship with the faithful and so salvation) is an Old Testament concept (Nehemiah 9:8; Isaiah 57:1; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371). And New Testament scholarship tends to understand the concept this way — in terms of a restored relationship (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 271). Therefore it seems appropriate in this text (and elsewhere in Paul’s writings) to interpret God’s righteousness in terms of his faithfulness to his relationship with his people, that it is his righteousness which restores the relationship (Psalm 71:2; von Rad, p. 373).

God’s righteousness, restoring our relationship with him, thoroughly changes the faithful. And even the Pauline idea of the righteousness of a righteous one being given to those who have fallen (a vicarious death) is itself a Hebrew concept; see 2 Maccabees 7:37-38; 4 Maccabees 6:28; 17:22. The righteous one, Christ, restores the relationship of the faithful with God by sharing with us the wholeness and healthiness (righteousness) of his relationship with us (Justification by Grace). The text also provides occasion to proclaim and teach Christ’s atonement. He breaks the dominion of death and of the consequences of Adam’s fall over us. But this in turn entails that the faithful are now under the dominion of Christ. We cannot but do his thing (live righteously in right relation with God) (Sanctification).

Matthew 4:1-11
In a manner most consistent with Jewish expectations in the first century about the Messiah, the text reports Jesus’ temptations by the devil. (All the Synoptic Gospels include an account like this [Mark 1: 12-13; Luke 4:1-13].) The Jewish orientation of this gospel focuses again in the author’s efforts to root the events in Old Testament prophecies. It is reported that after Jesus’ baptism he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil [diabolos, tempter or accuser] (v. 1). He fasts forty days and was famished (v. 2). The forty days in the wilderness are another example of linking Jesus’ life to Old Testament precedents. Both Moses and the prophet Elijah spent forty days in a wilderness experience (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8). The tempter came and said to Jesus that if he is Son of God, he should command the stones to become loaves of bread (vv. 2-3). This temptation was a function of Jewish expectations in Jesus’ day, as they had come to expect the Messiah to repeat the miracles of the Jews’ time in the wilderness with Moses (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 58-60, 65-66). In accord with Matthean concerns to relate Jesus to Hebrew scripture, he is recorded as responding with Deuteronomy 8:3 and its teachings that one does not live by bread alone, but by the words of the Lord (v. 4; this citation also appears in Luke 4:4, but not in Mark).

The devil next took Jesus to the holy city [Jerusalem] and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, daring him if he is the Son of God to throw himself down. Jesus cited Psalm 91:11-12, which speaks of God commanding his angels (vv. 5-6). Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16, which speaks against putting the Lord to the test (v. 7). Finally the devil took Jesus to a high mountain, promising to give him all the nations that could be seen if he would worship him (vv. 8-9). Jesus responds that Satan should go away, citing Deuteronomy 6:13 that only the Lord God is to worshiped and served (v. 10; cf. Luke 4:8). Then the devil is reported to have left Jesus, and angels came to serve him (v. 11). Elijah was also served by angels at the end of his wilderness experience (1 Kings 19:5-8).

Application: The temptations endured by Jesus can be used to help clarify and enlighten the ones we face (Sin). References to the wilderness experiences of Moses and Elijah can aid in making these points.

Jesus overcomes the devil and evil indicates that because the faithful are in him, these realities cannot prevail over them (Justification by Grace).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen