The First Commandment

First Sunday of Lent. Gen 9:18-15; Ps 25:4-5,6-7,8-9; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15

During this Lent, a time especially set aside for repentance and purification from sin, it may be helpful to re-examine the Ten Commandments. Today I would like to examine the First Commandment that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The full text of the first commandment, in a standard translation, is as follows, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. It is written: 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

Now at first glance the First Commandment might seem straightforward, partly because it is many centuries since the altars and statues of pagan gods have been widely displayed in our public places. We would have to travel elsewhere to gain a sense of what ancient pagan cultures were like, perhaps to places where people still bow before the image of Shiva, with a third eye, or the ferocious statues of Kali, the goddess of destruction. Nevertheless, we should be careful not to be complacent about observing the First Commandment. When Jesus is tempted in the desert, as is mentioned in today's Gospel, the devil does not even bother with the other commandments. The devil focuses all his efforts on the First Commandment, and Jesus quotes the First Commandment when he defeats him.

So how, then, is Our Lord tempted to break the First Commandment? Well the first temptation, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, is to command stones to become loaves of bread. The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now at certain times in his ministry Jesus does, in fact, miraculously feed crowds of people with loaves of bread. The temptation at this time in the desert, however, is to become a messiah in the worldly sense, by providing material prosperity. The false god being offered as an object of worship here is the god of materialism, sometime personified as the god Mammon. Furthermore, Mammon has his own prophets, secular messiahs who achieve power by promising material prosperity. Whenever we make material prosperity more important than the Word of God, then we too are facing the first temptation of Christ. Christ's answer to this temptation is that one does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The second temptation of Our Lord is to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, to provoke a spectacular display of divine intervention. The temptation in this instance is to become a figure of showy power, another kind of messiah in the worldly sense. The subtlety of this temptation is that it can seem self-evident that we need power to do good, and the worship of power often begins with apparently good motives, the desire to make the world a better place. Power can be addictive, however, and even the desire for power can corrupt the heart. Jesus' responds to this temptation with the words, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” In order words, we must rely on the grace and love of God rather than trying to control God. Indeed, to help us resist this temptation, God often blesses us with weakness and humiliation, so that we come to rely on his grace rather than our own strength. Furthermore, God has raised up a great many saints, such as St Francis of Assisi or  St Thérèse of Lisieux, who emphasize the same point: these men and women, who were almost completely powerless in the worldly sense, changed the world in far better ways than numerous secular messiahs.

The third temptation of Our Lord goes to the very heart of the issue: the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world, “All these I will give you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me.” Like all the promises of the devil, this is an empty promise, because Jesus is already the world's true Lord. By making this promise, however, the devil reveals the true aim behind his various deceptions. Behind the worship of materialism, and behind the worship of power, is the devil, who desires to replace God as the object of our worship. And in response, Jesus dismisses him by quoting the First Commandment, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

So may God help us to recognize the subtle temptations against the First Commandment. May we worship and serve the Lord God alone, especially inspired and aided by the love and humility of Mary, the Mother of God. 

 Father Andrew Pinsent, Saint Ambrose Church, Saint Louis, 1st March 2009

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