Life is full of choices, definitions of good and bad, actions and consequences. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given a choice; they were tempted. When Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, he was given choices, too. As believing people how do we make our choices? How do we respond to God when we know we’ve made the wrong choice? How do we believe God responds to us? FIRL tackled these very difficult questions this week as they considered the readings for the first Sunday in Lent from the creation story in Genesis and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in Matthew.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
2:15The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Gospel Matthew 4:1-11
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
In Genesis, God offers freedom and God sets a limit—with a terrible consequence—” for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” But as soon as choice is offered, making bad choices will ensue. You might be able to limit the number of mistakes but no human can eliminate all of them. It is an inevitable and fundamental part of creation that we will make mistakes and sometimes terrible ones. God created the world and us this way. There are consequences, which are often painful, but they follow naturally from our ‘insisting’ on our way rather than having a vigilant accountant in the sky who catches our misdeeds. The idea that God punishes us for these errors is man made and a product of trying to be like God—knowing what is good and evil. Human beings make mistakes. Human beings disobey. The irony is we act as if the only way God can love us is if we are inhuman—without error.
I probably learned the most about this narrative from my son when he was two years old. He was playing with a metal truck and crashed it into the top of our glass coffee table. It made a heck of a noise. It frightened me and I yelled his name. He ran from me. My startled anger almost instantly turned into sadness. I realized, that in his fear, he broke our relationship. He assumed he was in trouble; he expected punishment—so he fled.
It is nearly impossible for a young child to realize he can be loved AND that his parent is angry with him. That requires an adult building a bridge—a parent going to him. Children’s (and frequently adult’s) first reaction in the face of anger is that something is their fault. The same is often true of our faith development. Most of us are frightened and overwhelmed by the transcendent God. Typically humans do not trust God’s love when we disobey. We, like young children, hide. And that is how the Genesis story goes on to describe human reactions to our knowledge of bad choices.
Later in the biblical story, we have the scene in which God is walking in the garden calling to his children, ‘Where are you?’ The man answers in verse 10: ““I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” God answers, How did you know that? Have you eaten of the tree I commanded you not to eat?
Adam and Eve were naked before they ate and they were naked after they ate. They were vulnerable and mortal before they disobeyed and after they disobeyed. The difference is that after they ate, they saw their nakedness as bad and shameful. They were afraid. And like my young son, they sought to hide.
I am pretty sure my dog is not the least bit concerned about her nakedness. She certainly has no trouble peeing in front of us. And though she will die, as far as I can tell, she isn’t anxious about that possibility. I believe the same is true of infants. That ‘innocence’ is lost when we create the categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is ironic that the traits that make us human, choice and sentience also carry with them shame and fear —but that may well be one of the insights of the writers of Genesis.
The most common ways of dealing with getting caught in our disobedience is to fear accountability. We cover up, hide and make excuses. Adam and Eve are well matched in this regard. (Parsing out blame is in itself a way to avoid accountability). There is good and evil in the world but it is God’s prerogative—not ours to decide which is which. When humans assume that prerogative (the knowledge of good and evil), we are afraid to be seen. We are afraid we will lose God’s love—but when we hide, we separate ourselves from God. Our hiding expresses our distrust that God can love us in the full knowledge of our disobedience.
When we assume our vulnerability is ‘bad’ and especially when we assume that our disobedience means loss of God’s care, we bring alienation and death into our lives. Those are assumptions based in our understanding of good and evil—not God’s. And it took God coming to us in human form to break those assumptions.
Almost every parent realizes that children disobey. That does not mean we cease to love our children. How much greater is God’s love. God does not want us to live in fear. So he sent his Son.
That brings me to Jesus’ temptations. In each case, this story is about choices and redefining of what we think as good and evil. By the human values of what is good and bad, being well fed is good and feeling deprived and being hungry is bad; being protected (if not immune) from harm is good and being vulnerable is bad and, and finally having secular power and adulation is good and living in the service under the control of others is bad. In each of the temptations, Jesus is invited to ‘improve’ his circumstance—by the human definitions of good and evil.
When Jesus resists the temptations in the wilderness, he is tempted to use his power to avoid deprivation, vulnerability and to seek power and control over others. In each case, he defers to God. He chooses to lodge his safety and identity in God’s will. His deprivation, humiliation and his death were not signs of punishment or God’s displeasure. Jesus measured life by his connection to God rather than his physical well being. His resurrection taught that trusting God leads to the eternal. But that comes later.
Paraphrasing Augustine, when we live in the present, we live in eternity. Or as one of our FIRL members commented, when we live in the past, we invite depression. When we live in the future, we invite anxiety. But when we live in the present, we live in peace. Jesus was able to do that in every circumstance of his life.
As we begin the passion story yet again, we need to resist earthly definitions of good and evil. No hardship we face is a sign of God’s displeasure. The second we think in those terms, we lose our connection to God. Jesus’ life included terrible human hardship but at every turn he chose God and trusted God’s presence. Those choices are what reveal his divinity. He was obedient unto death. He never lost sight of what was most important. None of us can reach that standard but we follow him toward the eternal.
Love God with all your heart mind and strength. Love you neighbor as yourself. That is what is good in the sight of God. In this Lenten season resist the temptation to seek any other. Let it be so.