Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin Lent in the second chapter of Genesis. Here, Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden along with the serpent. While God planted a garden for them, God commanded them not to eat from a particular tree (the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”). In a conversation between Eve and the serpent, the serpent encouraged Eve to eat of the “forbidden fruit.” He told her that while God instructed her not to eat of this fruit, God would be pleased if she did. On his encouragement she ate of the fruit and gave it to Adam who also ate of it. On eating of the forbidden fruit they both recognized they were naked and covered themselves. Meanwhile, Matthew’s Gospel recounts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus travelled into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. “The Tempter” appeared to him and attempted to encourage him to turn stones into bread and become a disciple of Satan. Jesus refused this and also refused Satan’s promise to make him a king of a kingdom. Jesus then commanded Satan to “be off.”
I’m going to make a prediction here and suggest that most of the homilies delivered this weekend will concentrate on the Gospel. I’ve certainly done that several times, but today I want to focus on our first reading from Genesis.
It’s a reading familiar to even those with a passing knowledge of Judaism and Christianity. And most, if not all, of us were told this: Adam and Eve had things perfect in the Garden of Eden. God imposed only one rule and they broke it. This exiled them from Paradise and caused their lives to be hard. It also created original sin that is passed down from generation to generation to us and even thousands of years later we will not be allowed into Heaven unless we’re baptized.
And while I don’t think most of us really believe that Limbo and Hell are populated with unbaptized children and adults, I do think many still believe Adam and Eve had a good thing going and blew it.
I’m going to challenge that. This may be an uncomfortable homily for you, and perhaps I hope it is. I think this reading says more about the community that struggled to write it than it does about God.
A little background: the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were classically thought to be written by Moses. But in the last few centuries Bible scholars have rejected that and now believe they come to us from at least three different sources and were compiled during the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BCE). They feared they would not survive their exile and be lost to history; they wrote these books as a way to preserve their identity. It worked.
And so back to our story: It’s clear from the very beginning that Adam, Eve, and serpent held a place in God’s kingdom apart from the rest of the animals. I think we can safely assume that the other animals in the Garden of Eden are much like the animals we live with today. They are capable of fear and many of them understand their place in hierarchies (hence the name “top dog”).
But none of them would have understood God’s command not to eat something that tempts them. There’s no point in telling your dog he can eat all the dog food he wants from this bowl but not from another. Likewise cat owners happily tell us there’s no point in trying to keep them off the furniture.
And yet God places this condition on Adam and Eve and even places this forbidden fruit (on the “tree of life”) in the middle of the garden. I remember well hearing the Biblical scholar Dr. Amy-Jill Levine comment that she would never do this with her own children because the temptation would be too much, and it would be silly to set up something that she knew would likely fail.
Additionally, the serpent also occupies a unique place in this story. He is described as “the most cunning all animals.” And not only does he have the ability to communicate with Eve, he has an agenda: he wants Eve (and presumably Adam) to eat the forbidden fruit. And so what do we take away? Do we reduce this scene to a seducer (the serpent), a temptress (Eve), and a victim (Adam)? By the Middle Ages this occupied everyone’s understanding of this reading. But perhaps in the 21st Century we need to suggest another model.
From our earliest days we’ve struggled to understand our relationship with God. The pagans who surrounded the Israeli exiles worshipped many gods and we have little evidence that these gods cared much for them. These gods demanded worship and obedience but they (to my thinking) never loved or cared for them. The God of Adam, Eve, Abraham, Moses, and the rest of us clearly expressed love for all of us. The previous chapter of Genesis tells us that we were created of God’s image.
Is it too much to imagine that the serpent did what God hoped he would do? While God threatened death for eating the forbidden fruit, that didn’t happen. As a people, we gained and we lost and I think we gained a great deal more than we lost. We certainly lost innocence and we now have a need for clothes that enslave us to care about fashion, patterns, binding undergarments, neckties, and high heels.
But we gained so much more. We gained a relationship with God that gives us the ability to love each other in a way that mirrors God’s love for us. Animals don’t love each other. They reproduce based on patterns that care nothing for long term relationships and care only for their ability to create their next generation. But our relationships find not only our ability to reproduce but our ability to love each other forever. We love each other and our children with a love that goes beyond words. Only then can we love each other as God love us.
And so how does this begin our journey of Lent? Lent provides us a journey where we can focus on our faith life. For many Lent provides an opportunity to “give something up,” or stop eating/drinking/doing something we enjoy but probably shouldn’t do. If that works for you I’m not going to discourage it. But perhaps we can spend Lent 2017 celebrating God’s desire to gift us with the ability to live in God’s image and celebrate our role.
Perhaps Lent calls us to celebrate our first reading, to see that while Eve’s decision to listen to the serpent made our lives harder, it also made it possible for us to love and be loved by God in a way that no other creations will know.
Maybe Lent calls us to renew our love for God and each other.