Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the first few chapters of Genesis. In the Garden of Eden God created Adam, and later Eve (though this reading skips over her creation). In the middle of the Garden he placed “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God forbade Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of this lest they die. But the serpent, the most subtle of all the wild beasts, told Eve that the fruit will open their eyes and let them be like gods. They will know the difference between good and evil. She ate it and gave it to her husband who also ate it. Then they recognized that they were naked and sewed loin cloths out of fig leaves. Lent begins in the Gospel with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and was hungry the tempter arrived. He told Jesus turn the stones into bread and Jesus refused. Then the tempter showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and said that if Jesus worshiped him (the tempter) he would rule over all of them. Jesus again refused.
I think we all grew up with certain Old Testament stories and perhaps none more than today’s first reading. Even today the story of Adam and Eve evokes memories of disobedience and punishment. If only Eve had stood up to the serpent we would all still live in the Garden of Eden, nobody would die, and all would be perfect. We could experience heaven here and now. But since she didn’t choose well we have original sin, suffering and death. Heaven has become much more difficult.
We know it so well we even have a joke about it. Full disclosure: I’m stealing from the Reader’s Digest. As the story goes a local pastor used to visit his parishioners by dropping by without calling. He rang the doorbell of one family and nobody answered. As was his habit he left a card in the mailbox that quoted Jeremiah 7:13: “I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you but you did not answer.” The next week his card was returned and written on the back (in feminine handwriting) was Genesis 3:10: “I heard you in the garden but I was afraid because I was naked.”
People who know me know that I rarely take what I’ve been told at face value. And even as a child I wondered why God would create Adam, Eve, and Garden of Eden and set them up for failure. A few years ago I attended a lecture from the Biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine who made my point: she is married with children and she said that if she put something delicious on the table and instructed her children not to eat it she knew that they would eat it. Something forbidden suddenly becomes much more valuable and tempting if only because it’s forbidden.
Today I suggest that we look on Genesis with adult eyes. Maybe they didn’t go from obedient children to disobedient children when they ate the forbidden fruit. Maybe they went from obedient children to faithful adults.
Of all that God created only we were created in God’s image. Other animals can only act on instinct. They eat and drink, form communities (or don’t), and reproduce with little or no regard to each other. Even newborns are cared for only as long as they need and are sent on their own. And they are naked.
When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit everything changed. They recognized they were naked and they recognized that they knew the difference between good and evil. And they (and we) came closer to being created in God’s image.
Besides creating the fashion industry this gave us the ability to know God and create a moral compass. If we know the difference between good and evil we have free will.
And we are subject to temptation. Today’s Gospel may seduce us into thinking that temptation is bad and should be avoided at all costs. We all recognize the famous Oscar Wilde quotation that he can withstand anything except temptation. But it’s not true that temptation is always bad. Temptation simply gives us a choice and pulls us in one direction or another and it can be good or bad.
We are often tempted toward kindness and generosity and that’s a good thing. When we hold a door open for an elderly person or fist bump an autistic child we are tempted in a good direction.
And yes, there are times when we are tempted toward greed or hate or violence. But I don’t think any of those people are reading this. Instead, I think that good people find bad temptation in wanting good things but falsely believe that we can use shortcuts to get what we want.
We all want to be safe but in the previous decades New York City allowed a policy called “stop and frisk” that allowed police officers to search a person at will. They didn’t recognize that it would be primarily enforced against young men of color and would alienate large swaths of the population.
We all want our loved ones to make good decisions and be in God’s good graces but that sometimes causes us to lie or manipulate, telling them they need to believe what we believe or do what we do because their salvation is in peril if they don’t.
We commemorated Ash Wednesday a few days ago and we journey toward Easter. We journey recognizing that Adam and Eve cast our lots as adults. We have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In growing in the image of God we have a moral compass and this allows us to recognize the difference good and bad temptations. And with that let us journey toward Easter.