Genesis 3:1-7 | Matthew 4:1-11
The forty days of Lent are an obvious, deliberate echo on the part of the early Church, of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, as told by both Matthew and Luke. Which has always struck me as a little bit odd. Lent is a period of preparation for the great mystery of Easter – the end of Jesus’ ministry as one of us, his betrayal, abandonment, death, and resurrection.
But the forty days in the wilderness stand at exactly the opposite end of Jesus’ ministry. They mark, not a preparation for death, but a preparation for life, not for an ending, but for the beginning of his ministry.
If we were to seek a temptation story for Lent, surely the garden of gethsemane, with Jesus’ pleading with God to be spared the ordeal that faced him, would fit the bill? Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness were not to avoid suffering – at least, not in the very specific and immediate sense that Holy Week captures – but to take shortcuts – to claim the glory that was rightfully his without going through the life of love and teaching and ministry that must of looked so much like hard work.
But here we have it – the temptation of Jesus, paired with the temptation of humanity in the Genesis story – placed at the beginning of Lent.
And I suppose that if we are going to spend Lent reflecting on the spiritual life, on the long road that walk as Jesus’ people in the world, the temptation to take short cuts isn’t a bad place to start.
And since we aren’t expecting our ministry here on earth to finish at Easter, perhaps reading a story that reflects on how Jesus prepared to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God isn’t such a bad idea either.
But I’d like to reflect more today on the Old Testament reading, on the old, oft caricatured, widely derided, frequently misused, story of the fall. A story which, told though it is, as the world broken by the choices of two original individuals, surely acts as a parable for the decisions that each of us take, the harm that each of us does.
A story which, to me, perfectly illustrates three great lies that we are told, that we tell ourselves, and that, too often, we tell each other, about God’s commands, God’s desire for our lives.
The first is found in the serpent’s opening question: “did God say ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’”? The image of God that is immediately created; the image many outside the Church have of God, and that on some level many of us carry around inside us: that the fundamental description of God’s nature is the word “no”. That God’s relationship with us is defined by “thou shalt not”, by forbidding.
But when we read back in the story, to the command God gave, it is given in the affirmative – giving permission, giving freedom: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. God’s command is not “do exactly what I say, when I say it, the way I say it” – it is “here’s a whole garden of option, good choices. Take your pick”. Obedience to God is not finding the one right option out of many, many wrong ones; it is enjoying a wide range of good choices.
But of course, there is the restriction as well: “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”. But even here, the restriction is framed not so much as a command as it is a warning. “You can eat anything you like, but don’t eat that one, that one will kill you”. The only command given, as the story is told, is that of self preservation. Of course, that leaves open the question of why God would put such a dangerous thing in the garden anyway – but for today, I’m letting that one go.
The lie, then, with which the serpent starts is to suggest that God’s commands are far more restrictive than they really are. To paint God as the great “no”. And though Eve, in the story, doesn’t fall for it, the question, and her response draws attention away from all the other trees, all the other good things, and onto the one thing that has been forbidden. From this point on in the story the question has been crucially changed – from “which of the many different good fruits shall we eat” to “shall we eat this one”. As anyone good at sales knows, control the question people are asking and you are most of the way to getting the answer you want.
No longer is Eve considering all the good options available to her; now the question is whether or not this, forbidden, thing, is desirable. And this reflects the second lie: that the forbidden thing is somehow uniquely more desirable than the many which are permitted.
While I was writing this sermon an email came into my inbox from Quora, a question and answer website, and, always ready for a good interruption, I followed one of the links, in which a Catholic Priest was writing about what it was like to hear confessions. And one thing he said was that, while it was a powerful and profound experience, it was much less exciting than most people seemed to think. Almost all sin, he said, is boring. Or, as Eddie Izzard put it, “you want your sin to be original? Poke a badger with a spoon.”
The lie which we accept, which tells us that God’s will for us is very specific, very restrictive, a single path that we must follow, morphs into this second lie; that the things God would deny us are much more interesting, desirable, and exciting, than the things God freely gives for our enjoyment.
But, the serpent goes on, why should God be the one who decides? Why should God get to pick what is good for you and what isn’t, what is good and what is evil. Why shouldn’t you make those decisions for yourself?
The third lie – that God would have you remain childish in your understanding of good and evil; never making any decisions for yourself, never trusting your own judgement, but running back to God, or the Bible, or the teaching of the Church whenever you need to decide anything.
“eat it, and your eyes will be opened, you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Isn’t that desirable; to be able to make your own mind up, figure out for yourself what is right and wrong, good and evil? Isn’t that what we put so much emphasis on in our education – teaching kids how to make good decisions for themselves, not just to go along with the crowd or the loudest voice? Isn’t that growing up?
And of course, the answer is yes. Because, once again, the question has been changed. The question is not “should we grow up, learn how to make good decisions, learn how to tell right from wrong ourselves?”. That’s a simple yes. The question is, when we are doing that growing up, that learning, who will we trust to guide our growth? What authority will we accept reliable?
For the reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly explore every conceivable option first hand. Working it all out for ourselves, trying all the alternatives, taking no-one’s word for it, isn’t possible, logical, mature, or even sane.
The need to experience for oneself before deciding is a paradox of wisdom and stupidity.
I was listening yesterday morning on the radio to an expert on funnel web spiders. He said that the male bite is particularly venomous, and, he implied, best worth avoiding.
Now I’ve never experienced the bite of a funnel web, first or second – or even third – hand. But I’m guessing that most of us would agree that there is nothing wise or mature about deciding I need to test his knowledge personally. Maturity, here, lies in making wise decisions about who I will believe, who I will trust. And so I accept the restriction to my freedom – I will not poke my hand into funnel shaped webs – because I trust that the instruction is given for the benefit of my greater freedom and happiness and (in this case) survival.
A limitation can be a gift of freedom, a gift of love. It all depends on whether we trust.
Three lies, that we tell ourselves and one another.
Rejecting the first lie reminds us that there are an infinite range of good options available to us, an uncountable number of ways that we can live lives that are honouring to God, productive for the Kingdom, loving of one another and creation.
And rejecting the second lie tells us that those options that we are forbidden are not better, or more attractive, or more rewarding than those available to us.
And together, that allows us to reject the third lie – that God calls us to abdicate all choice and blindly follow God’s command.
Our call, instead, is to grow in maturity, to make our own decisions, the most fundamental of which is to decide who we will trust enough to listen when they speak words of guidance and restraint.