OLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
The Genesis that we know of today was not, obviously, written as a cohesive volume, but rather a composite of various stories from the oral tradition. Contrary to many people’s belief, it is very, very doubtful that it was written by Moses, but rather many persons that came much later than he did. Most scholars believe that it is a composite of three traditions—Yahwist and Eloist (probably 1000-800 BCE) and the Priestly tradition, which was probably woven together about 587-500 BCE, right in the middle of the world of exile and restoration. The importance of Genesis is that it makes the first claims about God’s character, God’s relationship to the world, and about God’s relationship to humanity. It is, then, the very foundation of our beliefs. Genesis reminds us that God’s work does not occur in a vacuum, but is shaped by the world and the historical setting.
The passage that we read is part of what is called the “second Creation story”. This is probably written by a Yahwist writer, which recognizes God as God and Creator. The “first Creation story” is probably a Priestly writing, filled with order and ritual. The two are not competing but actually function together to provide our account of Creation. The first account deals with the whole cosmic order of things and the second account deals more with humanity and humanity’s relationship to God.
In our reading, God places humanity in the garden to work and serve the ground and care for it in fulfillment of the command to subdue the earth. The role given to humanity is a part of the creative process. But to be a creature entails limits and to honor limits is imperative for the creature to develop as God intends. There are two trees in the garden, one representing life and one representing death. To be separated from the tree of life represents the broken nature, which means that death is inevitable.
Then in chapter 3 (we skipped a whole lot of chapter 2 in what we read), the serpent (who, remember, is something God created and that humanity named) is represented as “more crafty”, implying that humans will sometimes be exposed to crafty elements in the world. And the world’s first temptation occurs…”come on,” the serpent says, “you won’t die…that’s all a farce. If you eat this, you will be like God.” Don’t we all want to be like God? Then the blame game—it was her fault…it was his fault…it was, well there is no one there, so it must be God’s fault. Notice that the word “sin” doesn’t even appear here, but apparently we humans are beginning to realize what it is!
It’s interesting that we read this passage the first Sunday of Lent. We just had Ash Wednesday. We were just reminded that we are dust. But from dust comes life. Perhaps this is as much a story about life as it is about death and sin. After all, as the story goes, they didn’t actually die from eating of the tree. Or did they? What was gone was innocence. What was gone was that unblemished connection to God. What was gone was that childhood view that nothing could ever go wrong. There are those whose faith understanding is that we are called to return to the Garden. Hmmm! Why would God create this whole incredible universe and then expect us to stay locked in a garden? The truth was, they did die—they died to themselves. And God began to show humanity the way home, the way through temptation and exile and wandering in the wilderness. God began to show humanity what it was like to return. Our whole faith journey may be more about returning home, returning to God, than about anything else. Perhaps that’s the point. I, personally, don’t think we’re headed back to the Garden; I think that was only the beginning. God has a whole lot more in store for us.
The apparent inevitability of Adam and Eve’s decision makes their story even more compelling. If God did not want them to eat from the tree, then why did God put it there in the first place? And who dreamed up that talking snake? If it was all a test of the first couple’s obedience, then why didn’t God let them work up to it a little? You know, start off with something less significant, such as “Don’t call me after 9 p.m.” or “Remember to feed the goldfish”?
Adam and Eve were still trying to remember the names of things when they were presented with their first moral choice. Their skin had barely dried off yet. They made the wrong choice, but there is hardly a human being alive who does not understand why. Innocence is so fragile, so curious, so DUMB. Choosing God cannot be the same thing as staying innocent. If it is, then, there is no hope for any of us. (Barbara Brown Taylor, in Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, p. 46-47)
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What part of the responsibility in this tale’s IS God’s?
- What does the word “sin” mean to you?
- What do you think is the point of this story?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 5: 12-19
Read the passage from The Letter to the Romans
Most scholars agree that the Letter to the Romans was almost certainly written by Paul. In fact, many would call it his masterpiece. N.T. Wright makes the case that anyone who claims to understand Romans fully is, almost by definition, mistaken. He describes it as a “symphonic composition”. The overarching theme is essentially “God’s Righteousness”.
In the passage that we read, Paul compares Adam and Christ. Now this probably implies that Paul believed that there literally was an Adam and Eve, who had been given a commandment by God and broke it. He depicts Adam as a “type” of Christ; essentially that Adam (literally meaning, “human”) bore at least some of Christ’s characteristics. But, for Paul, the original Adam and this “new Adam” (this new humanity) were under two reigns—one that makes its subjects sinners and the other that makes its subjects righteous. This passage is filled with the news of grace, the undeserved gift of abundant life. The cross is not mentioned but there is still an allusion to the atonement and Christ’s salvific reign over humanity.
This passage dismisses the implication that we are “only human”. Christ was human, remember? Christ came not to show us how to be divine but to show us how to be human—a “new humanity” depicted by Jesus Christ. If the humanity of Christ was the way being human should look, then maybe our shortcomings do not make us “only human” but, rather “inhumane”, not really human at all, not really made in the image of God.
This whole journey is not about becoming God or even becoming divine. It is not about getting some reward or arriving at some far off place to which we are destined to go. This journey is about becoming human, fully human, the way of being human that Christ showed us. For when we become human, then we will be who God calls us to be and we will know God as God desires. Being human is knowing that God is God and that we are God’s creation, made in the very image of God to be a reflection of God. We are God’s creation that God loves more than life itself. (And God saw that it was good.)
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What does it say about sin for you?
- What do you think of this whole idea of the “new Adam” or the “new humanity”?
- What does being human mean to you?
GOSPEL: Matthew 4: 1-11
Read the passage from The Gospel According to Matthew
Jesus came from Galilee for the purpose of being baptized and now he is led by the Spirit to be tempted. It is all part of the divine plan, part of his obedience to God. He goes out to prepare himself for his ministry. The period of forty days and forty nights is reminiscent of Moses’ forty days and nights. You’ll note the tempter’s use of the word “if”. He wasn’t trying to raise doubts in Jesus’ mind. He was trying to get Jesus to prove who he was.
Jesus is tempted where he is most vulnerable. He is tempted to guarantee having what we need, to shift attention away from purpose. He is tempted to possess. Think about how famished Jesus really was. All Jesus has to do is say the word and he would have what he so desperately needs. Then, he is tempted by his desire of affirmation by God, the desire to impress. We all want to be liked; we all want to be validated. After all, he was just beginning his ministry…this would be a guarantee that they would LIKE him. Finally, he was tempted with the desire to be in control or to have glory or recognition. Think what Jesus could do if he had control and glory. Think how much more powerful his ministry would be. Henri Nouwen says that the temptations are to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.
The truth is that Jesus was human and was tempted by typical human temptations. It is what we all want. Fred Craddock says that “temptation indicates strength”. (Boy, I am REALLY strong!) And, yet, we are often uneasy with the whole idea of Jesus being tempted. After all, he was Jesus. He should have been above all that, right? Each temptation invites Jesus to turn away from trust in God in a different way. So maybe this wasn’t about the temptation at all, but was rather a lesson in trust, in perseverance, in resistance of those things that will surely get in the way of our lives. There is an emptiness in all of us that must be filled. We are met each and every day with offerings of things with which to fill it. Jesus affirmed that, yes, we would be met with these temptations, and, that, yes, God’s deepest desire is that our emptiness be filled with God. To be Christian or, actually, to be human, is to realize that that emptiness will never be filled without God. It is that for which it is made. And, really, what good would Jesus have really done us if he had been above it all, if he had never be tempted at all? Where would we be then? Jesus did not come to be a superhero above all that comes about; Jesus came as a human—as a you, as a me. Jesus came not so that we would be perfect but so that we would see what we were missing. After all, being relevant, or spectacular, or powerful are really overrated. Relevancy is short-lived; “spectacularness” is hard to maintain (after all, don’t you sometimes just want to go around in your warm-ups with no makeup?); and, as Lord Acton would tell, us, “power corrupts”. Jesus wasn’t showing us how NOT to be tempted; Jesus was just putting relevancy, spectacularness, and power in their proper places. Because, after all, when they’re gone, God is still waiting for us to return home.
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What meaning does this shed on temptation for you?
- What light does this bring to the whole idea of being human?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
All sins are attempts to fill voids. (Simone Weil)
While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God will that we be human, real human beings. While we distinguish between pious and godless, good and evil, noble and base, God loves real people without distinction. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now. But that demands both the healing of the soul and the honing of the soul, both penance and faith, both a purging of what is superfluous in our lives and the heightening, the intensifying, of what is meaningful. (Joan Chittister)
Blessing for Ash Wednesday
So let the ashes come as beginning and not as end;
the first sign but not the final. Let them rest upon you
as invocation and invitation, and let them take you
the way that ashes know to go.
May they mark you with the memory of fire and of the life that came before the burning:
the life that rises and returns and finds its way again.
See what shimmers amid their darkness, what endures within their dust.
See how they draw us toward the mystery that will consume but not destroy,
that will blossom from the blazing, that will scorch us with its joy. Amen.
(Prayer by Jan Richardson, in “The Memory of Ashes”, March 6, 2011, available at http://paintedprayerbook.com/, accessed 8 March, 2011)