Updated: Mar 17, 2020
First Sunday of Lent – Year A
The obvious theme running through today’s readings is easily labelled temptation and sin. Actually, a better way to describe it is to use the language of relationship and then parallel the idea with the way we handle relationships in our lives. Most of us were brought up to think in binary terms, or polar opposites: black/white, happy/sad, true/false, good/bad and so on.
This is the way our left-brain hemisphere operates – needing certainty, clarity and order where everything unfolds in a straight line. But this ignores the messiness of life where things don’t always go according to plan, where creativity flows out of the poetry of being, where peace and harmony can emerge from being content with unknowing and not always being in control. We only have to look around at the natural world (which we are in process of destroying). A world of colour and variety, as God made it, beats a black and white world any day.
We look at sin and tend to think in right/wrong, good/bad patterns. A more right-brain question might be, ‘Why would I not think this way, speak this way or act this way?’ And the answer is, ‘Because I fear it would damage or even destroy a relationship. It would injure the I – You harmony.’
What they don’t consider is how it will affect their relationship with God
Today’s first reading from Genesis 3 comes from the pen of the Yahwist writer who was an inspired storyteller. Like Jesus and a host of other Jewish thinkers and mystics he made up tales or drew on traditional stories to make a point or drive home a lesson. Because this reads like a narrative in translation, we are generally unaware of the creative artistry that colours the Hebrew original. For instance, to give life to the plot the writer sets up a dialogue between the snake and the woman. This has two key functions: it shows how the woman understands the command from God and gives the snake a platform for delivering his temptation. This conversation alone tells us the writer does not intend the listener/reader to take his account as a historical event. He is faced with a dilemma, namely, if everything in the garden is good (and that includes the snake), then the couple are never inclined to go against the divine wishes. So, the writer introduces a third party to put a temptation to the humans, to get them to consider an attractive alternative, something they have never thought of before. As it turns out, the snake is not suggesting something bad, for the couple are taken with the idea of gaining wisdom, or even being like God, having superior knowledge which seems a perfectly good outcome. What they don’t consider is how it will affect their relationship with God if they get sucked in by the snake and break faith with God.
The point that very often gets overlooked is that in order to know the difference between good and evil one has to experience both.
In Hebrew culture authentic practical knowledge is only gained by experience. So far, the couple in the garden have only experienced good. The snake entices them to lash out and experience its opposite and be better off for the result.
But we can see where the writer is taking us. This is a universal story. Did it actually happen? which is the inappropriate question we moderns tend to ask of ancient literature. For the ancients, the meaning of the story far outweighs the reality or otherwise of the details within the story. The writer is saying: ‘It happens all the time.’ We are all Adam, we are all Eve, and while we don’t generally set out to do evil we damage ourselves and our relationships with God and with others when we put ourselves first and walk rough shod over others. Sin is not simply, or primarily doing the wrong thing: it is harming relationships when we go against what is good and just.
The writer is no naïve raconteur. He is not suggesting there is something wrong with a tree or its fruit in this garden. The tree and the fruit are, of course, symbols of human behaviour. This is not an orchard story. What the writer is saying is that going against God’s wishes involves a breach of trust and loyalty and upsets the balance that sustains life. When the humans realise this breach, they are gripped by shame and self-disappointment and this is symbolised by their complete exposure. It is not just their unclothed bodies that cause this shame but their total nakedness in a state of lost innocence.
One little aside – Christianity has always read the snake as a devil figure, but the text never says or even hints at this. Later in the narrative the snake is cursed as a snake not as a demon. It is never anything more than a snake, which helps us realise it is a character in the literary plot, not some supernatural being or a figure of Satan. When this story was written there was no Satan in Jewish spirituality. Satan as a leader of the baddies does not appear in Judaism until close to the time of Christ.
Come back to me with all your heart
The psalmist echoes the remorse and shame that the Genesis text highlights. And we can all sing the same song as the poet, yearning for a clean heart that is not spoiled by the disgrace of having acted against goodness. There is a cry here for the divine spirit that gives us the strength to strive for wholeness in all our relationships. This psalm is one of the group called the penitential psalms, which is a fair enough title but it kind of misses the point of repentance. In ancient Hebrew spirituality the response to a guilty conscience is to turn back to the Presence, not to drag out the self-reproach process. The words in Hebrew and Aramaic for ‘repent’ are forms of the verb ‘return’, ‘come back’.
The prophet Joel sums it up beautifully with God pleading to the one who has gone astray, ‘Come back to me with all your heart.’
This is a healthy spirituality that focuses on the divine invitation to restore relationship and our resolution to turn back to Goodness. It does not wallow in self-flagellation, which, after all, is all about me and not about the graciousness of divine forgiveness.
Today’s gospel extract is a perfect example of how we can misread a passage when we don’t get it in context. The context here is that Jesus has just had a transformative Spirit experience as he was immersed by John in the Jordan. He emerges from the river totally overcome by the realisation of his unique relationship with God and of the implications of that reality. He now needs time to process the experience and consider his options. Hence the retreat into the wilderness to do some sorting out. Mark, the earliest of the gospels, does not go into the stylised temptations that Matthew and Luke have set up. Rather, he leaves it up to the discerning reader to contemplate Jesus’ temptation to heed God’s call to step out into the deep and be a prophet to his people or to withdraw to Nazareth and play it safe. The former involves a huge risk and it needs careful consideration. In the end, Jesus follows his gut-feeling, his inspiration.
The three temptations in Matthew and Luke are richly symbolic, and when you examine them, they are not fair dinkum temptations. Jesus, after his Spirit experience is beyond the point where he would listen to Satan to do magic, toss himself off the temple parapet or worship the demon himself. The temptations are parallels to those that faced the Israelites in the desert and Matthew is pointing out that where the Israelites failed God, Jesus comes through with flying colours.
We can come away from this gospel passage thinking, ‘Well, good for Jesus! He gave Satan the brush off.’ But that’s not the best take-home message. What we can get from the episode is that we are all faced with temptations of one sort or another and we do well to carefully consider our options.
If I give in will I be smitten with guilt and self-disappointment; will I wreck or damage a precious relationship? What’s the price here, what is at stake?
Will I put myself offside with God, with a loved one, with myself? Recalling the couple in the garden story, will I be better off or is this attractive carrot merely leading me to a relationship train wreck? Bad habits are not overcome by resisting. They are overcome by replacing them with good habits.
I believe legends and myths are largely made of truth. J.R.R. Tolkien
Opportunity may knock only once. But temptation leans on the doorbell. Unknown
A man was visiting his old school. He paused to admire the newly constructed Shakespeare Hall. ‘It’s marvellous to see a building named after William Shakespeare,’ he commented to the tour guide. ‘Actually,’ said the guide, ‘it’s named after Brian Shakespeare. No relation.’ ‘Oh! Was Brian Shakespeare a writer also?’ the visitor asked. ‘Well...yes,’ said his guide, ‘He wrote the cheque.’
Lead us not into temptation – never mind, I can get there by myself.