Grasping the Gracious Gift
This reading from the second & third chapters of Genesis always makes me sad. It is likely one of the most used and abused, most misinterpreted passages in the Bible. It has been used to prove that women should be oppressed, that men are spineless wimps, that God’s creation is faulty, and that both humans and snakes are inherently evil – when that was never the intention of the story.
What was the intent? It’s a beautiful creation story and by far more sophisticated in its vision than anything comparable found in the ancient world. It is older than the story we find in Genesis chapter one, and shares themes with other creation myths in the Mesopotamian region. And just in case you feel the need to explore your Bible a little more closely, check out the creation story in the book of Ezekiel chapter 28 that you’ve probably never heard.
But there are two things we really need to pay attention to here. First – the eternal question of evil. God in chapter one is said to create a good world. God is pleased with it. When you read Proverbs chapters 3-8, you find this theme again and again. So, where did the cunning of the serpent come from, and why did it lie to Eve? Interesting question, but that’s not really what we need to know, so I ask the 2nd question, and that is- what was Eve’s reason for making the choice of listening to the serpent’s lies? The text tells us, “the tree was… desirable for gaining wisdom.” The serpent had said, “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (little “g”) who know what is good and what is evil.” Sometimes I wonder if the story suggests that in Eve’s ears, she heard that she would be like “GOD”?
So what was humanity’s relationship to God when they were created? God had created humankind, and blew the breath of life into man. God gave mankind the power of naming the animals, and thereby giving man power over animals. God gave these humans the very best of everything. In chapter one, the creation of humans is the climax of creation, the grandest and greatest of creation, actually in the divine image. We are not God, but we are a reflection of God.
And somehow Eve thought that the glory of God, the wisdom and knowledge of God was something she and Adam could grasp by eating a piece of fruit. It is a concept still pitched by marketing snakes. Buy this car, and you will look rich and powerful and women will be attracted to you. Drink this diet soda and your body will be sleek and desirable. Take this drug and your sports performance will be Olympic. It’s the same old lie. And why do we still fall for it? Because we want to grasp the goal without developing the grit.
What does scripture say? Look at Philippians 2: 5-11: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Which is why in Psalm 51 David doesn’t say to God, “The devil made me do it.” Instead he claims his evil choice of taking another man’s wife and having her husband killed. David admits his desire to be all-powerful (like God) is wrong, too great to be grasped. He asks instead for the “joy of (God’s) salvation” – a joy which God, and only God, freely gives to those who empty themselves of the pride of power, the need to control that which they did not create, the desire and greed for that which was not theirs to grasp.
St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reassures us there is a way out of our folly. He teaches that although these impulses of pride and control and desire haunt us, “how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift- of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for (us).” What was the gracious gift? It was his good and selfish choice of being obedient and coming to us as a humble man to face and overcome our murderous actions – actions which grow out of pride and power and control and desire.
Of course, Jesus was never one to simply tell us how to live and walk away, shaking his head at our endless repetition of the same bad decisions. He demonstrates it for us, he lives the trials; he shows us success and gives us solutions. Our reading from Matthew is only one example of that. He is tempted at his most vulnerable, when he was near starvation, when he saw power at hand and close enough to reach for, when he was shown glory and fame in its most magnificent and attractive forms.
Shucks, I hear the word “temptation” and I think of double chocolate cake with Breyer’s mint ice cream with chocolate chunks in it. But the solution is still the same- obedience. Trying to grasp the joy of the stomach or the joy of ego or the joy of stuff never really works, only the freely given joy of the soul lasts beyond the end of the day.
This time of Lent is when we re-set our moral compasses, when we hold out our intentions in the cold light of day and ask if we act with justice and love. We look at those things we do without thinking the rest of the year and consider the fruit of our actions. What do we seek to grasp, what do we reach out for?