Stories are often told in black and white. There’s the hero, and there’s the villain. The goodies and the baddies. The right thing to do, and the wrong thing. We like it that way, so news stories are often like that, dumbing down the complexities of life. Bible stories are no different. Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Why it’s the story-teller of course, putting into story form what he conceives as God’s word.
In today’s reading, the Yahwist invites us into a powerful story of creation’s initial crisis. In the first scene, God weaves purpose, freedom, and injunction into human existence. God declares the garden is for “keeping” by humankind. The Hebrew word for this “keeping” – shamar – has a meaning that is care-taking in nature, not possessive. That’s the purpose woven in. Second, God permits the fruits of all the trees to be eaten – that’s the freedom. Except for one. God prohibits tasting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s the injunction. Humankind encounters limits that must be honoured in order for the creation to develop as God intends. Adam and Eve are called to trust the word of God. And don’t forget, those two names can be translated as mankind and womankind.
Then there’s the second scene, where the serpent comes on stage. It seems that God is absent from the conversation – always a dangerous assumption to make. The questioning serpent tests the memory of the first human beings. “Did God say you shall not eat from any tree…?” Note that the reply broadens God’s command against tasting the fruit to not even touching it, as if greater restrictions could make obedience simpler. As this scene unfolds, a testing of memory soon becomes a testing of meaning, “You will not die; for God knows you’ll be like gods, knowing good from evil.” For the first (but not last) time in creation, a created being presumes to know the mind of God. There is something demonic about those who are convinced they know the mind or the will of God in such black and white terms. Two hundred years ago a Boston newspaper editor put it well when he wrote “I had rather face a whole regiment with drawn swords than one lone Calvinist convinced he is doing the word of God.”
“So, when the woman saw the tree was good food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and was to be desired to make one wise…” The story does not narrate a yearning for what is evil or wrong. Restriction and purpose both become secondary to the overriding desire for freedom to have what one wants. The fruit, and its knowledge, are tasted. Eyes open in new ways. Knowledge brings new understanding of self-awareness. Shame and the attempt to cover shame enter into the human experience. Other things follow: conflict, difficulty in deciding good from evil; good mixed with evil. Evil mixed with good. Exit the black and white world. Enter the real world.
Alexei Solzynitzin said it all: “The line between good and evil passes not between states, nor between governments, but right through every human heart. Even in the best of all human hearts, there is a small corner of evil.”
With eyes open to God’s will and God’s way, Jesus enters the wilderness for forty days, recalling the forty identity-shaping years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. We note in Matthew 4:1–11 that Jesus’ temptation begins after the 40 days, when he is hungry. Jesus listens to the tempter’s invitations. Food, security, and recognition are not bad things. Rather, the testing lurks in the invitation to secure them apart from God. If we do not have an over-arching ethic, these things can become idols that consume us, distort our lives, and endanger God’s creation. Two examples are enough: business is good. But without that over-arching ethic, it can become rapacious. Security is good, but without that over-arching ethic, crime, violence, terrorism and unjust warfare soon rear their ugly heads. Tempting shortcuts are always on offer, for us, as they were for Jesus. But for Jesus, faithfulness to God’s word prevails. His example, alas, is not always followed in our world.
The major testing we face is the heavy human footprint on the planet, and all that stems from it – global heating habitat destruction, species depletion, global heating, violent weather, sea level rise, all disturbing the delicate skin of air and land and water.
Creative tension sparks today’s readings at the beginning of our Lenten journey. Genesis and Matthew reveal that temptation tests one’s relationship with God, and one’s commitment to the values and ethics of our faith.
We live in a world which is tinted in shades of gray. We need to ditch our black and white vision and learn to see the tones and halftones of goodness and evil around us and in us. We need to learn to admire our politicians for their ability to change their views, emphasise what they think is important, to compromise. Not just bad-mouth them as swiththering flip-flops which we’re prone to do – especially if they’re in the other party. I think there was quite a lot of good in the serpent who made Eve think for herself. Where would we be without the serpent? Still cavorting in the garden! How boring! Welcome to the real world! As a friend of mine was wont to say, “I used to be troubled by naughty thoughts. Now I enjoy them!
The Michael Dowd study series we followed last year put it this way: “Religion is the control mechanism of sustainable societies. Its main role is to ensure the culture or society remains accountable to the future.”
I hope this lent you will consider two things. First, ethical issues are not black and white. They have to be struggled with every time. And they come up daily: there is an ethical dimension to every decision. There are also some big ones we need to continually be thinking of: how much should we conserve, and how much should we exploit: in New Zealand; in the world? New technologies throw them up all the time: how much privacy should we have? who should be allowed to collect information about us? And medical ones: cloned babies, frozen embryos; genetically engineered foods …. sometimes seemingly small developments can have profound unforeseen consequences. Weighing the pros and cons, listening to, but not leaving it to the experts, and acting together on such issues where we can.
The other thing to consider is the need for that over-arching ethic, the guiding faith, the belief and trust in God that alone can guide us on a path of salvation. And who better to walk with than Jesus, helper, guiding light and friend. May this lent be such a walk for you. Amen.