Dear Brothers and Sisters –
I have pondered over that reading from Genesis for some years now. One thing that really stands out for me is that the serpent is telling the truth. He doesn’t lie to Eve. He says, “Phht, you won’t die.” Eve eats the fruit, gives some to Adam and guess what, they don’t die. He says, “You will become like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” They eat the fruit, and yep, you guessed it, their eyes are opened and they know good and evil, just like the serpent promised. As for being like gods, God himself confirms this later. “See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever.” God seems to be very concerned that humankind does not become even more god-like than they already are. God is protecting his territory, so to speak. So if the serpent is telling the truth, was God lying when he told them that if they ate the fruit they would die? We’ll come back to that in a moment.
The devil doesn’t lie to Jesus either. Jesus is perfectly capable of turning stones into bread. The angels probably would come to his rescue, and no doubt Jesus could have been a great ruler. Jesus refutes him every time by quoting scripture. But the devil is no dummy. He quotes scripture right back at him. The devil doesn’t tempt Jesus with lies, but with the truth, even the truth of the authority of the Scriptures.
The devil does the same with us. He’ll say, “That extra bowl of ice cream will make you nice and full and satisfied.” And it does! He’ll say, “This drink or this drug will make you feel better.” And it does! If the ice cream didn’t work, it wouldn’t be much of a temptation would it? This is the devil’s strength. “You can get the money you need if you rob this bank, or kill this person. Your self-esteem will grow if you have more sex. You can have all the power you want if you go to war.” This is all true, as history has proven over and over. The devil tells us the truth.
But – you knew that was coming, right – but notice what the devil is promising. In every case, he appeals to a person’s self-interest. “You will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” “Command that these stones become loaves of bread.” “With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” “All these [that is, the kingdoms of the world] I shall give to you.” In each case, he appeals to self-interest.
The devil, then, works by separating our interest from the needs of others. He never promises that by doing such-and-such we will grow in compassion, or come closer to God, or become a more generous human being. That’s not how he works. However, self-interest eventually has consequences, certainly in the case of Adam and Eve, and not just because God expels them from the garden. Because the serpent has awakened their sense of self, they are suddenly embarrassed to be naked. They are aware of the self, so they are aware of the other, and the danger that poses. They need clothes to begin to hide from one another. And in a spectacular display of “pass the buck,” they blame anyone else but themselves for their failure. As a natural result of their self-interest, they are only concerned to protect themselves now. And this, in my opinion, is the real original sin. Self-interest. And self-interest has plagued humankind ever since, from international affairs to personal relationships.
But to come back to a question we set aside a little while ago – did God lie to Adam and Eve when he told them that if they ate the fruit they would die? Paul says, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death.” This has sometimes been interpreted as meaning that Adam and Eve were created immortal and that by eating the fruit they became mortal. But that really isn’t supported by the text at all. Why would God be anxious that they not eat the fruit of the tree of life, then, if they were already immortal? If we read a little further in the Genesis story, I think the answer becomes clear. The first murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel, was a direct consequence of the sin of self-interest. Cain is envious of Abel because God likes Abel better. Cain, because of his self-interest, thinks this is unfair and so removes his rival. Death did enter the world through the sin of Adam, but the unnatural death of one human being at the hand of another human being. And so it continues to this day. The news is full of people being murdered, sometimes in mass shootings, because somebody, mired in self-interest feels aggrieved and justified.
The way out of this dilemma is narrow and hard. Only following Jesus, his words and example, can lead us back to the garden. In each of the temptations, Jesus places God rather than his self-interest first. “One does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” Jesus centers himself on God, not on his own self, and so cannot be tempted by any of the devil’s offerings.
Lent is specifically a time when we try to become more God-centered. We deny ourselves certain things, some measure of food or drink, or we try to make some extra effort in prayer, or we do something for the benefit of others. This is not simply for the sake of abstinence, or so that we might imagine ourselves as more righteous or holy, but so that we become more conscious of God’s presence in our lives. God is always with us, of course, but Lent sharpens our sense of God’s closeness, and, when we inevitably fail in at least some of our resolutions, Lent emphasizes our dependence on God. And when we acknowledge our dependence on God, and our need for God’s compassion, our compassion for others can grow. This is the key to overcoming the sin of Adam. Compassion is the opposite of what the devil wants from us. And there is no greater model for compassion for others than Jesus. Imitating Jesus is the narrow road, not because only a few can make it, but it is narrow in the sense that our self-concern, our preoccupation with nurturing our own advantage, is stripped away. As Isaiah said in our reading on Friday, “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them and not turning your back on your own.” If our Lenten practices do not increase our compassion, then they are missing the point. If we want to escape from the terrible consequences of the original sin of self-interest, then we have to try, really try, to follow Jesus’s most direct and often-repeated command to us, “Love one another.”
By Fr Lawrence of Gethsemani on Feb. 26th, 1st Sunday of Lent, 2023