MARCH 9, 2014: FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
Have you ever wondered how we got today's first and third readings? Was the Genesis author actually present during the act of creation and the fall of the human race? Did Jesus take a sidekick into the wilderness with him who later told Matthew about his temptations?
I really got uptight when I learned in my first grade religion class that one of the effects of Adam and Eve's original sin was that we had to do homework, so upset that I complained to Sister Catherine that I shouldn't be punished for someone else's sin. She looked me right in the eye, smiled, and wisely said, "If they hadn't committed the original sin, you would have! So don't worry about it." Unknowingly she answered my first question long before I asked it.
Especially when it comes to temptation and sin, both the Yahwistic author of Genesis and Matthew begin with us, not Adam, Eve and Jesus. They're much more interested in what tempts their readers than in what actually tempted these famous biblical people.
It might or might not be significant that the snake the woman encounters in our Genesis pericope isn't the devil. Tenth century BCE Jews knew nothing of a personal perpetrator of evil. For the sake of the story, the snake is just the snake. But the argument which the snake employs is significant. "The moment you eat (the fruit) your eyes will be opened and you will be like the gods who know what is good and what is evil." In other words, you can ignore the plan of life Yahweh has for you, and go down a path which eventually leads to the evil of death. It's essential for a correct understanding of this passage to understand that to "know" in Hebrew almost always means to experience someone or something. In this context, evil was an experience Yahweh had planned to keep from the man and woman.
Without having been present at the time the fruit was eaten, our extremely observant Yahwistic author (a person many modern Scripture scholars believe was a woman!) knew that at the root of all sin is a decision to choose death over life, to choose an experience God wishes us to avoid. What's true for us must have been true for our ancestors.
It's interesting that this particular author dwells on our need to wear clothes. Every race of humans known to anthropologists covers some part of their bodies - though it might not be one of the parts we normally cover. The writer concludes that clothes are a sign something in our world is out of kilter. If it weren't we'd have no problem seeing ourselves and others as God made us.
Employing similar methodology, Matthew reasons that Jesus would have been tempted as his followers are constantly tempted. As other Christs we must decide daily whether we're just to care for people's physical needs (the stones into bread), be involved only in the spectacular (jumping from the temple's parapet), or strive to have power over others (the world's kingdoms.) The evangelist presumes the devil has never changed tactics. If one chooses to die and rise with Jesus, then this is what we can expect.
Of course, Paul sees our dying and rising as the one way to overcome those temptations. He reminds the Roman church, "If by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many."
If life is why we exist, why not imitate someone who achieved eternal life, someone who helps us overcome the lure of death which tempts every human?