Texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The story raises as many questions as it answers. Why was the tree there to begin with if it was forbidden? Why did they listen to the serpent rather than God? Did they even understand what death meant? Why didn’t God give them some more information? Since when do snakes talk?
I find it humorous that in the very next part of the story, which we don’t read today, the man, the woman and the serpent all participate in a circus of passing the blame. The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, the serpent is left holding the bag. I find it humorous because we so often do the exact same thing when we read this text, although we can’t see it: we blame these hapless innocents, or we blame the malicious snake, or we blame the devil. Meanwhile, just like Adam and Eve and their friend, we fail to see that it is not someone else’s action a long time ago that brings these curses upon us, but our own.
Notice what is not in the story: there is no malice ascribed to any of the actors, there is no supernatural evil present in the form of a devil or a hellspawned snake, there is no outside force of any kind at work. There are only three creatures, each using their God-given gifts of reason, free will and intelligence to make poor choices. How can this not be a story of every day of our lives?
Even the characters’ names have significance. The man is called Adam, which means “human,” and comes from the word for soil or earth--adamah--which, if you recall, is what Adam is made from: adam from adamah. Translating from Hebrew into English, you might easily say the human is made from the humus. His wife, his helper and partner that the LORD God created especially for him when no other creature—not even the serpent—was found as a suitable companion, is called Eve, which in Hebrew comes from the word for “life.” And so, life hands the human a fruit. The eternal question is whether the human will eat it. Perhaps it’s not an apple after all, but a lemon. Will they make lemonade?
Although we often read this as a story of humanity trying to usurp or circumvent God, it is entirely possible to read it as a love story between humanity and God. It is because the “tree is desired to make one wise,” to make one “like God,” as the serpent says, that the man and the woman eat its fruit. I can see this as a story of people who want so badly to be closer to God that they can’t see that how close to God they already are. How tragically sad that we so often lose sight of what we have because all we can see is what we don’t.
Scene two. The man is in an arid desert, a wilderness. He has nothing but the clothes on his back. He is ravenously hungry. A voice encourages him to eat something, to use his God-given gifts to attain something that (it is implied) God cannot or will not give him. The man is perfectly capable of doing this; he has been given both the ability and the authority—the words are still ringing in our ears from the last verse: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased”—but he refuses.
In his refusal, he cites scripture, quoting a reminder that everything we really need comes from God. This is not to say that we live in a garden where all of our bodily needs are provided for—we certainly don’t. That garden is gone, forever closed to us because of our poor choices. Instead, we live in a desert, a corrupted caricature of the good world God had made, a wilderness where a few have more than enough while many have little or nothing. It is a lawless place that violates the rules of the way things ought to be; but the man knows that the rules still exist, and that they are enough. It is in these rules—this vision of creation—that the man trusts.
So, the voice doubles down. “I can quote scripture, too,” it says. “Why don’t you see just how far you can trust those promises?” it asks. But again, the man refuses. He knows that scripture is not a bar around which to bend God’s will and twist God’s words, but a foundation upon which to stand.
Finally, the voice makes perhaps the most tantalizing offer of all. “You have a great moral compass. You ought to be in charge of this place. Just say the word, and it’s yours.” But the man knows that the world does not belong to the owner of the voice. The world belongs to God—and to God’s Son, the beloved, with whom God is well-pleased. The voice offers only that which he already has, just like in the first scene in the garden.
Ultimately, it is not the man who bends to the voice, but the voice to the man. The voice offers, incites, tempts, cajoles, but the man commands: “Away with you!” And the voice obeys.
St. Paul points out the parallel between these two scenes. The first takes place in God’s good creation, but because of the events that play out, God’s good creation is marred, corrupted. The scene has a downward trajectory that continues throughout history as God’s vision for wholeness is warped and twisted and God’s garden becomes a desert. The second scene takes place in that desert, and the action is opposite: what was broken in the first scene is healed in the second; what was done earlier is now undone. Through one man, death entered into the world and was spread to all; even so, through one man death left the world, and all receive life. The good creation that was earlier broken is now being renewed, restored, remade.
As I said before, we tell the first story not because it happens once, but because it happens to every one of us, every single day. We tell the second story because every day, we strive to make it happen, as well. The hard work has already been done: the one man, Jesus, has already reversed what the other man, Adam, the human being, did. Adam sought to be closer to God through grasping at what he could not possess; Jesus became closer to God by giving up what he did possess: food, power, even offering his own life on the cross.
During the season of Lent, we are called to renew our baptism in preparation for the feast of Easter. The work of renewing our baptism, as Luther puts it, is the work of daily drowning the old Adam who grasps for ever more, to give up our lives and surrender to the water so that just as we die with Christ, we may also rise with him and receive as a free gift what we cannot take for ourselves.
We begin this Lenten work with these stories as a way of calling our attention to the fruit that life is handing us, the fruit that offers us bread in the desert, an outward, visible sign of God’s power, the ability to take control of our own lives and make the world in our own image. We have the ability and the authority to use the gifts, the talents, the resources that God has so generously placed at our disposal to have all these things—but should we take them?
The Adam in each of us, the man made of mud, reaches out to take the fruit, to see to our own well-being and destiny; but the unspoken implication is that if we do not provide for ourselves, nobody else will, including God. In taking the fruit, we call God a liar and trust in ourselves first. Thankfully, there is another at work within us: Jesus, the man on the cross. He reminds us to look around and see that the garden is already filled with good food. It’s awfully hard to see sometimes in the midst of the sand and sun, but it is there; not even death can take it away. We just have to wash the mud out of our eyes if we’re going to see it clearly.