St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 6 March 2014

First Sunday in Lent

March 9                      NOTES FOR REFLECTION             First Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Theme:  Probably best to play it straight this week.  I would avoid “The Temptation of Christ”, not because of its movie connotations, but to avoid any suggestion that temptation is something that happened to him back there then – whereas the emphasis must be on what happens to all of us each day.  I think we can capture both ideas by pinching a phrase from Hebrews, “Tempted in Every Way”, so that’s my pick for the week.

Introduction.  We enter the Lenten period with two great stories and one turgid theological tract.  It’s fashionable to scoff at the whole Adam and Eve thing, but for me this is one of the greatest stories ever told, and I never tire of coming back to it and pondering it all over again.  It so perfectly describes the human dilemma arising from our dual nature of thinking creature endowed with free will.  And it reminds us that our whole forensic concept of sin, as an instance of a breach of a particular provision of some detailed heavenly code of conduct for which a penalty will be imposed from on high, is wrong.  “Sin” is an attitude, a fundamental choice we make to lead our life our way instead of God’s way.  We see that perfectly illustrated today in Matthew’s account of the temptation of Christ is the desert.  In between St Paul spells out in laborious detail his answer to a very important question.  How can one man’s death have such universal implications as we claim for it?

Background.  As a recovering lawyer I still enjoy reading the court reports in the ODT from time to time, not for the lurid details of the offences reported, but for the ingenious defences that are sometimes raised.  Just lately I’ve spotted a bit of a trend.  In three cases reported in the same week defence counsel assured the judge the offences were “opportunistic”.  Presumably this is to show that there was no pre-planning, which always sounds so much worse somehow, except, perhaps to the victim.  If someone hits you over the head with a heavy object the amount of pre-planning is unlikely to have any immediate effect on the level of pain you experience.  But it occurred to me that, if I were appointed Eve’s defence counsel I might be tempted(!) to trot out this idea of “opportunism”. 

But I’m not sure.  The risk is that it might appear to be an attempt to shift the blame to the one who gave her the opportunity to offend in the first place.  Shopkeepers should not complain if children nick things from lower shelves – they should have ensured that such goodies were out of the reach of young arms.  And so the point for Eve might be:  well, what was the point of putting this particular fruit-producing tree in the very centre of the garden if you didn’t want her to eat that fruit?  With the benefit of hindsight do you not now accept that you were very unwise to put such temptation in her way – to give her the opportunity to help herself with such a tempting morsel?

A second “line of defence”, heard less frequently these days, although given an unsuccessful go this week by the non-recovering lawyer convicted of smuggling contraband goods into prison) is the one about the “victimless” offence.  (A topical example might be incest between consenting adults.)  Could I argue on behalf of Eve that she had caused no harm to anyone else and so she should be “acquitted of all charges”?  You see, that’s where the “forensic” approach to sin leads us.

A better insight into the biblical approach to sin might be drawn from parenting.  As a child few things irritated me more than my mother closing down my very well-reasoned and persistent questioning of some directive or other with the phrase “Because I say so!”  Many a time I swore to myself that if I ever became a parent I would never ever use that phrase with my child.  I would always take the time to reason with the child so that the child could understand that I was right, and was telling him or her what was best for him or her.  Of course, that policy was abandoned when my first child learnt the word “why”.  I soon latched on to a new phrase, “One of us has to be the adult here”, and vis-a-vis a two year-old I felt more qualified for that role than her.

Isn’t that the real issue for Eve?  Who is the “adult” here – the one who truly knows best – God or Eve?  Isn’t that always the issue for us when tempted to do something which we know is contrary to God’s will?  Who is the parent here – who is the God here?  And the parenting example may be helpful in reminding us that our relationship with God is not static – it involves spiritual growth.  Perhaps the reason why Adam and Eve are prohibited from eating the fruit of the tree is that they are not yet mature enough to handle the knowledge it will give them.  They must grow up first.  There may come a time when they are ready for that fruit, but that time is not yet.  Isn’t that what St Paul found with the new Christians at Corinth?  They were not mature enough to handle the spiritual gifts they developed – they wanted to run before they could walk, they wanted meat instead of milk before their spiritual” digestive system could handle the heavier diet.

It is interesting that at the heart of this story is a foodstuff.  Today we are constantly warned that we are heading for a “diabetes tsunami” – we are eating too much and we are eating the wrong types of food.  If we continue down this path more and more of us will surely die prematurely – not by way of divine punishment, of course, but simply as a natural consequence of exceeding the limits built into our bodies by our wise and loving Creator.  What does this story have to say about that?  Isn’t our over-eating a prime example of opportunism?  We wouldn’t over-eat if we didn’t have access to an excessive amount of food, would we?   So aren’t the real culprits here the food producers, or perhaps the Government for not implementing a “fat tax”?  On the other hand, who are the adults here? Perhaps it is time for the people of faith to recognise that over-eating is a spiritual issue – and when better to start reflecting on that than this period of Lent?

Now – where’s my comfort food?

Genesis.  First, hats off to the compilers of The Lectionary this week!  By isolating verses 15-17 and following them with the passage from chapter 3 we can focus on the heart of this wonderful story.  We begin in gift: God has created a garden and now puts the man to whom he has given life in the garden.  Up until that point Adam has done nothing; now he is given a role in the creative process; his role is to “till and keep” the garden.  Today we say “to be steward of creation”.  It is a role that carries great perks: Adam can help himself to the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, with one exception.  He must not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – to do so would result in his death.  Fast forward a while, until we find Eve confronted by a serpent, the embodiment of temptation.  The serpent opens by asking Eve what God really said.  Eve, of course, wasn’t there at the time, so she is relying on what Adam had told her.  Her response is fascinating.  She opens with a piece of pedantry: God and the serpent speak of eating “of the tree”: Eve is more precise, speaking of eating “of the fruit of the tree”.  But then she seems to widen the original ban: not only must they not eat of that fruit, they must not even touch it.  The serpent does not enter into the word-game: he shoes straight on the attack, and the target he chooses is interesting.  He denies any hurtful outcome that might arise from eating the fruit.  Far from doing you any harm, he says, it will be good for you.  So Eve is able to see the fruit in a new way: instead of something threatening her very life, she now sees it as nourishing, beautiful, and even as a source of new wisdom.  She shares her new understanding with Adam and together they share in their new discovery.  The outcome is immediate and profound.  In an extraordinary way, it fulfils the predictions of God and of the serpent.  Their eyes are opened and they see things differently and wrongly: in their immaturity they are thrown into confusion and attempt to hide from one another.  The fashion industry is born!

Taking It Personally.

·        A time for quiet reflection if ever there was one.  What does the term “sin” mean for you?  What most annoys you about the views expressed above?

·        Do you agree that eating unhealthy foods or unhealthy amounts can be considered a “spiritual issue”?  Does God know best what is good for us, or, by granting us the gift of free will, has he left it up to us to decide for ourselves?  Or both?

·        Do we have any responsibility for the health of others?  Where does feasting fit into all this?  Is an obese child an abused child?

·        Notice that there is no suggestion that the forbidden fruit is bad in itself.  What does that tell you about the nature of temptation?

·        What does the nature of the “ban” tell you about the nature of God?

·        What about giving up excessive eating for Lent, rather than some specific item(s)?  Would that be a helpful spiritual exercise for you?


Romans.  Not one of St Paul’s easier passages to grasp, but it’s worth a bit of effort.  He is addressing a very important question, one that I have been asked occasionally over the years.  It goes like this: even if everything you claim about Jesus is true, how can it be that his death, alone of all the billions of human deaths throughout history, can have any relevance to my own life today?  Isn’t that just too much of a stretch?  Well, says St Paul, we can understand it by looking at the converse situation.  We believe that one act of disobedience by one person has infected all human nature, so why should it not be the case that one perfectly healthy human being can heal all human nature?  This is one of the theological strands that had such an important place in the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin.  There is, he says, only one human being which is manifested in billions of individual ways, just as one body comprises billions of individual cells.  What is true of one cell is true of the whole body.  What is true of one human person is true of the whole body of humanity.  God, by entering into the body of humanity brings healing and wholeness to the entire body.  The difficulty lies not just in understanding this, but in believing it.


Taking It Personally.


·        I’m not sure how you can take this passage personally, but perhaps the first step might be to start with the liturgy.  What do you mean when you join with others and say, “We who are many are one Body for we all share the one bread”?


Matthew.  Again there is so much in this very familiar passage.  First, we should not overlook the fact that this passage does not purport to be an eye-witness account.  The only source can be Jesus himself.  Secondly, the event follows immediately after his baptism, and therein lies its psychological truth.  After the great spiritual high, comes the great spiritual reaction.  Isn’t that our experience?  Perhaps on a retreat we feel that we have had some great breakthrough or new insight: for a time everything now seems clearer, more certain: but some days later the doubt sets in.  Did something really happen, or was it all imagination?  Why aren’t I still experiencing this supposed new state of awareness?  In the desert Jesus wrestles with this sort of question: if I am the Son of God, how can I prove that to others and to myself?  By using my new powers to turn stones into bread?  By a death-defying leap off the top of the temple?  By assuming political power?  Or simply by placing myself completely at God’s disposal and trusting in him?


Taking It Personally.


·        Evelyn Underhill often railed against “the religion of magic”, by which she meant demanding of God that he perform a miracle of our choice.  Where do you draw the line between intercessory prayer and seeking a magical outcome?

·        What might the Church learn from Jesus’ clear rejection of attention-grabbing stunts?

·        The three temptations may represent our desire for personal well-being, a desire for admiration and affirmation, and a desire for power.  Which might you find the hardest to resist?

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