Every Lent at least one of the readings will be about the story of Jesus being tempted, 40 days and 40 nights, in the wilderness. It echoes of course the Moses story of wandering in the wilds for 40 years before finding the so-called ‘promised land’ (which of course was Canaanite land!).
And you, like me, have probably heard more than a few sermons on this Matthean temptation text – Jesus tempted by a literal devil to use his superman powers to meet his own needs, impress others, and get the powers-that-be, aka ‘the kingdoms of the world’, subservient to him.
Just as the devil is a literary creation (not a literal cretin), so these temptations were created by the emergent church to reflect what they (Jesus’ followers) were being tempted by – namely using their faith not to primarily serve others but serve themselves; not to primarily help little people by doing little things but to impress big people by doing big things; and not to be primarily wary of power over others but to seek it.
Maybe we too, like our forebears, need to create mythological stories today to remind us of some of our key values and their flipsides.
Of course, mythological stories can have difficulties for us – they reflect the literary style of the author(s) that can then become literalized. Take Mr. Devil for example. A large number of Christians over the centuries have and do believe that this demigod actually exists. So, their misdeeds, their desires, aren’t actually their own but the result of a foreign anti-God being who is leading them astray.
And time and again Christian leaders and communities have projected out their fears and prejudices and made groups/cultures, including women, emissaries of the Devil. The stereo-typed facial caricature of Jews, for example, was used – and is still used in some places – as the facial caricature of the devil.
Our first reading today is a mythological story with huge difficulties. Frankly the story of Adam, Eve, the talking snake, and the apple of great wisdom is one of those myths from long ago that needs to be kept in the dusty section of an old library and stay there. But alas, alack, it didn’t, and doesn’t.
Firstly, please note, like the 40 days and nights, this story never happened. It’s not history.
Secondly, this story in Genesis 2 has a different God and a different author than Genesis 1. The two Gods even have different names in the Hebrew.
Thirdly, this story was created in a patriarchal culture and does not seek to subvert patriarchy. Indeed, it is frequently used as a tool to denigrate women and women’s authority and leadership. So, it is not a good news story for women.
Fourthly, there are inconsistencies in the story that a smart teenager might try to trip up their youth leader with. Like if humans were made in the image of God – and let’s suppose that might include a thirst for and curiosity about knowledge – would not the all-knowing deity have foreseen that they would be interested in a tree called ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’?
Similarly, you don’t make a desirable chocolate cake put it in front of Glynn, then tell him not to taste it! Especially when you (the creator deity) have made Glynn’s tastebuds addicted to chocolate!! That would be a set up.
And this garden and apple scenario is a set up! The humans are getting played. The talking snake – who by the way was more truthful is his dealings with the humans than the deity (like, the humans didn’t die after eating the apple) – was also played by God.
Why do we blame the snake? Why do we blame the woman? If the omniscient God knew all this, why don’t we just blame God? Or, why blame anyone or anything?
Let me explain the ‘why blame anyone’ comment.
I suggest we think about the meta-narrative that is present in this story. This is a narrative that says the world was created very good. Yes, I think the world is very good, but there are some things about the world (including the non-human world) that you could argue are very bad. Think natural disasters - floods, fire, and earthquakes? They make mess. What about crop failures and famines? Are humans solely to blame for all this?
Then the Genesis meta-narrative says humans were made in the image of God. Some argue of course that it was the other way round, we made God with our projections, ideals, etc. But even if we can figure out what it means to be made in the image of God, there’s an inference that other non-human life isn’t made in God’s image and therefore is inferior. Which has led to all sorts of exploitations and extinctions.
Next the meta-narrative says something went wrong, and so we suffer. What went wrong is labelled in the myth as ‘disobedience’; and the assumption is that ‘obedience’ will be the pathway to return to that very good original state. We just need to be good girls and boys, stop being curious and questioning, and do as we are told. Just like totalitarian governments advocate.
Was there a perfect time in ancient history when the world was very good and then got messed up? Or was the world always messy? Is our yearning to clean up the mess a yearning to return to an imaginary original goodness, or just a yearning to make things better than they are?
And then who is to blame for the mess? Genesis 2 begins with blaming the snake, the woman, and the man. But quickly the narrative expands to encompass most (all?) of humankind. Really? Are we inherently bad? Are all humankind original sinners?
There is a big mental and spiritual health legacy from this Genesis meta-narrative including blame, guilt, retribution, low self-esteem, and idea that we will only be loved and accepted by God and others if we do better, and consistently do better.
The theology of radical grace says otherwise. Radical grace says that we are already and always have been loved and accepted by God; that God never cast us out of any ‘Eden’, and that God has never and will never leave us. Radical grace drives a stake through this Genesis myth.
Not that I think temptations don’t exist. And I’m not talking about chocolate. Here’s a few to think about:
There is the temptation to do nothing;
and the temptation to think you always have to do something.
There is the temptation to think doing gets things done;
and the temptation to think being still doesn’t.
There is the temptation to think it all depends on me;
and the temptation to think nothing depends on me.
There is the temptation to do only what we think will succeed;
and the temptation to heed self-doubt so that we never try.
There is the temptation to apportion blame when things go wrong;
and the temptation to forget the lessons from our mistakes.
There is the temptation to equate success with blessing;
and the temptation to equate failure with curse.
There is the temptation to think of sickness as somehow morally bad;
and the temptation to think of health as somehow morally good.
There is the temptation to think that money brings happiness;
and the temptation to think that going without can’t.
There is the temptation to think that my suffering is paramount;
and the temptation to think the suffering of others can be justified.
There is the temptation to think prayer is what we say and do;
and the temptation to think we know how to pray.
There is the temptation to take for granted the love we receive;
and the temptation to think love has to be earnt.
There is the temptation to think we know what love is;
and the temptation to not answer when grace knocks.