Humans encounter the resistances and defeats of the world as the burdens of sin, but the Servant shows a way beyond temptation.
The season of Lent brings a focus on the brokenness and failure of human efforts to attain righteousness and the good. The human condition is one of need, one of being defeated again and again by inner failings (personal or communal) and our betrayals of the good we hoped for. This is the condition of sin, as Christian language and experience has traditionally defined it. Lent is the 40 days (plus six Sundays) in which recognition and confession of sin, contrition and repentance, as well as pleas for divine mercy and deliverance are called for. It is, therefore, a season of reversing—practicing abstention from—selfishness and worldly living. It is a season of fasting, prayer, and humility, in imitation of the suffering Jesus as he made the trek toward Jerusalem and the Via Dolorosa.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7.
The Torah reading is the story of Eve and Adam eating the forbidden fruit. This was in the first instance a folk story. It was probably used in its present form as a didactic text for young men who have just reached puberty and are now learning to read and write in wisdom schools. The texts they have to learn and recite are about their new stage of life.
The whole story in Genesis 2:5-3:24 is a paradigm of the loss of the paradise and innocence of childhood. The story tells how two youngsters, who had all their desires met in a perfect garden by a super-parent, gradually woke up to the realities of the adult world—sexuality, childbirth, labor in the fields, and the resistance of the earth to the desires of humans. And most of all, they woke up to the reality of mortality. They came to know that they would die—“you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, NRSV).
The critical transition from childhood innocence to adult awareness comes about by eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and bad. (Hebrew ra‘ , “bad,” doesn’t normally have the weighty overtones of Anglo-Saxon “evil.”) This is a fruit that gives a knowledge of consequences, knowledge of what will happen if… This is the knowledge of the gods. It is the chief advantage that gods have over humans. (“See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil [bad]…” Genesis 3:22.) Therefore, this is the fruit that the man and the woman must not eat. They must not become like the gods.
There was another tree in the garden which also gave the gods a special power—the tree of life. (“…the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” Genesis 2:9.) Eating of this tree kept one from dying. This was among the trees it was OK for the humans to eat—until they had also eaten of the tree of knowledge. Then they had to be ejected from the garden, lest the man “reach out his hand and eat from the tree of life, and eat [that is, keep on eating], and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). Being ejected from the garden, from the carefree paradise of childhood, meant being subject to death, and having acquired knowledge of the ways of the world, it meant knowing of this death.
As it stands, this story is about disobeying the parental authority and in the process becoming mature adults—with all the pains and benefits appertaining thereto—in a real world instead of in the dream world of children. This story is not about sin; “sin” is not mentioned in Genesis until the story of Cain and Abel (4:7).
The story of Adam and Eve is never referred to in ancient Israelite times. No historical, prophetic, or poetic book in the Jewish scriptures mentions it, much less quotes it. The story simply sat in Genesis for many centuries, enjoyed, no doubt, but making no big impression on Israelite writers. The earliest reasonably clear reference outside of Genesis to Eve and the forbidden fruit is in the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira (died about 180 BCE). One of his sayings is, “From a woman sin had its beginning, / and because of her we all die” (Ecclesiasticus [= Sirach] 25:24, NRSV). Ben Sira was a misogynist, but it is clear that by his time the story of the forbidden fruit had begun to be the story of “original sin.” This notion of sin that is inherited by all the human race may have first appeared in the Hellenistic age, but it had a vast future, especially through the writings of Paul of Tarsus (died about 64 CE) and, for all the Latin-speaking West, through the influence of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (lived 354-430 CE).
As the story of the origin of sin, the Adam and Eve story is about disobedience. A command from God’s very own self was clear and explicit. Do not eat that fruit of knowledge. They ate it, and the consequence was the corruption of existence as it had been in the days of innocence—a corruption that all humans thereafter were enslaved by. The drama of human destiny then became whether there was any way out, back to innocence and paradise (that is, to “salvation”). That is the point at which all later Jewish and Christian teachings pick up, insisting that there is a way, a way through obedience now—of the Torah (two-fold torah in Rabbinic Judaism), or of the Way offered by Jesus the Anointed One of God.
The Psalm for this Sunday’s reading has a number of ambiguities of text and language that produce variations among its several translations. Its major point, however, especially in reference to Lent, is relatively clear. It has to do with the language and experience of sin and forgiveness, and especially of the power and blessing released by confession of sin directly to God.
What is pretty much standard language for sin in the psalms is presented in the two opening verses: “transgressions,” which need to be forgiven; “sin,” which needs to be covered; “iniquity,” which needs to be not imputed or “reckoned” to one; and “deceit,” which must be avoided in one’s spirit (or one’s mouth, in the Greek translation). The first three terms are repeated in the speaker’s report of confession to the Lord in verse 5.
The primary force of the psalm, however, has to be the apparent personal experience reported. “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (verse 3, NRSV). Transgression, sin, and iniquity (sometimes translated “guilt”) are destructive of vitality, spirit, and health. This speaker finally resolves to confess all to the Lord, acknowledging sin, not hiding iniquity, and confessing transgressions. The result: “you forgave the guilt of my sin” (verse 5, NRSV; New Jerusalem Bible, “took away my guilt, forgave my sin”).
The rest of the psalm is lessons learned from this experience, though perhaps in verses 8-9 it is God speaking rather than the forgiven sinner, warning the unrepentant not to be stubborn as mules who have to be bound and bridled to keep them where they belong.
The Epistle reading gives us one of the versions of original sin that Paul developed from his Jewish training and his own Christian inspiration and scriptural study. The passage maintains a polarity between Adam, the first man, and Christ. Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience changed the human nature of all peoples. Everybody inherited the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin. Paul distinguishes between the original sin of Eve and Adam, and all the rest of the sins committed in later ages. Only Adam’s sin changed human nature; everybody else only had ordinary everyday sins.
The same principle is applied to Christ. Christ’s obedience to God on the cross was an ontologically potent act; it changed the being of humans who came to be included in it – “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (verse 19, NRSV). How one gets included in that act of grace is spelled out more fully in the following chapters of this epistle.
Important for Paul’s overall view is the distinction between the sin everybody is involved in (from Eve and Adam) and the sin that increases because of the Law. When the Law came with Moses, the requirements of righteousness were spelled out much more fully—a just world pleasing to God was projected, posed as a goal, by the Law. But, alas, failure to attain righteousness before God only became greater because it was burdened with even more occasions to fail. “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied…” (verse 20, just past our reading).
Whether only from Adam and Eve or also through Moses, people right and left were caught in sin and its consequence (death). Until the dominion of grace came in, and with it “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 21, also just past our reading).
The Gospel reading is the narrative of Jesus’ temptation by the devil. Sin and temptation have always been understood to go together—thus being tempted to do evil is the way humans get caught in the bondage of sin.
In the framework shared by all the Gospels, Jesus’ coming is a decisive event in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The temptation of Jesus is the immediate sequel to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him, and that coming sets in motion a conflict between the powers of the Spirit and the powers of Satan. This conflict is fought out in the human world—which has been pretty exclusively in Satan’s power in recent times.
The temptation of Jesus is to exercise his divine powers improperly or in the service of the demonic lord instead of the true Lord. The devil (he is called “Satan” only at the end, verse 10) is trying to seduce Jesus over to his own side. The three temptations, like many in ordinary life, are a mixture of good and evil. Increasing the bread supply from stones is not in itself a bad thing; doing it for the devil is. If we read the passage correctly, the three temptations, in their positive potential, are in fact fulfilled in the course of Jesus’ later work, as the Gospel According to Matthew presents it.
The first temptation is to turn stones into bread, because Jesus, who has fasted for forty days, is very hungry. Jesus refuses by quoting Moses—which Jesus does in response to every temptation—that humans do not live by bread alone but by all that God says. However, later in the ministry on the Galilean hills, Jesus does multiply loaves of bread and feeds the hungry who have been following him and waiting upon his words (Matthew 14:13-21).
In the second temptation (in Matthew; Luke reverses the order of the last two) the devil takes Jesus to “the holy city” and invites him to throw himself down from a pinnacle to demonstrate to the world that he has divine powers ready to protect him. This time the devil also quotes scripture, citing a promise that God’s angels will protect the Messiah from all harm (verse 6). Quoting Moses again, Jesus replies that you should not put the Lord your God to the test. The devil begins this temptation, like the first, by saying, “If you are the son of God, …” At the crisis at the end of Jesus’ mission, others say to him, “If you are the son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40, NRSV). The temptation was to avoid the cross, to make a great display but only one that would serve the fancies of the world and not the will of God to redeem the peoples. In his final act, Jesus did indeed cast himself down to death—in God’s way rather than in Satan’s!
Finally, in the third temptation the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (verse 8). Now the full force of the devil’s lure comes out. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” There is a clear reply in Moses again; “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (verse 10). But here, too, Matthew’s Gospel finds a truer and more righteous way of achieving the goal to which the temptation referred. In the final commission, after the resurrection, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). The ambiguous good of this temptation too has been accomplished in God’s own way.
Matthew has presented the temptations of Jesus as devious ways by which the devil would achieve his own purposes and defeat those of the Lord. In his faithfulness, Jesus has fulfilled the whole will of God and shown his followers the way to go beyond temptation.