First Sunday in Lent – March 9, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 Psalm 32 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

By Marjorie Suchocki

The texts inaugurate Lent by taking us through the sweep of salvation history: the fall in the garden, the lament over sin in the Psalms, the hope of redress through Christ given in Romans, and then straight to the story of the temptation of Jesus, participating in our frailties yet triumphing over them, in Matthew,

Traditionally the Genesis story has been told as a tale of disobedience: God gives a clear command, Eve is tempted by Satan to disobey the command, and gives in. Christ parallels the story, being tempted by Satan not in a garden, but in a wilderness. But unlike Eve–unlike us–he resists the temptation, and triumphs. We are so familiar with the story that when we read it we don’t always see what’s really there. Instead, we read what we think is there.

So look closely at the Genesis text again, and notice that the temptation is far more dire than simply disobeying a divine command. Notice in particular Genesis 2:9. God has created the creature (who at this point in the tale is both male and female, undivided) and then made a garden in which the creature could live. We are given a God’s eye view of the garden: it is pleasing to the sight, good for food, and contains two trees, one of life, and the other of knowledge. Then God gives a command to the undivided creature: do not eat the tree that gives knowledge. Since the creature is as yet undivided, the command comes to Eve as well as to Adam. Now go the lectionary text, and see what the temptation actually is. The serpent accomplishes his temptation indirectly: “Did God say you couldn’t eat any of the fruit in the garden?” and Eve rushes to answer that it’s only one tree that is forbidden. Notice that she even adds to God’s command, We heard nothing from God about not touching the tree, but Eve embellishes God’s word, strengthening it with this addition. Preachers are always doing such things. The serpent refutes the statement that the tree will cause death; instead, he says, this tree will make you like God. The critical verse follows in 6, which you should compare with the earlier verse 9. The woman sees that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for wisdom. What she doesn’t know is that she is mirroring God’s own perspective; she is already like God–but she does not believe it. The fall is not simply disobedience, but a failure to own herself as the image of God that she has been created to be.

The significance of this reading is that when Genesis is read only as a tale of disobedience, our embellishments of the text turn disobedience into an overweening pride in a desire to be like God, to storm heaven, as it were. The sin is usually described as over-reaching our human boundaries. But a closer study of the actual text suggests that it’s not overreaching, but underreaching that is the first problem. We fail to live up to what God created us to be.

Now go directly to the Matthew text, and notice how it relates to the Genesis text. In Genesis, the temptation is in the midst of a garden; in Matthew, the temptation is in the midst of a wilderness. Symbolically, we can see the garden representing the richness of living as the image of God. The wilderness, to the contrary, is the loss of that richness. For Jesus, the only garden is Gethsemane, not Eden. His temptation is not lush surroundings, but a desert.

Eve, not knowing who she is, succumbs to the temptation to “be like God.” Yet she is already in God’s image. Jesus, knowing who he is, is also tempted to “be like God”–doing the miraculous things that only God could do: make stones into bread, demonstrate dramatic rescues, be recognized as the ruler of all the kingdoms of the world! Be like God! Jesus, knowing himself, answers each temptation simply with the refuting word of God. Had Eve repeated the words of God given in Genesis 2:9, she’d have felt no need to take the fruit. Jesus, repeating God’s word, defeats the temptation, and goes on to complete redemption’s journey until once again we find ourselves in a garden, where Jesus himself is mistaken by Mary for a gardener: the garden of resurrection. Thanks be to God.