The First Sunday in Lent, 1 March 2020

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

During this Lententide, I shall devote this segment of the blog to quotations that might give depth and a reflective quality for the readings for this day.

Elaine Pagels in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, muses on the theology of Saint Augustin and his thoughts on temptation and free will. What are your thoughts?

“The desire to master one’s will, far from expressing what Origen, Clement, and Chrysostom consider the true nature of rational beings, becomes for Augustine the great and fatal temptation: ‘The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is personal control over one’s own will’ (proprium voluntatis arbitrium). Augustine cannot resist reading that desire for self-government as total, obstinate perversity: ‘The soul, then, delighting in its own freedom to do wickedness, and scorning to serve God … willfully deserted its higher master.’ Seduced by this desire for autonomy, Adam entered into a ‘life of cruel and wretched slavery instead of the freedom for which he had conceived a desire.’”[1]

First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

The Lectionary takes some introductory notes from the second creation story, so that the story of fall is told in the context of the proviso that God gives Adam at the beginning of humankind’s experience in the garden. In this story we encounter an unusual linguistic usage, the merism which takes two opposites, such as “good” and “evil” and pairs them to create a more general meaning, in this case “everything.” There examples of this usage in Egyptian and Greek literature. Such an understanding changes how we might view the tree in the story and its moral import. Perhaps it is not the knowledge so much that tempted Adam and Eve, but rather to test the bounds of the divine will – as any child does with a parent.

There is, however, another character in this tale – the serpent. The simplicity of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Everything”, will become complicated by Eve expanding the prohibition to include “touching” and by the Serpent’s casting a wider misunderstanding, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” It constructs a matrix of confusion and misunderstanding that allows for sin, an act in defiance of God’s will. In a way this story sets up a background for the desire of many things in human history. That desire, and you may take this erotically as well, will lead to both the higher sciences, and to depravity. Its complicated background will be used in Matthew’s account of the Temptation of Jesus.

Breaking open Genesis:

1.        How can knowledge be a temptation?
2.        What in contemporary life tempts you?
3.        Who is responsible for temptation?

Psalm 32 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
     Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
     While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
     For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
     Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
     I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
     Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
     You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
     "I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
10    Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you."
11    Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.
12    Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

The psalmist muses about the problem of sin. In a psalm of thanksgiving, there are elements of confession, forgiveness, and from the eighth verse on, wisdom. Happiness and blessedness are seen in transgressions that have been forgiven. The view we are given here is a broad spectrum that extends from commission to forgiveness and a life of thanksgiving. The verses on the effect of sin (3-4) are almost picturesque in their descriptions: the held tongue, the withered bones, the groaning, the heavy hand, the dried-up moisture. The reader can identify with the situation. At the fifth and sixth verses the situation changes to one of confession and candor. The latter part of the seventh verse makes reference to the deadly nature of “the waters”, a Hebrew reference to death. 

Verse 8 changes the point of view with a series of observations worthy of Wisdom Literature. The proverbs about how to perceive God, and how to live with God’s forgiveness are brief tidbits of remembrance about how to act and live and learn. All of this gives not only wisdom, but joy as well.

Breaking open Psalm 32:
  1. What does sin mean to you?
  2. Where do you see sin in your life?
  3. What do you do about that?

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19

As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.

You may want to read the first eleven verses of the Fifth Chapter of Romans so as to understand Paul’s leap from the forgiveness offered to sinners, to the history of sin, as it were, that encompasses our reading for today. Paul lifts up Adam and his sin, so that he can lift up another man, Jesus, and the redemption that comes from his suffering and death. In such a comparison, all are included – in Adam’s fall, and in the exaltation of Jesus. It is a simple lesson, that doesn’t require a great of commentary. The final verse says it all. “For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Where in your life are like Adam or Eve?
  2. Where in your life are you like Christ?
  3. What thoughts come to you in looking at this?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In the previous chapters Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus, especially seen in the stories about Moses. Like Israel, Jesus goes down into Egypt, like Moses he is threatened with death by the king, and again, like Israel he comes up out of Egypt. With this chapter Jesus faces a different threat – Satan. What we will see in this reading and in many that follow in Matthew is the power of Jesus’ word. I am reminded of the film The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s classic rendition of the story of Moses and the Exodus. In that film the pharaoh Seti I often utters, “So it is written, so it shall be done.” Now Jesus is the one with that suasion. Satan tempts him with bread, safety, and power – the stuff we are tempted with every day. Here, however, Jesus counters him with quotations from the Scriptures themselves – Deuteronomy. Jesus’ word is the same word that John lifts up in the prologue of his Gospel, the word that spoke creation into being, and the word that here dismisses the prince of this age. 

Breaking open Gospel:
1.     How do you give alms?
2.     What holy things do you do in secret?
3.     How have you been rewarded?

General Idea               Words

Example I:                   The words of Satan that tempt us (First Reading)

Example 2:                  The words of confession and the words of absolution (Psalm)

Example 3:                  The words of Jesus countering the words of Satan (Gospel)

Finally:                        The acts of Adam are redeemed by the acts of Jesus (Second Reading)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Pagels, E. (1988), Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 2575.


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