1st Sunday of Lent A
Do you think the serpent would have convinced you to eat the forbidden fruit? I certainly think the serpent would have gotten me. The brilliance of the story is how, in such a simple fashion, the seducer’s temptation covers all our weaknesses and exposes our vulnerability to sin. The serpent misses not a trick in the fall of Adam and Eve. It is the root of all temptation. Their failing is called “Original Sin” because all of our sins resemble theirs.
The very first strategy of the serpent is the most reliable. He lies. “”Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Of course only the two trees in the middle of the garden were forbidden. Lies are inherent in sin because truth so closely belongs to God. Eve to her credit rejects the notion but now she is intrigued. Curiosity allows the conversation to continue. Where is the serpent going with all this? The lie has not warned her. She allows him to continue having pointed out “it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.'” She is fully engaged now with one who introduced himself with a lie. The serpent replies, “You certainly will not die! [Strangely true as it turns out.] No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.”
Now this sets the temptation in a new direction. The woman is interested in obtaining this knowledge of good and evil. Now, having lived in paradise she did know things and all of them were good and beautiful, God’s original, untainted and perfect creation. If her desire is to know good from evil, then she must really want to know what is evil for she has been taught and given nothing but the good. There is an extremely primitive attraction to the darker aspects of our nature. We may know what is good but we are excited by what is evil.
She is also jealous of God. She the creature wants everything God has including knowing right from wrong. She, and we, are unwilling to accept limitations, any reminder that we cannot have everything we want. That we are indeed, not God ourselves. Her determination to pursue this ideal of evil only succeeds in bringing shame to the world.
Perhaps she fell victim to mimetic desire – that idea that we are attracted to what someone else possesses precisely because someone else possesses it. The French philosopher and literary critic Rene Girard claims this mimetic desire is the source of all violence. If I laid out five fruits before you, but warned you not to eat or even think about the middle one, what would you do? You would become obsessed with it; why is it different? Why can’t I have it? It is when we battle with our limits that violence necessarily ensues.
Finally, the woman must deal with sensuality. There is a difference between sensuality and aesthetic appreciation. In the latter we admire beauty for its beauty. But with sensuality, not only do we recognize the attractiveness of something, but we must possess it. That is why people make a living by taking pictures of food! When you see that close up of that savory desert, what do you say, but “I have to have it.” Therefore, when we read, “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom,” we know that she will inevitably eat it. She must possess it.
That is the complex seduction of Eve so that she might bite of the forbidden fruit. For Adam it goes, “You have fruit. I want fruit. I eat fruit.” Ah, men. Perhaps he had also heard the temptation of the serpent, perhaps not. But there is another dynamic in play that cannot be denied. He will not allow his partner to have power that he does not. Our lust for power is far stronger than our desire to obey. The fear of vulnerability to someone who has what we do not overcomes our discipline.
So what does this mean for all of us? Are we as powerless as our first ancestors to resist temptation? Fortunately, Jesus shows us another way when facing the same dilemmas in the dessert. One of my favorite lines in the Gospel is that after explaining that Jesus had fasted for 40 days, “he was hungry.” So the first temptation aligns with his greatest weakness. Satan challenges the starving Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Give in to your sensuality, your desire to feed your stomach more than your spirit. But Jesus rejects him. Next Satan tempts Jesus to show off his invulnerability by falling off the Temple where he would be caught by angels. But his ministry is cloaked in the flesh of vulnerability. Finally, Satan tempts with power over all the kingdoms of the earth, but Jesus knows that evil, bowing even just once to Satan, destroys all good. He will not give into sensuality, lust for power, desire to possess what others hold dear, intrigue, curiosity or lies. He will not use the power of God to satisfy his own needs. The only power he will use is for others. Within his humanity, he had enough.
Jesus is letting us know that within our humanity, we have enough as well. We need not succumb to the pressure to have more than we have been given, to choose a darker life in the name of something different or to become what God did not make us to be. We are enough. We are just what we are supposed to be. Anything offered beyond our natural capacity; anyone who make us feel unworthy; anything that adds to power for power’s sake or responds in jealousy to another is not from God. It is therefore not love. Lord, give us the grace to resist temptation. Lord, give us the peace of responding only in love.