God's grace extended to all

  • February 4, 2008

First Sunday of Lent (Year A) Feb. 10 (Genesis 2:7-9, 16-18, 25; 3:1-7; Psalm 51; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11)

The Garden of Eden story has inspired centuries of interpretation and reflection. Unfortunately, not all of the interpretations have been helpful, for they have generated several ideas of very questionable theological value. Among them is the persistent idea that women are the weaker gender and the source of temptation. It has been called into service to paint humanity as totally depraved and sinful and to consign unbaptized babies to a non-existent limbo. Most of these interpretations burden the story far beyond its original purpose and they were often forged in the heat of theological conflicts.

In fact, it is the second account of creation — a different tradition than we find in the first chapter of Genesis. This author or tradition was a good storyteller, and his narrative is found in many other places in the Old Testament. He is noted for his portrayal of God in human form. The story is not a scientific treatise on human origins. Rather, it is a theological reflection on an age-old question: If God is good, and humans were created good, then why do we have suffering and evil in the world? Not a bad question and it is more than enough to occupy theologians and philosophers until the end of time.

The theological truth, on the other hand, is crystal clear: humans and humans alone are responsible. Knowing good and evil was the prerogative of God — it was another way of expressing omniscience. Adam and Eve are collective symbols for humanity. Within the story, as long as they remained in a state of harmony and dependence on God, all was well. It was when they decided to “play god” — make their own way and take their own decisions — that disaster overtook them. The actual sin was fear — fear of powerlessness, lack and separation — and ironically that is what resulted. Their consciousness of their nakedness was shame and fear of punishment, and at this point they are acutely aware of their distance between themselves and God.

The same applies to us: when we live God’s way, things go reasonably well. When we cut corners, look for the easy way or play God, we pull everything down on ourselves. And yet we keep doing just that. Original sin is not inherited guilt, but an unwillingness or inability to learn from our mistakes and our insistence on passing our dreary and painful burden on to the next generation.

Paul uses the Adam symbol for generic humanity a couple of times in his writing. By saying that we all share in Adam’s sin and in his death, he highlights the universal and pervasive nature of both sin and death. No one is immune, no one is innocent. But there is another force, a new Adam, who trumps this negative symbol: Jesus Christ. The power of His redemptive mission is also universal and far exceeds the collective negativity of Adam. God’s grace will always be one step ahead of us.

The whole nature of sin is brought home in the duel between Satan and Jesus. Every one of the Tempter’s alluring invitations is designed to instill fear and mistrust in the heart and mind of Jesus. Satan plays all the human fears like a maestro on a violin: human hunger and survival, the desire to be loved and the fear that one is not, and the fear of powerlessness and insignificance. It is interesting that all of the responses of Jesus are from the Book of Deuteronomy. The theology of Deuteronomy was one of absolute loyalty and fidelity to God and a steadfast avoidance of even the hint of idolatry. So many others failed when confronted with these satanic trials and tests but Jesus had to get it right — and He did.

At the beginning of Lent, perhaps we can reflect on both our own personal sin and that of the world around us. The Eden story and Paul’s reflection should remind us that no one is on firm ground when they claim a smug moral or spiritual superiority over others. We deceive ourselves when we overlook our infidelities, compromises and selfishness. All have fallen short of the glory of God; all have sinned; but God’s grace is extended to all. Loyalty and commitment would not be a bad way of showing our gratitude.