Remaining human – Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11 – Living by the Word – Column

Barbara Brown Taylor

Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

IN MANY CHURCHES, Lent begins with a sooty forehead, as believers kneel for the Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. it is not meant to depress or frighten us, but simply to remind us who we are: human beings, mortals, not God.

It is also a dramatic way of talking us back to our beginnings–not only to that little pile of dust in the garden of Eden where our story began, but also to that Big Mistake made by the mother and father of us all before they had really gotten the hang of being human. God said, “Don’t eat the fruit”; they ate the fruit, and the rest is history.

They might have been immortal. They might have stayed in the garden forever, but no. Their curiosity got the best of them. God gave them a test and they flunked. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That is the sentence God pronounced on them that day, and we have inherited it from them, along with their curiosity and a few other things.

But Adam and Eve are not our only ancestors. There is someone else who has claimed us as his kin, and we hear his story today too–how the Spirit led him not into a garden but into a wilderness, where he too was tested, only he passed. His test was harder, if you ask me. There was nothing as clear-cut as a tree to stay away from, and no specific instructions from God about what or what not to do, yet somehow he managed to say no to three tantalizing possibilities and came out of the desert the same person he had gone it, the beloved Son of God.

Tradition has tended to blame Eve for the first story, as her husband did, but Paul never mentions her. The point is, God drew a line in the garden of Eden and said, “Human beings on this side, God on this side. Tree of life on your side, tree of the knowledge of good and evil on my side. Stay on your own side of the line if you know what’s good for you.”

Only that was not enough for the first human couple. God had given them brains to think with and a serpent to think things over with. They could see that the tree was good for food and a delight to the eyes. The serpent suggested that God had only forbidden it because he did not want them to be as smart as he was. So they decided to trust their own logic over God’s command, and the next thing they knew they were looking for a new place to live.

The second story has a different ending. It starts out very scary, with Jesus and the devil engaged in a verbal duel and the devil quoting scripture like a preacher. (Let that be a lesson to all of us: just because someone knows the Bible “chapter and verse” does not mean that person is up to any good.) It was Jesus’ loyalty that was at stake. Would he remain faithful to God or be seduced by the devil’s interesting suggestions?

There was a line drawn in this story as clearly as there was in the first one. Jesus could play God or he could remain human. He could go buzzing around in the air turning the desert into a gourmet bakery or he could keep his feet on the ground and live with the ache in the pit of his stomach, as hungry and tired as anyone would be after a six-week fast. Three times he was tempted and three times he said no. He refused to cross over the line God had drawn. For the time being, the devil was defeated. These days we seem to believe that crossing over the line is about doing things that make us less than admirable human beings. Lent comes along and we give up things that are bad for us or take on things that are good for us, as if the most serious temptations in life were to drink too much scotch or eat too much fat or stay in bed on Sunday morning. But I do not think that is what these stories are about. I do not think they are about the temptation not to be a good human being. I think they are about the temptation not to be a human being at all.

As far as I can tell, what Adam and Jesus are both tempted by is the chance to play God. In Adam’s case, it was the chance to break out of his dependence on God and know both good and evil for himself. In Jesus’ case, it was the chance to feed every hunger, to be superman, to control all the kingdoms of the earth. God never offers those things, incidentally–Satan is the only one who offers them, with a thousand strings attached.

But whereas Adam stepped over the line and found humanity a curse, Jesus stayed behind the line and made humanity a blessing. One man trespassed; one man stayed put. One tried to be God; one was content to remain a human being. And the irony is that the one who tried to be God did not do too well as a human being, while the one who was content to be human became known as the Son of God.

They are both alive and well in us. You can feel them both tugging at you most days of your life, but if Adam’s story is our story, then Jesus’ story is ours as well. We have both sets of genes in us. We are kin to both of them. And when the Adam in us is powerfully tempted to play God, the Jesus in us is more powerfully able to remain human, offering to keep us company on our own side of the line and showing us that the way to discover our Godlikeness is not to curse our humanity but to bless it, and to enter into it as fully as we dare–living a human-sized life this side of Eden, where the Lord who made us from the dust of the earth offers to breathe life into us again and again.

The author is Barbara Brown Taylor, rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. Her most recent book is Gospel Medicine (Cowley).

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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