Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings: The compilers of our lectionary want to draw a comparison between our reading from Genesis (2:7-9, 3:1-7) and our gospel from Matthew (4:1-11). Clearly they are both about temptation, but that is by far the end of the matter.
We have to remember that the first part of our Genesis reading is in fact part of the older account of creation which places man at the start of God’s creative work preceding the plants and animals. It probably predates by some 300 years the account we know so well; that of the temple priests with its well ordered list of creation creature by creature and ending with man. Our writers of Gen 3 were exploring the nature of humanity, with our extraordinary capacity for choice and free will; our terrifying openness to goodness and innocence and for doing evil and harming the created order and finally, in the section where man and woman ‘know they are naked’; our dawning ability for self-awareness, in which knowledge of our responsibility is explored. Indeed, we could claim that much of the Old Testament story of sinful but redeemed Israel hinges precisely on this story of the Fall and the human response to it.
The Temptations of Jesus follow a similar pattern. He is tempted by three things; the need to assuage his hunger and how to avoid it by supernatural action; the threat of pain and suffering and how to defy gravity and escape the possibility of actions which lead to pain, and finally by the temptation to absolute power. These are in fact all things which will make or break his common humanity, his being one of us, one with us, part of the creation explored in our Genesis package. They are also of course at the heart of every temptation affecting every human being, you, me and all the rest. They affect our attitudes to the world; our jobs; anxieties; irritation with others and our inclinations to control others too. They are at the root of all human sin.
By giving us the story of Jesus’ temptations Matthew was unequivocally asserting Jesus’ absolute reality, his complete humanity, his solidarity with all of us. His linking it all to the 40 days fast links it to Israel’s story too, with their 40 year exodus to the Promised Land under Moses, a period of testing, sin and redemption. At the heart of all these readings is the need for humanity’s absolute affirmation of the immense divide between us and God ,and the problem of our refusal to let God be God and not try to play God ourselves. “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone”. It is a dilemma Jesus coped with properly, as his humanity never got in the way of his godliness, and as he fully accepted the human state into which he was born. It is one we all too often fail as we grab at what was never meant to be in the first place, grabbing at power we never had, and attempting to be what we cannot be.
St Paul’s great Letter to the Romans, (5:12-19), was written for a mixed community of Jewish and pagan converts to Christianity. Clearly at the time some Jewish Christians were trying to enforce circumcision and the Jewish law on converts from paganism. Paul addressed the whole question of human sin and, by referring to the Genesis account of the Fall, made clear that sin and its consequences predate the Jewish law and that it is irrelevant both to sin and salvation. The law, as he points out elsewhere in the letter, merely illuminates sin; it cannot solve its problems. Paul realised the enormity of the problem of human free will and the sin which could so easily be a part of it in minds conformed to human desire. He explores it in his own person in chapters 7+8 of this letter. For him there is simply no way out of the human dilemma of sin and evil without resort to Christ.
Human sinfulness; our propensity to choose the way which so often seems best, but is fraught with bad consequences appears endemic and absolutely appalling, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses”. What he has accepted is that we cannot solve the problem, it and its consequences are simply too great. Yet there is a solution, a divinely gifted one, Jesus who is able and completely willing to set aside all human fault and folly in his completely unselfish gift of himself to us which wipes the slate clean, ‘acquitting’ us as Paul puts it.
But this too is not enough, it is not simply that God, acting in the Son is a frightfully good barrister able to get us off the hook. For we are intended for something much greater, infinitely better. “If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous”. It is Paul’s stunning realisation that every human being really is made in God’s image and intended to reign with him in glory, reigning as a son of God, becoming divine, that makes the difference. Simply forgiving us our faults, and sending us back out there to carry on, was never God’s plan. His intention from the start, as we see in the ancient Exodus story was that we should become divine; fit in Paul’s phrase to “Reign in life”. Paul realises that humanity’s sad state of continuously repeated deaths is unsatisfactory (God’s ‘failure’ of his project as it were) and he knows that God has a better plan for us all; that we share God’s life. In this life we will finally understand, as Jesus truly did, that the nature of God, what God actually is, is openness, self-giving, total generosity, sharing which knows no bounds and brooks no obstacle. It is the “Gift itself (which) considerably outweighed the fall….the abundant free gift.” It is one man’s free gift of himself that we are meant to ponder this Lent. As a great poet once put it:
As the Fall hath calcined thee to dust, His life may make thee gold and much more just.
We have been marked for life.