The Forbidden Fruit

First Sunday of Lent. Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Ps 51:3-6,12-13,17; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11

Today is the First Sunday of Lent, the period of the Christian year especially devoted to the battle against sin. Sin, the ultimate source of all human suffering, is any thought, word, deed or omission contrary to God’s will. However, the choice of sin is never presented to us merely as rebellion. Sin is always presented to us as an apparent good, but achieved in a way that necessarily violates God's will for us. This presentation of an evil choice under the guise of good is what we call temptation, and today's First Reading and Gospel relate the two most famous temptations in the Bible. The First Reading relates the temptation and defeat of Adam and Eve in the garden of paradise, the Garden of Eden; the Gospel relates the temptation and victory of Jesus Christ in the desert. It is the meaning and contrast of these two temptations that I want to speak about briefly this morning.

When comparing the temptation in the garden to the temptation in the desert, one of the first striking parallels is that both involve food. In the garden, the temptation is to eat the fruit from a forbidden tree; in the desert, the first temptation offered to Christ is to turn stones into bread. In neither case, however, do those subject to these temptations suffer from gluttony. So what kind of sin is being offered? Well, in the case of Genesis we are not given many details except for the mysterious name of the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” We are also told the words of the serpent, words that suggest that the fruit of the tree had a special property, “the moment you eat of it ... you will know what is good and what is evil”. Taken at face value, these words imply that the fruit of the tree imparted knowledge, that it would be desirable for gaining wisdom. However, it is always important to remember that the devil is a liar; even when he says true things it is always in order to deceive us. A moment's consideration shows that the tree cannot have given any new knowledge that Adam and Eve did not already have. After all, they already knew the natural law just by knowing what is naturally good for human beings, and they already knew that they should not eat the fruit because God had told them. So they already had knowledge of good and evil in every important way relating to their lives. It is true that Scripture states that, after they ate the fruit, they knew that they were naked. Nevertheless, the only sense in which this was new knowledge was because their spiritual state had changed. Nakedness only became evil with the shame, the sudden open-eyed horror of the loss of grace.

So here we are presented with a mystery. Since Adam and Eve already had a perfect knowledge of what is good and what is evil, and since they gained no actual knowledge from eating the fruit, what was the temptation? The answer, I think, is not an increase in what they knew but how they knew it. The essential issue is that, apart from the natural law, God had given Adam and Eve one, unique command without a reason. The only reason for them to keep this command was their love of God and consequent obedience to God. The temptation they faced was to disobey this command and to find out for themselves whether eating the fruit was evil, making themselves their own 'gods' and breaking their relationship with their heavenly Father. This spirit of the Fall is expressed in the lyrics of a popular twentieth century song, “I did it my way,” but the deadly name of this sin, which is the root of all sins, is the sin of pride.

With this background, the contrast with the temptation of Christ becomes clearer. Jesus Christ is also faced with a temptation, not so much towards the immediate satisfaction of his hunger by turning stones into bread, but to become a Messiah in the worldly sense by miraculously feeding the poor. In the twentieth century, this was the rallying cry of the false gospel of Marxism, the claim that whatever immoral acts they did at least they would feed the poor. The terrible truth, however, was that Communism, which explicitly rejects God, also developed, as its peculiar hallmark, the terror of mass starvation. This is why Jesus, in responding to the devil in today's Gospel, puts God first, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” If we obey God, who is not, after all, a tyrant but our loving heavenly Father, then we shall live, not only in this life but in eternity.

So in these readings the disobedience of Adam and Eve is contrasted with the obedience of Jesus Christ, the former bringing death and the latter bringing an even greater gift of life. But there is, in addition, one more small practical lesson that may be of help to us at the beginning of Lent. Notice how the defeat of Adam and Eve took place in a garden, a paradise where they lacked nothing and did not suffer. By contrast, the victory of Christ took place after a very long fast and in a desert, which lacked almost everything necessary to sustain life. There is a simple but profound lesson for us here in our daily battle with sin. The simple act of denying ourselves luxuries and even, at times, necessities such as food, makes us spiritually stronger when combined with prayer. So if we have made some Lenten commitments to a certain amount of fasting and abstinence, may God keep us faithful to these commitments and give us victory over sin.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 10th February 2008

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