Knowing good and evil

5 March 2017
First Sunday in Lent
Lent 1A (RCL)
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

In the reading from the Old Testament, we leave out several verses. Those are the verses where the Lord God decides it is not good for the human being to be alone, and creates all the animals, and finally the woman. I have always believed that the story of the temptation in the garden can be read as a coming-of-age story. When we are young, we do not know good from evil, and life is wonderful. When we reach maturity, and sexuality has something to do with that, we can begin to make moral distinctions, and life gets harder. That the man blames the woman, and that they recognize their nakedness reinforces, to my mind, that this can be read as a coming-of-age story.

But, of course, it is more than that. The serpent tempts the human beings “to be like God, knowing good from evil.” Our human knowledge of good and evil is always mediated, messy and incomplete. We can only decide between good and evil on the basis of the norms of human community. We have no absolute grasp of good and evil. Whenever we have claimed to have that absolute knowledge, catastrophe has ensued. The claim of absolute knowledge of good and evil is the foundation of every totalitarianism, and in fact might be the definition of totalitarianism. Death always ensues, and not just the death of individuals, but death meted out as punishment by the sin of hubris.

Jesus faces exactly this temptation in the wilderness. In their own wilderness wandering, Israel faced temptation and grumbled at God. The grumbled about food — would that he had stayed in Egypt with its flesh pots, its onions and cucumbers. God provided food for them until they were sick of it (meat coming out their noses). The grumbled about safety, and God fought for them, and they saw their enemies washed up on the shore. They disbelieved God’s call and failed to go to the fight against their enemies, and then when they did without God’s approval, they were soundly beaten. In each of these same three temptations, Jesus relies on God.

The Roman Empire likewise promised bread (and circuses), security (the motto, almost, of the Empire was “peace and security”) and sovereignty (through terror). It would be easy for an oppressed people to fault God for the lack of these things in the context of an Empire that provided them to others. Satan appears to offer Jesus a short cut to achieving the reversal of the oppression of Empire. Jesus declines and relies instead on God’s wisdom.

I believe we are tempted all the time to “be like God, knowing good from evil.” I hear it in the current political rhetoric. There is no humility, which is seen as weakness. We know what is right, and we are going to enforce it. However, if our knowledge of good and evil is always mediated to us by our human community, we need to take into account the weaknesses of that community. That seems to be Paul’s point in Romans; God chose Israel to correct what went wrong in Adam, but Israel succumbed to the same temptation — to be like God.

If anyone could have ever made that claim with some truth, it was Jesus. Even on the cross, the crowd taunted him, “If you are the son of God, come down from the cross.” Even God will not behave the way we expect God to behave, enforcing an absolute understanding of good and evil. Even God accepts the humility enforced by death. To be God-like is to accept the absolute reality of the other, rather than to force the other to conform to an absolute ethical standard. God is God; we are not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *