Jesus used simple images in his preaching. He spoke about things like sheep, shepherds, crops and farmers, but he didn’t intend to offer instruction about those topics. When Jesus told the parable about the wheat and the weeds, he was not intending to teach his disciples about farming. When he told the parable about the one sheep who wandered away from the ninety-nine, he was not intending to teach his disciples about animal husbandry. His parables were metaphoric comparisons intended to help people understand very nuanced truths about the Kingdom of God. The practice of using parables to teach about faithful religion did not begin with Jesus. Rather, it was a common practice in Hebrew religion, and remains so today.
Our first reading this Sunday is taken from the Book of Genesis. The first and second chapters of Genesis purport to be stories about the creation of the world. One of the many problems entailed in looking at these stories as literal truth or historical narrative is that they disagree with one another. If one affirms that the Bible is literally and historically accurate, one has to choose between the first and second chapter of Genesis. As they disagree with one another on significant facts, only one account can be accurate; the other must be inaccurate. However, making the judgement about which is true and which is false immediately falsifies the basic premise that the Bible is literally and historically accurate.
Fortunately, there is a much better way to interpret the Scriptures. These two chapters of Genesis were not intended by their authors and editors to be read literally. Just as in the preaching of Jesus, these two chapters are parables. They derive from two different traditions of spirituality in Hebrew religion, but they address the same topic, namely, how to practice Hebrew religion faithfully. The fact that they are parables in no way diminishes the truth they contain.
When Jesus told parables he always included keyword references in order to help people understand them; in doing so, he was imitating the Hebrew Scriptures which provided interpretative keywords to help readers. In today’s first reading the keywords that interpret the parable are “eat,” “tree” and “serpent.” When Jews, even today, read this story they hear the references to food, a tree and a serpent, and think immediately of the faithlessness of the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert.
“From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to bypass the land of Edom, but the people’s patience was worn out by the journey; so the people complained against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!’ So the Lord sent among the people seraph serpents, which bit the people so that many of the Israelites died. Then the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord to take the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses: Make a seraph and mount it on a pole, and everyone who has been bitten will look at it and recover. Accordingly Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever the serpent bit someone, the person looked at the bronze serpent and recovered.” (Numbers 21:4-9)
Christians, too, should be very familiar with these references in the second chapter of Genesis. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) The serpent was a visible reminder to the Israelites of their sin of faithlessness; it was God’s call for them to repent. The tree branch on which it was lifted up was God’s offer of forgiveness.
In the parable, Adam and Eve were given a simple and uncomplicated relationship with God. God gave Adam and Eve one commandment to fulfill, and full run of the garden of Eden as long as they were faithful to God’s command. Their faithlessness ended their primordial innocence and the intimate relationship they had with God. The Scripture offers a metaphorical description of the shame that results from broken relationships, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7)
A great deal is made today about guilt and shame. Catholic neo-conservatives value shame as a means to induce people to perform certain behaviors, such as frequent participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Catholic progressives, on the other hand, see the experiences of guilt and shame as too tied to manipulative behavior and an image of God as stern and judgmental. While guilt and shame are real experiences that have significance both psychologically and spiritually, they can also be viewed as metaphors, parables of a sort.
Shame arises from many sources. Sometimes shame is the result of having done something destructive, such as actual sin. Sometimes shame is the result of a completely subjective experience, such as embarrassment. We tend to shy away from shame because it is uncomfortable, but in doing so we deprive ourselves of the possible benefits of shame. One of those possible benefits results from seeing shame as a parable about human nature.
The estrangement that we feel when we offend someone is a reflection of the estrangement from self that all of us feel all of the time. The shame we feel when we sin is a reflection of the lamentable situation in which all people live all of the time. There is an incompleteness and a brokenness that lies at the heart of our human nature. We long for a simple and uncomplicated relationship with God, but we live in a perpetual state of estrangement from God simply because our lives are finite and unfinished.
There are countless strategies for “dealing with” shame. Some people confess their sins on a weekly basis. Some refuse to acknowledge culpability for their wrongdoing. Some medicate themselves in order not to feel their shame. I wonder if we would be better off living with shame rather than trying to diminish it. Perhaps we’d be much more comfortable with our humanity if we saw our shame as a parable about estrangement. Rather than a painful experience from which we wish to escape, perhaps shame is an invitation to look beyond the surface of life, to see that we are made for communion with the eternal. St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and we are restless until we rest in you.”
Lent invites us to repent of our sins. Sometimes we feel shame for the wrong we’ve done, and sometimes we don’t. Guilt and shame are not completely reliable indications of sin, but they are always instructive parables about life. If you read your life’s story as a parable about God, what conclusions would you draw? If you interpret the parable accurately, you will find a question that only God can answer and a desire that only God can fulfill.