Last week, an editorial writer in the city of Milan, Italy complained that the public was not being encouraged strongly enough to take reasonable measures to stop the spread of the Coronavirus infections that have affected several hundred people in the city.
While I’m certain that there is more than can be done to instruct and encourage the public, I’m not certain that more instruction will have any real effect on the spread of infection. For weeks, the news media have been reporting that public health institutes are strongly encouraging people not to panic, not to hoard supplies, to wash their hands regularly, cover their coughs and sneezes, and to remain at home if they’re sick. Throughout the world, the public’s response has been to do precisely the opposite of the advice given by experts. There is growing panic globally, people are hoarding groceries and medical supplies, and sick people seem incapable of remaining indoors.
There is something broken in our human nature; we have an uncanny ability to make any situation worse. Today’s first reading provides a classic example of the dysfunction at the heart of human nature.
In this second of two biblical Creation myths, Adam and Even live in a paradise, surrounded by everything required for an enjoyable life. Sadly, they were not satisfied with the many blessings that God had given them; they wanted more.
God had given Adam and Eve knowledge of good, but they wanted knowledge of evil, as well. One can’t blame them. Every person wants answers to the questions of what evil is, where it comes from, and how it can coexist in the presence of a good and loving God. In their quest for knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve chose to do precisely the opposite of what God had commanded them to do. Adam and Eve gained new knowledge from their disobedience, but it wasn’t the knowledge they expected.
There is an answer to the question of why evil exists and how it can coexist in the presence of God, but it is not the fully satisfying answer that we want. It is, rather, the answer that Adam and Eve received. The only appropriate human response to the existence of evil in the world is not to add to it.
Sadly, Adam and Eve added to the evil in the world by being dissatisfied with God’s providence and by disdaining the limited nature of their own lives. Here, we see the religious truth this story communicates, namely, that the human condition is one in which all of us are tempted to be dissatisfied with God and ourselves. Such dissatisfaction, the story warns, always leads to sin.
The intent of the editors who adapted this pagan Persian myth for the Hebrew Scripture was to help God’s faithful to combat temptation by cherishing God’s gifts rather than falling into dissatisfaction with life. It is fully possible to resist temptation. Today’s Gospel reading provides both an example of resistance to temptation and instructions about how to imitate the example.
Immediately after his baptism by John at the Jordan, Jesus went into the desert to spend time in solitary prayer. The Gospel tells us that he was tempted three times by the devil, but that he resisted the devil’s temptations. By resisting temptation, Jesus avoided adding to the evil in the world. Instead of being dissatisfied with his life and vocation, Jesus took strength from his trust in God. By resisting temptation and avoiding sin, Jesus demonstrated his faithfulness to God and gave us an example to follow.
We, too, can resist temptation. Jesus said, “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) It is possible for us to resist temptation when we imitate Jesus by being satisfied with the many blessings God has already given to us.
Jesus said, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Mt. 4:7) It is possible for us to resist temptation if we are willing to trust God’s wisdom rather than to trust in our own riches and strength.
Jesus said, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” (Mt 4:10) It is possible for us to resist temptation by following God’s will rather than our own disordered desires.
Adam and Eve rejected God’s offer of a blessed and enjoyable life because they wanted more than God was offering. In a literal sense, they made a deal with the devil because they thought they could improve on God’s will. Biblical fundamentalists read this creation story as if it is historical narrative; in doing so, they fail to see the meaning intended by the editors. The story intends to teach the simple lesson that dissatisfaction with one’s life leads to dissatisfaction with God’s will and dissatisfaction with God’s will equates to sin.
History is littered with ill-fated attempts to improve on God’s plan for human life. Such attempts to second-guess God do nothing except add to the evil in the world. God wants us to find joy in following God’s will. Real and lasting joy is fully possible in this life, but only to those who resist temptation and refuse to add to the evil in the world.