Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 – Matthew 4:1-11
It’s a small thing, but it’s also a huge thing. God says “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Shortly thereafter, Eve explains to the serpent, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
Did you catch the problem? God didn’t say anything about touching the tree! Why did Eve add to what God had said?
This bothered me, so I consulted the experts. Almost every Bible scholar whose work I consulted noted the discrepancy but didn’t explain it. One referenced a story in the Talmud which begins right after Eve says, “you shall not touch it” with the serpent shoving her into the tree to prove that she could indeed touch it without dying… in an attempt to convince her that she could eat the fruit, too.
OK, I get that interpretation, but it really didn’t solve anything for me. I kept thinking about how often in the Bible God says something that seems pretty clear, and humanity deliberately messes it up... or exaggerates it… or minimizes it.
Abraham and Sarah did this more than once. And in doing so, involved a servant girl, her son, and even Pharaoh in their scheming. Jacob and Laban seemed to want to outdo each other in cheating. And Aaron, when confronted by brother Moses, told his brother that the golden calf had just “appeared” from the fire. Those are just three examples in a book that is filled with God commanding and humanity messing it up.
And that brings us to our Gospel text today where Satan tempts Jesus by using Scripture as a weapon, trying to entice him to do things that Jesus knows are wrong. In spite of 40 days in wilderness, Jesus is strong, Jesus is smart, and Jesus is God! He doesn’t fall for using God’s Word in this way.
But sometimes we do fall for it. We hear an isolated verse here or there and expect that it means something particular. But Scripture is a lot more complicated than that. We call it the LIVING word because it isn’t just an old book of stories – it is a book for us now.
Let’s look at this in the context of something many of you have asked me about. Who is welcome at Communion. Historically, in the ELCA, we have practiced rather open communion with words like “those who are baptized and believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament may commune,” and recently, we have been in dialogue about whether baptism must precede Communion (the Bible doesn’t specify, but Martin Luther did as part of something called “good order.”). The most important Scripture for us in making these recommendations come from Jesus in Matthew 26: “Drink from it, all of you...” and the knowledge that even Judas was welcome at the Last Supper.
Meanwhile, in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, close communion is practiced. And that practice is driven by another passage of Scripture, from First Corinthians 11: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” In other words, the church restricts Communion participation because of a Biblical principle. This isn’t a case of they’re wrong and we’re right, it is a case of which Biblical principle is the priority. Again: it is not a case of us being right and them being wrong. I agree with the ELCA’s interpretation (which is good since I’m an ELCA pastor) but I can understand how the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod came to their understanding and practice. As long as our denomination and our beliefs are in sync, we’re good.
(And since I know some of you are now asking the same question regarding the Roman Catholic church, let me just say – as an aside -- that our differences with them over Communion participation have to do with: tradition, the understanding of which is meant by “real presence,” and historical writings called “canons,” and not about Scripture; we are in agreement with them about Scripture.)
In the second letter to Timothy, we read, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In other words, Scripture is useful for getting to know God better. Nowhere is listed there using Scripture as a weapon (like Satan did). Jesus was able to withstand Satan’s temptations because he knew God intimately. King David messed up royally on more than one occasion, but Scripture tells us in a couple of places that David longed to know the heart of God – not just the rules and regulations, but the very heart of God.
When Eve was in Eden talking with the serpent, she didn’t get God’s words right, and she barely knew God. It seems that the Israelites and the Pharisees had a similar problem. Knowing the rules, but not really knowing the heart of God.
Jesus tried to change that – not only in his face-off with Satan but in his conversations and his teaching. For example, the sabbath commandment is clear and strong, but he was just as clear in explaining that it doesn’t preclude you from saving your livestock if they need saving on the sabbath day. And it doesn’t mean that, if you’re hungry and on a journey, you’re not allowed to pick grain and eat it. And furthermore, it doesn’t mean that if someone needs an act of kindness, you are forbidden from doing it on the sabbath day. In other words, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
For most of us, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything we need to do as well as everything we want to do. Our to-do lists – if we even have time to make them – are long. And we usually don’t get to the things that we should do because we are so busy doing the things we have to do.
I am all about Lent as a time for us to be disciplined. Bible verse memorization and reading the Bible every day are really good things, but if you’re having particular difficulty doing them, I invite you to something different. I’m not telling you to ignore the Bible – I would never do that – but I am inviting you to use the Bible, use prayer, use the news, use music and art and dance and whatever works for you to help you get to know the heart of God. If you memorize some verses or enhance your prayer life or see the news differently or experience the arts more deeply in the process, that’s certainly not a bad thing.
If our goal is to withstand the slithering serpent of sin and the powers of evil so that our lives are better, fuller, more content, more filled with joy, then getting to know God as well as we possibly can seems a better plan than sitting with your Bible open for 15 minutes each day so you can check that off of your to-do list.
Eve missed it in the garden. Abraham and Sarah missed it as they waited for God. Aaron missed it with the calf of gold. Throughout history, many have missed it. And truthfully, we have missed it a few times, too. But as we journey with Jesus during this season of Lent, may we want nothing more and nothing less than getting to know the very heart of God. Amen