In our first reading for Sunday (Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7), we hear the account of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. When the serpent asks Eve, “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Eve replies, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’” Then the serpent says, “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.”
The serpent was right that Adam and Eve did not die on the spot when they ate of the fruit. But their sin, as St. Paul writes in our second reading (Romans 5:12-19), did lead to death. In the book of Genesis, after God realizes that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit forbidden to them, God casts them out of the garden, and prevents them from eating of the tree of life, so that they could not live forever (Genesis 3:21-24).
As I have reflected on this, I see how knowing what is good and what is evil has led to the death of many in other ways. Instead of trying to discern what is good and what is evil in certain situations, we human beings have often fallen into the temptation to play God, and have decided to take it upon ourselves to decide who is good and who is evil, and have felt justified in taking the life of others.
In our Gospel reading (Matthew 4:1-11), we are told that Jesus is led into the desert to be tempted by the devil. As was the case with Adam and Eve, the devil tempts Jesus to play God, but not God as God is, but God as according to a twisted notion of what it is to be God. This twisted notion of God has to do with a worldly understanding of what to do with power. Worldly wisdom says to use power to force others to your will and thus benefit yourself.
So, since Jesus is hungry after fasting for forty days and forty nights, the devil tempts Jesus to turn the stones into bread – bending nature to His will. Then the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple, and tells Him to throw Himself down, knowing that the Father will rescue Him – bending the Father to His will. Then the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain overlooking all the nations of the world, and promises Him dominion over it all, if only He would prostrate Himself before him – bending others to His will.
Thank God that Jesus resisted these temptations! Instead of forcing us to do His will, Jesus offered Himself up for our salvation! Again, from our second reading: “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned…But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.”
How much does the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ overflow for us! If we get in touch with that, we can just be grateful. We can let go of trying to play God, and instead try to please God, lifting each other up instead of hoping to bend others to our will.
May we let God be God. May we open ourselves to God’s love, and may we share God’s love with all.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.