Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time B
I had a classmate in the seminary from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana…and you knew it from the moment Bryce first opened his mouth. He was the reader at morning Mass one day, and the first reading was the one from Genesis that was read today. But instead of God asking Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” as we’d expected, we heard, “Who told you yous was nekkid?” We knew that Bryce’s grammar was much better than that, so we asked for an explanation on the way to breakfast. “Oh, you northerners!” he said. “Don’t you know that there’s a difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid’? When you’re naked, you don’t have any clothes on, but when you’re nekkid, you don’t have any clothes on, and yous up to sumptin’.”
That unfortunate incident with the apple in Eden set into motion some very longstanding patterns in the world—and more than just putting clothes on every morning. The original sin was the start of the blame game. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. (The serpent—very interestingly—doesn’t blame anybody.) Yet a closer reading reveals that Adam blamed someone else before blaming Eve: “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me the fruit…” The old catchphrase is, “the devil made me do it,” but from day one we’ve been laying the blame on God.
What’s happening here is more than a simple attempt to convince the Lord that “really, it’s not my fault!” The temptation to disobey God actually flows from the temptation to doubt him.
God hasn’t given our first parents some arbitrary rule about produce. The forbidden fruit is taken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We can think, “What’s so bad about human beings knowing right from wrong?” The actual nature of this tree doesn’t translate well into English, for it’s not about recognizingright and wrong but about determining for oneselfwhat’s right and wrong. Hence the serpent’s enticement: “You know, God has only forbidden you to eat from that tree to protect himself. If you eat it, you’ll be just like him—making your own rules. He’s holding out on you. He doesn’t really have your best intentions at heart…” The serpent manages to make something evil look good in order to make God look bad. And it’s an effective trick he still hasn’t tired of using all these centuries later.
Notice what Adam and Eve do right off the bat: they hide and sew fig leaves together to clothe themselves. This is more than shame at their “nekkidness.” Their doubt of God’s good will runs so deep that they now feel the need to protect themselves from him. That’s why it’s significant to note what this unhappy couple does notsay to the Lord: that they’re sorry. They never ask for forgiveness! Fearful and ashamed, they persist in their doubts about God: doubting that God is merciful; doubting that’s God’s love for them is bigger than their sin.
We find a parallel pattern in this Sunday’s gospel. The established religious leaders are feeling threatened by this traveling preacher, healer, and exorcist. Proper order must be maintained for the good of the people. “We haven’t authorized this Jesus to say or do these things. Clearly he’s mad—no, wait—he’s possessed!” It’s absurd to claim that Satan is fighting against Satan, but that’s their argument. “Of course, we would never be in league with the evil one, so Jesus must be.” They are so certain that they’re right, so proud and self-righteous, that they cannot see their error, even with the truth laid out clearly before them.
And so we have before us two ways to cut ourselves off from the power of the Holy Spirit, from the reach of God’s forgiveness—to commit what Jesus warns is “an everlasting sin”: on the one hand, to believe, “I’m too far gone; God could never forgive me” (doubt and despair); on the other hand, to believe, “I’m that good that I don’t need any forgiving” (self-righteousness and pride). Neither perspective is able to accept a Savior, and so neither can be saved. God won’t ever force himself on us. We can only be forgiven if we’re open to it.
The pattern of doubt goes even farther than the bad things that we do, that have a human cause and for which someone (maybe even oneself) is to blame—what we call “moral evil.” It also extends to the bad things we must endure—things known as “natural evil”—such as disease and natural disasters. Whether it’s the common cold or cancer, that we’re stuck in a traffic jam or just lost our home in a tornado, we find ourselves asking, “Why doesn’t God stop picking on me? Why is God punishing me?” Even our insurance companies refer to such incidents as “acts of God”! Doubting God’s good intentions slides into discouragement, or even into outright rejection of him.
At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves in these situations. “If you’re so good, God, then why did you make us this way? If you’re so good, God, then why did you make the world this way?” They’re questions that arise from the seeds of doubt sown way back when by the serpent.
This is the point where you’re thinking, “Now Fr. Joe is going to answer those questions and clear everything up.” Sorry—but no answers here. In fact, no one has the answers to the mystery of evil. And really, who are we—mere mortals—to question our Maker and his inscrutable plan?
No, I don’t have the answers, but I do have two examples to which we ought to look for inspiration.
The first is St. Paul. In our second reading today, he writes, “While on the outside we may be wasting away, on the inside we’re being renewed every day. We can accept this momentary light affliction because it will produce an eternal weight of glory.” But when we’re stuck in sin, when we’re deeply suffering, such words can seem to be little more than pious platitudes.
That’s until we read these words in context. They come to us from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Corinth was the Las Vegas of its day—Greece’s “sin city.” Paul was justifiably worried that what happened in Corinth wouldn’t stay in Corinth. So he called out the Christians there for participating in the culture’s wickedness. And, as you might expect, the Corinthians didn’t take it very well. So they launched a counter attack against Paul: “Just who do you think you are?” And their greatest argument against his credibility was just how very much he suffers. “Your life’s a mess, Paul. You keep getting sick. We’ve lost count of the times you’ve been arrested and jailed. You’ve been beaten, stoned, and left for dead. You’re a disaster! What kind of man of God goes through all that? The Lord certainly must not love you very much!”
St. Paul responds by telling the Corinthians that they’ve got it all wrong. All this suffering doesn’t call his credentials into questions; all this suffering ishis credentials. His suffering is evidence that he serves Jesus who suffered himself. Rather than making excuses, or demanding an explanation, he invites them to examine the evidence in his own life.
Paul isn’t preaching a God who is separate from us, high above this messy, painful world, watching and waiting to catch us doing wrong. (Gotcha!) That’s the kind of God the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to fear. No, Paul believes in a God who desires to walk right along side of us. That’s precisely what God comes to do when he finds Adam and Eve in hiding: he’s out for his evening stroll with them in the garden. God wants to walk with us, to carry our burdens, to carry us. In Christ, God identified with us in our sin and our suffering so completely that he willingly endured the shame and anguished death of the Cross. And just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he can also lift us up from our despair and discouragement…but only if we allow God to, and to do it on histerms.
Paul knows this from firsthand experience. That’s why later in this same letter he can say that he actually boasts of his weakness, because when he’s weak it makes it clear that God is strong (2:9-10). Yes, Paul admits, life is hard—terribly hard sometimes—and we must take responsibility for our part in that. No one promised that it would be easy. No one gets through without suffering—no one. But there’s more—much more—than meets the eye. As difficult as things can be, as much as we struggle to understand, we do not face any of it alone.
A second example of one who broke the pattern set in motion in Eden is the woman we find waiting outside the door at the conclusion of this Sunday’s gospel: Jesus’ dear mother, Mary.
Jesus’ words to the crowd can sound awfully disrespectful when we know his mom is within earshot: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” But the offense is only apparent. Carefully consider his response: “My mother, my true family, are those who do the will of God.” Other than the Lord himself, did anyone ever do God’s will more perfectly than Mary? She’s the Mother of God by giving him birth, for sure, but also his Mother by her unwavering obedience—making Mary the first and greatest of Christ’s disciples. The first woman, on hearing the serpent’s temptation, said, “Mywill be done! I know best what’s good for me.” This woman, on hearing the angel’s message, said, “Thywill be done! May it be done unto me according to your word.” Mary’s complete trust in God—even without knowing his plan or understanding her place in it—gave us the promised Savior who came to crush the serpent’s head. His victory is already won.
“Who told you yous was nekkid?”
We need to stop laying blame, especially on God. Yes, we have an enemy…but it isn’t him! When you’re tempted to shame and despair, to self-righteousness and pride, to discouragement and doubt, be sure to break the pattern. Decide instead to trust God and his blessed will for you—to trust that with the Lord there is loving mercy and the fullness of redemption.