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Year A, Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

The first Sunday in Lent marks the first leg in the journey quite boldly: pilgrims, like any travellers eager to get going, set out with a spring in their step and resolve in their heart, their face set towards Jerusalem. The texts are bold and dramatic. Adam and Eve listen to the serpent’s musings under the branches of the tree with forbidden fruit. The psalmist points to relief and preservation in times of trouble. Paul writes to Christians in Rome of sin and death coming into the world through the actions of one man–ah, Adam the Tragic!–and then of redemption and life for all through the righteousness of another, Jesus Christ. The Gospel reading tells of that same Jesus facing the temptation of the devil after forty days of fasting in the wilderness. But all this drama might be a little too much for the pilgrims. Expulsion from the primeval garden and trial in a land of withering wind are enough to falter anyone’s steps. The first week of Lent ends firmly in the desert.

The Scripture readings attempt to level the roughness of the way by constructing the road ahead out of the combination of the several different narratives, pairing texts by linking up elements within them. The sin of doing the forbidden gets answered by the psalmist’s assurance of God’s mercy or by treating Adam as a type for Jesus, who makes good what the universal forefather gets wrong. Where Eve and Adam act on their extrapolations from the serpent’s words (after all, the serpent never actually says that they should just go ahead and eat the fruit which God forbade) Jesus resists the devil’s far more direct temptations to grasp divine action and authority. This resistance becomes the ‘act of righteousness’ which Paul attempts to unfold.

The temptation for Christians so early in Lent is to think the story being told is simple, imagining that this cobbled-together roadway has no turn-offs or side streets, that a trajectory as straight as an arrow flies from Adam and Eve’s encounter with the serpent in the garden to Jesus of Nazareth’s desert contest with the devil. Here is victory already; what remains of Jesus’ life becomes only the time for him to show all that he has won so that the rest of us human beings will understand.

Succumbing to this temptation generates a pile of problems. It can set you on a road towards triumphalism, toward estrangement from those who hold different beliefs than you: an already-achieved victory makes dissenters little more than obstinate, and can (and has) led to violent action towards others. From a Christian theological point of view concerned with reflecting on the person and work of Jesus, the simple story interpretation also implies that Jesus’ life really did not matter–saying that he resisted temptation, demonstrating his sinlessness, and then died for all others, who are definitely not sinless. But if Jesus life was all coda (the way Milton basically treats it in Paradise Regained) then how human could he really be?

The other problem with assuming that the story is simple and neat is that it relies on only one interpretation, ignoring the fact that it is not the only possibility. The narrative of Fall and Redemption is not the only one told out of these texts. For some Christians, the leaving of the Garden of Eden is a step in the divinization of human beings–the gradual move closer to God. Plus, we Christians of whatever stripe need to remember that the story of Adam and Eve, the tree, and the serpent, is a shared story, after all. Jewish exegesis interprets the tale and its importance differently. (Kippah could say more about this.)

Neglecting the complexities of the texts makes the road to Holy Week and Easter appear easy, when really it is difficult–difficult in the sense that the way is not so clearly marked, and there are many more diverging paths than anyone wants to believe possible. It might be better to think of the lectionary readings not as the one road but as one attempt to map a way for pilgrims to go. And it is safer when you travel as a group.

But even making the trip as a member of a group of pilgrims is not straightforward, because this wilderness is not entirely deserted. There are other people walking through it than your own little band, also bent on some kind of peregrination. The thing is, they are not all heading in the same direction as you.

Being in an interfaith relationship reminds me of this every day, but in Lent most acutely. My partner may also be in the desert, seeking spiritual, theological understanding. Only her map and route are not exactly the same as mine. Not that we don’t travel together, mind you, at least most of the time. But there are days when we get to a certain garden oasis or mountain and one of us realises we have to wait on the edge while the other takes the detour to find what treasure might be hidden there. And the very existence of my partner reminds me that my pilgrimage band does not possess all the answers, and that the boundaries of the group are not really fixed and sacrosanct. Of course, this means the journey has some extra complications, some moments when decisions about direction are not so easy. But it is a desert, after all. These days, I take solace from the end of the Matthew reading noted above. After his struggle with the devil, Jesus does not go brashly, boastfully on; he is spent, and needs the ministry of angels for his health. Jesus himself needs the help of others, cannot draw strength only from himself or even his own group. Why should I be any different?