Lent 1, 2011
The lections for the first Sunday in Lent (March 13, 2011) pair the temptation story in Genesis with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, including (but not here) Paul’s commentary on how the first Adam got it all wrong and the second Adam, Jesus, got it all right… for our sakes.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 4:2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 4:3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4:4 But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 4:6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" 4:7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 4:9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 4:10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
4:11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Wisdom, Counterfeit and Real
The temptation story in Genesis yields an endless stream of insight into the human condition. I offer you yet another glimpse of the Bible’s read on our mortal situation.
I fasten on the last of the three reasons Eve bites into the forbidden fruit, that it was “desired to make one wise.” Admirable excuse, right? To be like God, knowing right from wrong. To be a gray eminence to whom the young and malleable turn for guidance. To be able to wax eloquent and back up the eloquence (sometimes referred to as “war stories”) with the benediction, “that’s the sum of my experience.” Isn’t that the next step in life’s stages for those, like yours truly, who (almost) reach the biblical optimum of eighty years, to share the immensity of our knowledge about this world and how to navigate through it?
Sure, my children, come and listen to grandpa. Or, more appropriately, with Genesis 3 in mind, listen to grandma.
I detect in this Edenic temptation more than a hint of suspicion that wisdom isn’t all we crack it up to be. Solomon notwithstanding, the Apostle Paul famously rues the wisdom of this world in I Corinthians 1. You can look it up. Jesus too takes a sidelong and sardonic glance at the same subject when he tells us as the clincher to the parable of the wicked servant, that the children of darkness are wiser in their generation than the children of light. Okay, so what’s wrong with wisdom. Simply put, it tends to be full of itself. The kind of thing that gives professors in ivied towers a bad name. That makes politicians with grand schemes or dismissive rants sound like Major Hoople, a bald and pot-bellied eminence who claims to know everything and knows nothing. You can look him up too, not in the Bible, but with Google’s help. Or Polonius. You remember him, from high school English class, Ophelia’s dad, the guy who spouts cliches the way Old Faithful spouts water: “Neither borrower nor lender be…To thine own self be true… Brevity is the soul of wit.” He’s the epitome of foolishness parading as wisdom, so obviously admiring of his own thought and its felicity of expression.
The crowning virtue of old age and any age is not wisdom but humility. Which is what Proverbs 1:7 means with the oft-quoted and just as oft-misunderstood line: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Which thought, originating in the king’s book mitigates my earlier dig at Solomon.) The “fear of the Lord” should not be compared unfavorably with “the love of God,” as if the former were the opposite of the latter. They go hand in hand. The fear of God is the appropriate anxiety we very fallible souls feel in the presence of absolute purity. The love of God is the overwhelming impulse we very needy souls feel in the presence of absolute mercy. This ambivalence – cowering vs. beaming, hiding in the bushes vs. running to the light – has, or should have, its earthly counterpart in one’s appearance before the judge in a courtroom when the defendant you are knows you haven’t any hope, fairly or unfairly, of beating the rap. Oh, how one aches for a kind word from a black robe! Martin Luther (just where I cannot tell you) used this courtroom metaphor to describe our best defense at the last judgment, when a reckoning is pronounced on the life we’ve made for better or for worse; that, then, in the presence of eternity we should run and hide behind the cross of Jesus Christ, so the judge will see not our evil but His overmatching goodness.
Humility of this sort, not the Milquetoast variety (fear of other people’s opinion), the fear of the Lord manifests itself in the truly wise of this or any generation. The soul more ready to listen than to pontificate. The grandma who can sift what comes out of the mouths of babes, distinguishing between cute malarkey and innocent truth, gently ignoring the one and praising the other. The old man like the one who recently responded to my essay on that subject, old men, with a quote from someone who, like himself, had once been a mover and shaker, now retired and out of the swim, that we "go from Who’s Who to who’s that?"; offered with the accompanying observation that he has had a good run at life, for which he is ever grateful.
Socrates has the penultimate comment on wisdom: “All I know is that I know nothing.” And he meant it. That now we see as in a fun-house mirror only puzzling reflections. That with every push to the horizon of human intelligence the horizon moves further away. That today’s certainties will be tomorrow’s old wives’ tales. That understanding oneself is far harder than the seven heroic labors of Hercules. That we see the universe and human history through a very tiny peephole, only able to guess and its beginning and its ending.
Or that thirty year old carpenter, in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the fellow behind whose cross we are to hide, the man wise beyond his years, he famously rebuts Old Nick in the wilderness with repeated reference to the words of someone who knows better than he does about turning bread into stones, flying without wings, and running the world. Talk about mingling the fear of the Lord with the love of God!
True wisdom, dear Eve (and Adam), consists in knowing one is never God or even like God or aspiring to so lofty a station. Wisdom, hard learned, comes occasionally with the erosion of the years, and humility borne of knowing one’s own inevitable folly… surrounded as it is by the incredibly patient and extravagant mercy of God.
All of which has the side benefit of making one easier to live with.