The Subtlety of Sin

Text: Genesis 3: 1-21

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Priest-in-Charge

June 07, 2015

Introduction

One of the unexpected joys in my life has been meeting and becoming friends with Harvey Cox. Does anyone here know who he is? He teaches Christian ethics at Harvard Divinity School. He came to national attention in 1963, my sophomore year in college, when he wrote a book called “The Secular City” that became a best seller. It was a celebration of human achievement in art the science as symbolized by the migration from an agrarian society to an urban environment.

But as a would-be prophet, Cox wrote too soon. His book was just published when the Watts riots broke in Los Angles, followed quickly by the city of Detroit being practically burned to the ground a couple of years later. People began to flee to the suburbs. The south began to grow as the northern industrial base for our economic might almost overnight turned into the rust belt.

I.

It was his second book, however, published the following year, that has captured my imagination. Entitled: “On Not Leaving It to the Snake,” it is a contemporary commentary on today’s Old Testament lesson. In this book, Cox argues that humankind’s first mistake was not the sin of pride leading to rebellion against God as Augustine and most theologians have since believed.

Rather, he argues our initial parents' first mistake was the sin of slough—that is, Adam and Eve fail to accept and act upon the rights and responsibilities God had assigned to them. God had told our first parents to subdue the earth to have dominion over everything that He had created, ruling on behalf of and in the name of God.

Cox reminds his readers that Jesus drew upon this image in many of his parables. The kingdom of God is like a king who went off to a far country and left his servants in charge of his estate. In one of these parables he leaves three servants with differing talents according to his assessment of their ability their responsibility. When he returned he called them to an account of how they had handled their assignment. He was pleased and rewarded the first two servants for their performance. However, the third servant, who had been given only one talent was afraid that he might fail and so he buried it. The king was angry. Why? Because the servant had failed to be responsible to carry out the orders the master had left. For that he was banished from the estate and lost everything he had been given. Instead of accepting the trust the master had placed in him, he listen to his own inner insecurities. He sold himself short. Acting on his own self-assessment, he did what was right in his own eyes, but failed to live up to his potential.

II.

Cox believes that Adam and Eve were guilty of the same sin and this started the ball rolling to their banishment from the garden. Eve shared with Adam the assignment of exercising mastery over all the creatures of the field. Her “original” sin was not eating the apple. Long before reaching for the forbidden fruit, she had already surrendered her position of power and responsibility over one of the animals. She let the serpent tell her what to do. The result was self-doubt, anxiety and inappropriate dependency before she even took a nibble.

The serpent set before her three temptations, the same temptations that our Lord faced after he had fasted for forty days in the wilderness. The first temptation came to Eve in the form of a seemingly innocent question. “Did God say you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” It had the effect of suggesting that God was depriving Eve of something that she needed or at least desired.

For the first time she becomes aware that there is something she cannot have and she wants it. She acknowledges to the serpent that there is one tree in the garden from which she and Adam were forbidden to eat, the tree of good and evil. But Eve does not stop there. She responds like so many of us do. She places far more restrictions than God had. She replied that not only can she not eat from the tree but that she is not allowed even to touch it or else she will die.

This sounds so much like the kind of Christianity in which I was raised. Christians don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t play cards, and they don’t go to movies. Life gets defined by what you can’t do. And like so many young people raised in fundamentalist churches, Eve becomes convinced that God is unfair. She is ready to rebel.

The serpent, seeing that he has landed a punch that has hit the target, proceeds with the second temptation. He convinces Eve that God isn’t really serious. “If you eat, you won’t die.” In other words, God doesn’t really mean what he says.” All those commands that he has laid upon us shouldn’t be taken too seriously, like “love your enemies,” “Do good to thoes who seek to hurt you,” “turn the other cheek,” “forgive seventy times seven.” Surely God cannot mean those things. After all, He loves us, right? Won’t He always forgive us? God cannot be serious? Surely our faith is not a matter of life or death?

Thus, our relationship with God becomes a matter of little importance and when this stage is reached, we take to ourselves the freedom to do whatever we like. So Eve becomes vulnerable to the serpent’s third and most serious temptation--to believe that God does not want what is best for us. Rather He is little more than a jealous, insecure, arbitrary selfish dictator. “God knows that if you eat of this tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like Him. You will know good and evil.” Eve came to believe that she could break the bonds of her creaturehood and become like God. She could be free, a self-fulfilling agent determining her own destiny. It is at this point Eve falls victim to the final temptation that Augustine rightly calls the sin of pride. The progression has been subtle. The serpent’s logic has seemed reasonable. Eve believes she is doing the right thing.

III.

Adam and Eve are not only our first parents. In Scripture, they also represent every person who is called upon by God to make choices. That is they represent all of us. Like them, instead of listening to God and experiencing life, so often we respond to a different voice. Like Eve, like the servant given one talent, we often fail to live up to our inheritance as sons and daughters of God, created in God’s image That is why God has sent the second Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord. In his life on ear, he exercised the full prerogatives of humanity. Here was a person who would be fully human. He lived in the vigorous give and take with thieves, priests, prostitutes and little children. He has shown us the way. Let us follow in His steps.

Amen.