Grace Filled Boundaries
Synopsis: The story about the first humans eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge is about choices that have consequences as well as about grace-filled boundaries. At its root, it’s a matter of troubled, anxiety-ridden lives when we seek to take the mysteries of God (life, knowledge) into our own hands, only to discover that we have no place to hide. God is able to then do what we can’t do for ourselves by clothing our shame and giving us a new opportunity for life.
This is the First Sunday of Lent where we begin six weeks of reflection on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, which ends with his death on the cross. Traditionally this has been a time of giving up things as we join him in walking that lonesome valley. It’s a time of soulful meditation on and repentance for what’s broken in our lives and our world. Such meditation and repentance is not an end in itself. It is, instead, a means to help us embrace God’s lifegiving, grace filled purposes for us and our world. In this respect, I begin this sermon with a recent online article titled, “Capitalism is turning us into addicts.” It asserts:
Capitalism is great at making people want things they don’t need. And of course this is what we should expect from a system that runs on production and consumption. Companies make and sell products and those products have to be consumed by as many people as possible — that’s what makes the whole thing work. So it’s not surprising that businesses do everything they can to convince people to buy whatever they’re selling. But what happens when marketing becomes active manipulation? More precisely, what happens when companies use science and technology not only to refine our pleasures but to engineer addictive behaviors?
The article is an interview with David Courtwright, the author of the recent book, The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business. We have generally thought of addictions as involving things like gambling, drinking, drugs, sex, and violence. Big business has always manipulated our desires to get us to buy products like cigarettes but this is even more sophisticated.
What we have today is something Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism,” a reference to the part of the brain that deals with pleasure and motivation. As our understanding of psychology and neurochemistry has advanced, companies have gotten better at exploiting our instincts for their profit. Think, for example, of all the apps and platforms specifically designed to hijack our attention with pings and dopamine hits while harvesting our data.
The advent of the internet was heralded as this wonderful tool to connect people, spread information, and promote democracy. It has been all these things but such optimism now appears to be naïve. We failed to anticipate the internet’s darker side in spreading pornography, hate, fear, lies, and violence. Even more concerning is how it’s used to promote various forms of virulent cultural, ethnic, and religious nationalism.
On a personal level, consider how our cellphones have taken over our lives. Much of our shopping is now done online. It’s not all bad. It’s a great way to save time and compare prices. But, as we do that, companies are busy harvesting our data and feeding us all kinds of enticing advertisements. When I do a google search for a product, related advertisements immediately show up on my Facebook feed. Such content has grown exponentially and now dominates what’s on our social media. Also consider how those ubiquitous Amazon delivery trucks are now continually dropping off packages in our neighborhoods.
Which of us can honestly say we’re not addicted? How long can you go without checking your cellphone? All this makes Adam and Eve’s desire for that luscious apple in the garden of Eden seem rather ho hum. Yet, at it’s root, it involves the same troubled, anxiety-ridden life that drives our social media addictions. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann characterizes this story in Genesis as a drama in four scenes. Scene one begins with God planting a garden in Eden and placing the man Adam in it to care for it. It’s a scene of utter graciousness but it involves two dangerous trees. Brueggemann explains:
The trees disclose the character of that graciousness. There’s no cheap grace here. The story-teller is terse. We’re not told why the trees are as they are. One might wish for a garden without such dangerous trees. But that’s not given to us. And if it were so, it obviously would be a garden which evoked no story, that is, one which offered no history.
Humans could eat freely from the tree of life, which represents everything that enhances and celebrates life, including fellowship with God. The tree of knowledge (from which humans were forbidden to eat) represents distorted desire and control in place of mutuality and equality. This is at the root of our troubled, anxiety-ridden lives. More on this later.
Scene two involves the creation of Eve as the crowning event in the narrative and the fulfillment of humanity. Brueggemann explains:
The emergence of the woman is as stunning and unpredicted as the previous surprising emergence of the man. The woman is also God’s free creation. Now the two creatures of surprise belong together. The place of the garden is for this covenanted human community of solidarity, trust, and wellbeing. They are one!
Scene three quickly moves to a new agenda as the serpent enters and engages Eve in a conversation about God’s prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge. Brueggemann says we have excessively interpreted the serpent, which has no independent significance. Bringing in the serpent is only a technique to move the plot of the story.
What’s significant is that this is the first theological talk in the story. Our penchant to rationalize, analyze, and objectify matters of faithfulness can be dangerous. Their conversation treats the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge as though it were not a given but an option. Their conversation is not about serving but about avoiding the claims of God. The vocation of tending and caring for the garden is neglected and death is now viewed as a threat rather than a natural boundary to life. This is something we will want to consider and reflect on in our death denying American culture.
We know the outcome. Eve and Adam eat the forbidden fruit, replacing trust, mutuality, and equality with their new freedom and the terror that accompanies it. They recognize that they are naked and they hide in fear. Brueggemann explains:
The power of guilt takes on its own life. It works its own destruction. Death comes, not by way of eternal imposition, but of its own weight. So the nakedness . . . and the hiding . . . already manifest the power of death, even before the Lord of the garden takes any action. Serpentine distortion has set before the earthlings a destiny not envisioned by the Lord of the garden.
Scene four moves to judgment and expulsion from the garden, which is the inevitable end. “They had wanted knowledge rather than trust. And now they have it. They now know more than they could have wanted to know. And there’s no place to run. Life is turned back on itself and the miracle is, not that they are punished, but that they live.” Brueggemann explains:
With the sentence given, God does . . . for the couple what they cannot do for themselves. They cannot deal with their shame. But God can, will, and does. To be clothed is to be given life.
Proper boundaries are good and filled with grace. This is one of the first important lessons that we teach our children. The #MeToo movement is a strong affirmation of this truth. Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein cannot violate women and treat them like sex objects without consequences. It’s not only about being convicted in a court of law. Such behavior destroys our humanity.
The story raises a related question. Are there some modes of knowledge that come at too high a cost? It’s not a matter of repudiating science or advocating ignorance. It’s rather about the Faustian bargains we make in things such as our invention and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. Can we as humans be trusted with the capability of destroying life on our planet many times over? I think not!
As Brueggemann explains, “The warning about taking the mysteries of God (life, knowledge) in our own hands is directly related to oppressive social relationships and to authoritarian and hierarchical ways of organizing life.” The opposite is trust, mutuality, and equality. Loving God and loving our neighbor go hand in hand. According to the writer of 1 John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18a). Adam and Eve learned another lesson in the garden, “Untoward grasping for power creates fear, casts out love, and leaves only desire.”
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (St. Louis: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 45.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid., 48-49.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 53.