I can, quite clearly, remember a handful of times having an upset stomach when I was a child. I don’t think this was any sort of chronic issue that I suffered. The memory embedded itself because of its strangeness. It was not like a cut or a bruise or even a headache where the source of pain or discomfort was readily and clearly identifiable. An upset stomach was something a little more buried. It was something that shifted and churned. At one point it could be a pain and at the next moment a nauseous feeling would wash over me. Something at the centre of me was out of place and it affected my entire orientation. And so I remember trying to sit or lie down in certain positions. I tried to find some way of being that would ease these subterranean flows.
This memory came back to me as I was reflecting on the Genesis account of Adam, Eve and the Serpent. I began to think about the fruit. I always thought that the fruit itself was bad; basically that the fruit was evil. But it is not. The fruit is from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I began to think about the act of eating the fruit from such a tree. Think about the presence of the knowledge of good and evil within us. I suspect this might cause an upset stomach.
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In our continued exploration of comfortable positions we tend to respond to our knowledge of good and evil with two different approaches. One approach is to accept and even enforce a particular culture and politics because we benefit from it; because we derive a level of comfort from it. This was the path I took as a child into young adulthood. Growing up I was part of the ethic majority, male, interested and capable both in sports and schoolwork, straightforwardly heterosexual and had no serious financial issues. So in nearly every instance I benefited from my culture. And I while I may not have explicitly articulated my support for this culture, because I was not conscious of it at the time, what I did do was more effective; I functioned as my culture’s police. And this was to become my sin. I passively allowed and gave consent to expressions that supported my culture and joined in the derision, disapproval and rejection of expressions that my culture did not approve of. I benefited from a set of cultural laws that caused others to be rejected. There is no real surprise in all of this. We know this happens at the level of families where there is often the so-called black sheep. We know this happens at the level of churches where there remain outsiders who have a hard time connecting and fitting in. We know this happens in our communities when we are not welcoming to someone who does not promote our values. We know this happens globally when we mine other countries for their natural and human resources and then send them our waste to recycle. One perennial response to the discomfort of our knowledge of good and evil is to create cultures of privilege in which we believe that laws can confine and control evil.
However, alongside this first attempt to stabilize life through laws of control and privilege there has also existed a lingering suspicion that there is more to life than our culture allows us to see. So there has been rage, rebellion and revolution. Perhaps a handful of individuals who are excluded by a culture of privilege finally stop trying to fit in. They begin to realize that maybe the values of their culture are not actually good values. They become convinced that things are not as they seem. They try and make inroads and beat paths through the false façade they see promoted. Dostoevsky searched for meaning in gutters. Freud charted the unconscious. Marx critiqued capitalism. A generation in the 60s took to protest. Punks in the 70s and 80s turned against suburban culture. Some Mennonites began to dig up their roots in order to better examine and critique them in works of fiction. Already a decade ago at the turn of the millennium this thinking climaxed in movies like The Truman Show where the main character Truman Burbank lived his whole life unaware that he was on a set as part of a television show or in the movie The Matrix where humanity experienced life in a computer simulation while their actual bodies were kept alive and used for fuel by machines. So people experienced what they thought was a normal life unaware that it was a complete lie. And if you think the plot behind The Matrix is extreme just remember those in our midst who struggle with self-mutilation in the form of cutting; literally cutting into the flesh to be reminded and reassured that they are real and human. These are extreme images but they remind us that we cannot eradicate and exclude the notion that we continue to live with the knowledge of good and evil internal within us. To create strict laws of privilege and control is only to offer greater expansion to the presence of evil. It is to invite and validate forms of rage and revolt. It seems we simply cannot bear with the discomfort.
So if the creation account tells us about what we ingested and digested; if it tells us what we have internalized as humans then I began to wonder if the story of Jesus’ temptation in wilderness said something in response to our condition. In light of Genesis I think it is possible to read the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness as his entering into and sitting with the knowledge of good and evil.
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In this time of temptation and testing Jesus faces the practices we as humans have developed in response to our disease over the knowledge of good and evil. We have tried to respond with the security of material comfort. We have tried to respond with the influence of religion. We have tried to respond with the legislation of laws and the development of societal norms. But these expressions have always positioned a wide swath of humanity on the fringes of life. This has always been the price of maintaining some sense of security. Jesus rejected these forms as centres of power and engaged them as places of relationship.
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Jesus’ fasting instead has two movements. First it is the movement towards. It is the movement towards the young girl I grew up who is a now a woman and still feels silenced and less valued for her gifts and abilities. It is towards the young boy I grew up with who had no place to explore his sexuality or identity and has now come out as a gay man and continues to received prejudiced and malicious treatment. It is towards the person sitting in the darkness of depression waiting for at least a small light to see another person face to face. It is towards the factory worker in China who labours so that we in the West can play with new toys. It is towards the farmers of Ecuador in South America who fought for twenty years against oil companies who have polluted their soil and rivers. Jesus’ movement is towards those who are excluded and exploited in order to provide comfort and security for others.
And as you can guess Jesus’ fasting is also a movement away. It is away from, well, me. However I might consider myself as an individual I need to acknowledge that in the world, by my very circumstances, I have access to power in a way that very few others have. I am North American, white, male, healthy, relatively well-educated with access to private property. The significance of this is that I have tremendous resources accessible to me to shift along with positions and directions society takes as it tries keep itself from the discomfort that comes with the knowledge of good and evil. So as Jesus moves away from those positions I must figure out how to follow him, to meet him as he meets others. To meet him in meeting others.
I do not presume to know in which direction Jesus moves in relationship with you this morning. I trust the God of truth and love, the God who fasted in the wilderness to live a life that could digest the knowledge of good and evil will share that with you. If you are interested in learning where Jesus moves among us I would suggest that our practice of fasting this Lent be from the fruits of privilege that we reap in society not in some solemn or self-deprecating way but in the way that Jesus’ life exemplified; that the table be extended in preparation for the great banquet of our resurrected Lord.