We're all Parselmouths: 1st Sunday of Lent

In the old cartoons, when a character came to some moment of temptation, a sort of moral crossroads, remember how they’d always show that? You’d have a little angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, each whispering into the ears. It’s one of the great classic tropes, from Mickey Mouse to Homer Simpson to modern Disney and Pirates of the Caribbean. So common, because it just works. We can relate.

The Bible points to more than a little truth behind that whimsical image; we’ve just heard two conversations with the Devil. Notice they take place in two extreme and opposite settings: Eve in the lush Garden of Paradise, and Jesus in the barren desert wilderness. I’m sure there’s an awesome sermon there somewhere but for now, it at least shows: the devil can bug you anywhere.

Just as they have opposite settings, they also have opposite endings. Eve’s story, of course, is the one that goes wrong. A foolish person might take this story as an explanation of who to blame. A wise person will see themselves in it, and learn what it teaches us about human nature, and temptation, and how the serpent works in our lives.

So in that spirit, let’s do a little forensic analysis on this debacle; let’s see if we can unpack it and scratch the surface of some of those lessons. The first one I want to call out right now is one you might skip over. What’s Eve’s first mistake? Give that just a moment’s thought. Her first mistake…

I’m going to suggest that her first mistake was: she talked to the snake. Don’t talk to the snake. This actually can be avoided, not all the time but a lot of the time, and it’ll save you a lot of trouble. Don’t talk to the snake. How do you know when it’s the snake talking? Well, you do learn to recognize him in different disguises. You don’t see a red cartoon guy with horns and a pitchfork on your shoulder, but there are certain things that when you hear them whispered, you know who’s whispering.

“Look at you trying to be all holy. Who do you think you are?”
“That person’s no good, some people are just no good.”
You’re no good, who are you kidding, you’re scum and always will be.”
“Stop trying to pray, you’re only distracted and wasting your time.”
“Just do it, you can always just go to confession later.”
(later:) “Don’t go to confession, you don’t want God and God doesn’t want you.”

The spirit of discouragement… it’s always the snake. The spirit that tells you, any time you try something good and noble and worthwhile, that you can’t do it, you’re not enough, it’s not worth it anyway. Stop it. Don’t talk to the snake. Shut up, snake.

Well, Eve talked to the snake, and there will be times you find yourself in a conversation like this in spite of any efforts not to listen, so let’s keep following the story. Here’s Satan’s opening line: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” If I may rephrase, “Does following God’s way mean you can’t have any pleasure or fun or joy?”

Now you and I, sitting here safely and with hindsight, can marvel at the raw insanity of that question. This is paradise. There is nothing wrong. God specifically told them “except for that one, eat any of the fruit you want,” and how many was that? There are lots of trees in the Garden. They’re pleasant, good, and enticing. Adam and Eve are surrounded by pleasures and delights; that’s God’s will for them! So many trees, so many delights in our world! Isn’t that still true for you and me?

But then, how could we ever go wrong, how could we choose evil, when good is so pleasurable and so delightful and so available? That’s the serpent’s first problem to overcome
. To tempt Eve to choose the wrong, he first has to turn her away from all that innocent good. He has to make her dissatisfied even though being dissatisfied is insane. Well, he’s really good at that. In the midst of all these innocent delights, somehow the one thing forbidden captures her attention. It becomes the only thing in the world, the only thing that matters. Suddenly all the good things life offers her fade out of focus. She’s fixated, obsessed on the thing she knows is forbidden. Know what that’s like? Sure you do.

Learn this trick, this strategy of the devil: he’s exaggerating the burden of God’s commandment. God only forbade the fruit of one tree while giving them free access to pleasures beyond number. When you’re talking to the snake, those all fade out of focus and the forbidden thing is all that seems to matter, the only thing that seems real and desirable. It feels like it’s the only thing you really want.

Eve puts up a timid fight (better certainly than her silent husband!) but she leaves the door open. She says, “God allows us the other fruit, but this one we aren’t allowed to eat or even touch.” See? She’s focused on what’s forbidden. He’s got her staring at it.

Also notice this: in the text, God never actually said anything about not touching it. It sounds like Eve has swallowed a bit of the poison: she’s exaggerating the burden. We all know what this is like. In the moment of temptation, God’s Commandment seems so unreasonable, so impossible. And you tell yourself, “hey, I have needs.” Or “hey, my life is harder than other people’s, I should be allowed this” or if you’re an especially corny person without the self-respect to avoid the most tedious cliches, “How could something be wrong when it feels so right?”

Time for the next move, and it’s the knockout punch. “No, you won’t die. God knows that if you eat it, your eyes will be open and you will be like gods.” Temptation makes God out to be the enemy. God is an obstacle, a rival. God isn’t looking out for you, he’s keeping you from what you really want!

Eve’s decision isn’t whether she wants the forbidden thing; she wants it. It’s appealing. Neither is her decision what God has to say about it; that’s also clear. She knows what God commands, and her decision is whether to trust Him.

If I asked “where did Adam and Eve go wrong?” you might say “when they disobeyed God” and picture that first chomp into the forbidden fruit. But they actually went wrong a moment before that. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way (#397): Sin entered the world when man “let trust in his Creator die in his heart.” Sin entered the world in that moment before Eve reached out her hand, when she decided that God’s commandments wouldn’t make her happy, wouldn’t be enough for her, weren’t in her best interest.

And every sin you’ve ever committed has involved that same decision. You don’t sin because you want to be miserable. You sin because you want to be happy, and you’ve decided that following God’s Commandments isn’t the way to accomplish that. You think, “I need this,” and reach out for the forbidden. You know it isn’t God’s way, and you’ve stopped believing that God’s way is your best option. You’ve let trust in your Creator die in your heart.

If you really take this story to heart, it’ll arm you for these battles. Best case scenario, you make it easy on yourself and DON’T TALK TO THE SNAKE. But if you do find yourself in this kind of moment, maybe you’ll spot the tricks. You’ll be prepared to say, “shut up snake, I know this move. You’re making God’s commandments out to be so terrible and burdensome. You want me to forget all the innocent delight and goodness that I can just reach out and enjoy. You want me totally fascinated, laser-focused, on what I shouldn’t have instead. Most of all, you want me to think of God as an obstacle to my happiness. You want me to not trust His commandments to be my best choice.”

In the cartoons, you know when the character has made their decision; they show it by having either the angel or the devil ‘poof’ disappear, and you know what they’ve decided to do. Which is pretty much exactly what happens when the devil is defeated by Jesus in Matthew 4:11: “And the devil left him, and God’s angels appeared and looked after him.” I’ll bet you can relate to that moment, too. It’s a good feeling. Sooner or later, easy or hard, peace follows victory. Whether your life is a garden or a desert this particular day, it’s really all about trusting God, and that means trusting His commandments.

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