10 Feb 2008
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted …” (Matt. 4:1)
Fr. Randy Calvo
In the name …
The story is told about a little girl who is filling in a hole in her garden when a neighbour looks over the fence. He politely asks, “Hi! What are you up to?” “My goldfish died,” replies the little girl with tears in her eyes, “and I’ve just buried him.” The neighbour then asks, “Isn’t that an awfully big hole for a little goldfish?” The little girl finishes tamping down the soil and replies, “That’s because he’s inside your big, dumb cat.” Sometimes we can overreact like the little girl burying both her dead fish and at the same time the cat who ate it. The cat was just doing what cats do. It’s the nature of the cat to grab the fish if it has the opportunity. I don’t know if we can really hold the cat morally responsible for eating the goldfish. It’s unfortunate and unpleasant, but not to the point of burying him alive as a coffin for a dead goldfish.
Our first reading today is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Rom. 5:12 is one of the most famously mistranslated verses in all the Bible. It’s done intentionally, and its consequences have been huge. St. Augustine is the one who gave us the notion of original sin, that we are all evil the eyes of God simply by being born human. He moved us from the theology of being created in the image and likeness of God to being born in the degraded state of original sin. Sin is a part of our nature, says Augustine. It’s part of who we are. Sin to us, says Augustine, is like eating a goldfish is to that cat, and the consequences are vaguely similar too. In both cases, death is the sentence imposed by the offended party whether it be the little girl or God. Augustine believed in this notion so strongly that it blurred his vision. Rom. 5:12 reads that sin entered the world “through one person,” that person being Adam. Our mythical first father chose sin. He knew what God’s will was, but he chose to replace it with his own. That’s the whole definition of sin. The emphasis is on choice.
A consequence of that chosen sin is mortality. According to the creation story, after Adam’s sin he was expelled from paradise, and mortality became a part of his existence. Augustine then inter-preted the rest of Rom. 5:12 as saying all of us face the same reality of Adams’ mortality because all of us face the same reality of Adam’s sin. But the Bible doesn’t read “in whom all sinned,” referring to Adam, it says “because all sinned.” It’s not an original sin passed on from parent to child through countless generations all that way back to the first parent. It’s a universal sin because all of us have chosen to sin at one time or another. All of us have stood in Adam’s place, and at least once in our lifetimes, we have all chosen to ignore God so that we could do as we please instead. It’s not that Adam sinned for all of us; it’s that we all sinned like Adam.
But the reading doesn’t stop their either, which makes Augustine’s case even weaker. It concludes with a line dripping with hope. Paul tells us: “For just as through the disobedience of one person [, Adam,] the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of [Christ] the many will be made righteous.” (5:19) This line has inspired many religious thinkers to turn away from talk of original sin to speak instead about universal salvation. Adam represents our humanity and our limitations, both moral and physical. Paul says to us today that Christ trumps both of these limitations. Where once we faced unavoidable mortality because of our chosen sins, Christ opens us up to immortality because of His chosen cross. Where once we faced a universal sinfulness, in Christ and especially in His cross, we find our hope for universal salvation.
Augustine tried to make us sinners by nature, but the real original sin was a sin by choice, and that sin by choice is what Paul is talking about in Romans when he says “because all have sinned.” One of the realities that Lent focuses our attention on is the full human nature of Jesus. When He suffers and dies, it is with real human anguish and pain. His divinity doesn’t protect Him from His humanity. Every First Sunday of Lent we read of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and His battle against temptation, and this becomes the basis of our 40 days of Lent. Jesus in the fullness of His human nature faces temptation just like in the fullness of His human nature He faces the cross. He faces the choice of sin, of choosing His own will rather than God’s. Jesus shows us that sin is not by nature, but by choice, and also that even though “all have sinned,” we can all choose not to sin.
Sin by nature is the depressing notion that we can’t help but be separated from God simply because we are human. It’s depressing because just like that cat buried alive for doing what it does by its unavoidable nature so we are condemned by God just because we are unavoidably human. It’s like Jesus walking out into the desert and being judged guilty even before He faces the first choice of His temptation. We can see the unfairness in burying the cat alive and in judging Jesus guilty in the desert, so why can’t we see the unfairness in talking about sin by nature when it comes to us? Last Sunday we spoke about the cross not so much as a reminder of our sinfulness, but as a sign that Christ considers us worthy of His love and forgiveness. This Sunday let us again reflect upon the cross not as a reminder of our unavoidable sinfulness, but as an inspiration to face down our own temptations and choose not to sin the next time. The cross, says St. Paul to us today, is our hope for righteousness. Rather than the unrelenting condemnation of original sin, the cross is our unabashed hope for salvation. Look at Lent as a time to mature into that righteousness, to face down our temptations and to welcome opportunities of virtue. We are not sinful by nature; we are defined as saved by the cross of Christ. Let us pray that we make the most of our choices so that when we stand in the presence of the crucified God we may not be ashamed by them. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)