What changes between the Pentateuch and Romans?
What are we talking about today?
First Sunday of Lent, Year A
Cursed Tree, Tree of Life
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, I want to take the homily kind of in three different parts, three different chunks. One, showing suddenly that we've actually done before. The second one taking that same problem and developing it further. And then third, seeing how Jesus resolves that, taking on how he resolves that problem. We'll be looking mostly at the first reading and the second reading, not so much the gospel, because we can reference the gospel very easily. People know the gospel of the Temptation very well.
So first of all: what we've done before. You might want to take out your missalettes and open to page 67. I say "done before" because last Easter season —I think was the very last Sunday before Pentecost— I actually preached on this, because it's what the second reading was about in Revelation. So our first reading is in Genesis: Genesis 2 and 3. We're in the garden, right? And, if you notice, if you pay really close attention, when you're following through there, as you look at the bottom of that first column on page 67, we're told that the tree of life was in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The fascinating thing is that there's two important trees in the garden. If you follow it through, there's two trees, a tree of life and a tree of knowledge of good and evil. And for almost all of us growing up, these got kind of conflated into just one tree. But if you're taking it word for word, there are two trees in the middle of the garden and they're both really, really important. And then we see as go along, the serpent comes along, and the serpent asks, which one can't you eat from? And they tell him that we can't eat from the one in the middle —which is unclear which one that is— but then later on, we know what they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And if you continue on actually in the rest of Genesis 3, the very last line of Genesis 3 is that they are kicked out of the garden and barred from the tree of life, that other tree. The tree of life is the one that they didn't eat from, the one they wanted to actually be around. And they're barred from that. That's the tree that the angel with the flaming fiery sword revolving is blocking.
So it's the tree of knowledge of good and evil that they ate from; the tree of life is the one they're cut off from. And then we follow through to the Book of Revelation. That was the reading on that day. And it talks about all of a sudden, when you come to this moment of peace at the end of Revelation, where everything is good and chill and beautiful and you're there at the wedding feast of the Lamb, there it is again, the tree of life. It's revealed as being in the city of the Lamb, and it's a key part, and the people feed off it, day and night. They feed off of that and then drink from the water.
And then if we continue into the church's tradition and its prayer, we actually see that in the liturgy of the hours, there's this great antiphon that says, See how the cross of Christ stands revealed as the tree of life. So in other words, they were supposed to have from this tree of life. Then they could not have from this tree of life. Then we're told that the cross Jesus' cross is the tree of life. And now forever we will have that to eat from it in eternity. We'll be able to take our nourishment from that. So there's an original tree. That's lost. It will nourish us in eternity, and it's actually the cross that's nourishing us.
Okay. So that's the first part. Now let's take that further. Things in Genesis are often representative, especially in the garden. Trees are a pretty good metaphor for life. They have life and they give life when you eat their fruits and stuff like that. And so the tree of life is this metaphor for the source of life. Adam and Eve have been longing for this life, but because they reached for knowledge instead, it was taken away. It was blocked off from them. So humanity afterwards lives a kind of “half-alive life”. The land is cursed. We're told that Adam can no longer till the ground easily. We're told that it causes tears and sweat. We're told that everything is now hard for the man and the woman. The land is cursed. Everything is rough now. That's Genesis 3.
Now, what's the opposite of a curse? In the Bible, the opposite of a curse is a blessing. In other words, [humans] are no longer blessed. They no longer share in the blessed life of God. They have this curse hanging around them, rather than a blessing. But God acts clearly for a blessing, even in the life of that curse. Abraham, he comes to him and says, "Abraham, follow me, and I will make you a father of many nations. And I promise you a blessing. The whole world will be blessed in your name." And he says, "Abraham. I'm going to give you a family. I know it doesn't look like it right now because you have no kids. But Abraham, I'm going to give you a family. And out of that family will come the blessing to all the nations."
And we know the story of that family. It's the whole Old Testament, right? They have their ups and their downs. They get their warnings of what they should or shouldn't do. But God never abandons those people, never abandons Abraham's family. And then in Egypt they have what seems to be the worst of their pains, the worst of their curses: slavery and suffering and even murder of their [sons] by Pharaoh, and stuff like that.
But what does God do? He takes that curse and he turns it into blessing, an even greater blessing than they'd ever experienced. He leads them out of Egypt after the ten plagues. He saves them from the final plague. He leads them through the Red Sea and even crushes Pharaoh in the Red Sea. He takes them to Sinai. He gives them [the Law,] the Torah. He takes them into the land that He promised, the land of milk and honey, a land of blessings, after all their curses.
But the last thing he does before he goes into that land is we have the book of Deuteronomy. It's like one giant homily for Moses. It's kind of tough to read, actually. But you could look at the book of Deuteronomy and just call it "The Big Fat Book of Blessings and Curses." The whole book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, is all blessings and curses, back and forth, back and forth.
And it was very big in Jesus's day. People really paid close attention to Deuteronomy. And if you look in your gospel, look at page 69, every time you see italics there, that's a quote from Deuteronomy. Every one of Jesus's retorts to the devil is from Deuteronomy. It's like his book to beat the devil with. So he chooses that as his response. Again, [the Jewish] people have been very close to that book, but all the quotes come out of there. And Deuteronomy is the book that gives us famously— [Moses] says, Before you are set life and death, a blessing and a curse. Choose life that you might live. Choose a blessing that you might be blessed. But he warns them, if you don't, you will get a curse. You will lose this. And they're looking right there at the land of milk and honey. They're seeing all this, and he says, "All of this can change. All of this can change in an instant. If you turn away."
And if you go through like Deuteronomy 28, 29, 30, those curses are brutal. They're like: "Everything will fail. Your crops will fail. Your families will fail. You won't be able to eat. Every single thing you do will fail." That's actually a line in one of them. It's like, oh my gosh, this is so rough, And so he says, you know, "Come into this land. Do what I ask of you, and you can have this blessing. But if not, you'll see these curses fulfilled." And so they do they enter the land, with Joshua, with this promise of blessings. And yet we know that soon enough the curses are fulfilled, because they turn away [from God], they wander, their hearts go [astray].
So now look at page 68. This is a letter to the Romans. This is Romans 5. Paul is bringing back this entire story. Paul is bringing back the whole story of the Torah. And so starting off in that first part, he says, Through one man, sin entered the world. That's obviously Adam. And he says, and through sin, death, that's part of the curse. And thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sin. This is where we actually get our teaching on original sin and it's punishment of death. That's where that actually comes from. And then he goes further talking about Moses and this Law that was given. He says, For up to the time of the law (that's the Torah), sin was in the world. Though sin was not accounted when there was no Law. He says [in other words]: “We were doing bad. We were doing all these stupid things, but we didn't actually have the named. We didn't know they were sins. We didn't understand that." That's why all these guys have like multiple wives, right? Like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all have lots of wives. There's no Law yet saying you get one wife until one of you dies. And then he continues —but still, even though there's no law yet— But death reigned from Adam to Moses. In other words, even without the Torah, they saw the effects of their sin. And then he says, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam... That's a funny line. It's curious. What was the trespass of Adam? Uh, disobedience, rebellion, something like that... So is he saying that they sinned it another way? Is he referring to like babies who can't sin yet, but they still are under the curse? Hard to tell. But he says, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is a type of the one who had was to come. In other words he's saying, pointing ahead, "There's another one to come; there's a second, Adam. There's a new Adam."
All right. So that's where he's setting up Romans. Now, look over on page 69, and we're gonna jump to the very last line of the first column. This is now... he's bringing up the idea that there was a curse and now there's a gift in Jesus. He says, For if by the transgression of the one, death came to reign through that one, —again, Adam— how much more will those who received the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ? In other words he's saying: "Yeah, the curse was bad, but the blessings are even greater. They're not even comparable. He says, "the gift is not like the transgression." The gift is so much more than what we had lost. And he says that “even in life" we also receive these blessings.
And then he says, In conclusion, just as through one transgression, condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act, acquittal and life came to all. This word "acquittal" gets translated differently: acquittal, vindication, justification, being made righteous. They're all the same word in Greek. It's all the same thing. So he’s saying: through this one righteous act, here comes acquittal, taking away the curse, taking away sin, taking away all those things. And he says, For just as through the disobedience of one man, the many were made sinners —disobedience— so through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous... will be acquitted, will be vindicated.
OK. You can go ahead and close your books. You've had them open for a long time, I know. I'll now reference things that you already know. So, ok, that's a big, big, big, big picture.
[For part 3,] let's zoom in and see exactly what Jesus does to resolve that. Because this is a problem that longs for a solution, right? The people were longing for something that would fix this problem. And they had had nothing new for centuries. Usually in the rest of the Bible, about every 50 or 100 years, something new, good positive happens. A new king, a new prophet, a new something. But for like 500 years they'd had nothing. Nothing new.
And the thing is, Israel —Abraham's family— was God's solution to the problem of sin and the curse. But now it's also part of the problem. There's an author called N.T. Wright, who likes to describe it as: imagine you've got a big boat that's out there in the harbor, stuck on a sandbar. And so you send out a rowboat, a rescue boat, to try and get that boat. That's Israel going out there to be the blessing for humanity. But now it gets stuck in the sand. It gets stuck on another sandbar. And so now the rescuer needs rescuing. The rescue people, Israel, need rescuing. And so the whole idea is that there's this chance for them to be a source of blessing... and yet they keep catching curses. Right, because they're still fallen. And that's why Paul says we need "a second Adam". Literally a second man. "Adam" means man. There's even a great song that we have that talks about how "a second Adam to the fight came"; it's written by Saint John Henry Newman.
So what happens? A man was born into the family of the rescue-people-that-are-in-need-of-rescuing. An Israelite, a child of Abraham. He knows the Torah. He knows Deuteronomy. He knows there are blessings out there, but they are trapped in by curses. And so when he goes into the desert and he's being tempted with evil, he responds with obedience— the thing that the first Adam wouldn't do, the thing that didn't happen in the garden, he responds [with] in a land of curses —the desert: not fun, not pretty, not flavorful,— He's in the land of curses, and he still responds with obedience. He still responds with what Adam didn't.
It's almost like he's testifying. It's almost like he's got his hand on the book of Deuteronomy, because he keeps on quoting it, The Big Book of Blessings and Curses. And he says, "I choose obedience. [Which means I choose blessing. Which means I choose life]."
And for the whole next two and a half years, he's gonna teach and live that: "If someone comes at you as a curse, respond with a blessing." Last week, just before Lent started, we had Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. If someone would come to you to deal you death, even then stand up and protect their life.
Saint Peter, in his first letter picks up this idea. He says to us, Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing. Because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. Abraham's people were to inherit a [world wide] blessing. It didn't happen. Jesus shows them how to inherit the blessing. And actually if you continue through that chapter, 1st Peter, chapter 3, he says everything that Jesus says in his teaching: Seek peace. Suffer for what is right. Do not be frightened by threats. Answer insult with respect. It's better to suffer for evil than [to do] otherwise. And then he connects it all back with Jesus doing this.
The point is that Jesus is preaching blessings even in the face of curses. Jesus being the Israel that Israel could never managed to be. He said: "We're called to be a light to nations? Fine. I will be a light to the nations." And that comes out of Isaiah right before the story of the suffering servant. Abraham was called and God said, All nations will be blessed in your name; [Jesus] says, "Okay, I will do that." He's called to be obedient, after centuries of disobedience back to Adam. He tells the truth when everyone around him is blaspheming. And he's faithful. Jesus is the faithfulness of God in the flesh. He's faithful also back to God. And as I said, when evil comes at him, he returns a blessing. And it seems like every time they come at him with evil and curses, he responds, blessing. Until what? Until the Agony in the Garden and Good Friday. In that moment, it's almost like he lets them actually come all the way into him, lets them fall upon him.
If you look at his life, it kind of is leading up to that? His career is surrounded by sin. He's born "in the appearance of sinful flesh," Paul tells us. He lives through Herod's slaughter. He's chased even as a child. At the beginning of his public life, his baptism, there he looks like a sinner, confessing sins in the Jordan. That's what it looks like. Sinners loved him. Other sinners hated him. His whole life is a nonstop interaction with the worst of sinners. And especially at the end, he comes across even greater sinners. Liars, who accuse him in these trials. Compromisers, like the Sadducees. Proud men, like the Pharisees. Cowards, like Pilate. Cruel men, like the Roman soldiers.
And we Christians say that Jesus died for his sins. But it's actually very specific what sins he died for. They accuse him of rebellion and blasphemy. That's why you have to kill him. The Jews say kill him for blasphemy. The Romans say kill him for rebellion. And yet what's funny is he hadn't done either of those. But they had. The Jews were constantly plotting rebellion against Rome. And yet they blamed their sin on Jesus. He's going to cause a rebellion. He's going to fight against Caesar.
The Jews, when in that trial, had said, “We have no king but Caesar," where according to the Old Testament, their only king is God. They're the blasphemers. They're the rebels. And yet they're putting it on Jesus.
And Saint Paul actually tells us a few chapters later in Romans, he says that the Torah was there to make sin exceedingly sinful— as if all the sin and evil is being heaped up around Jesus. And that when Jesus is then accused falsely, and goes to the cross falsely —still turning the other cheek, still going the extra mile, still giving up his cloak— it all packs in around him. He is surrounded as tight as it can be, on him. So much so that Paul will call him —he will say— [Jesus] became a curse for us, because anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed. Deuteronomy again. And [elsewhere Paul] says, For our sake, God made the one who did not know sin, to become sin. He doesn't choose sin, but he is in a cocoon of sin on that cross.
And then Romans, chapter 8 says, And God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus. He didn't condemn us. He didn't condemn Jesus. He condemned sin. All the sin is gathered in one place and God condemns it. He breaks sin. He breaks the curses. He breaks the death that had plagued us for centuries. He breaks that in that one moment. Those three hours on the cross break that. All those demons happy that Jesus is dying: "We defeated him!" No. They jump on him and they're pulled down to their own destruction.
And on the third day, God vindicates his son. He acquits his son. He justifies his son. And all who are baptized into his death and resurrection? They're justified. They're acquitted. They're vindicated.
The whole story is a story of trees. The tree at the beginning that we lost. The tree that we're trying to get at the end. And the tree that he hung upon as a curse, which vindicates us.
It's all about getting back to that tree that can feed us. The cross of Jesus feeds us. The Eucharist is us feeding on the cross of Jesus—the body of Jesus, the blood of Jesus. We receive that here that we might have life in this life, and have eternal life as well.
That's the story of the Garden of Eden.
That's the story of Gethsemane.
That's the story of Calvary.
That's the story of Gethsemane.
That's the story of Calvary.