In the Genesis passage for today we read that the serpent said to the woman, “God knows that when you eat of the fruit, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And they ate and their eyes were opened.
What this tells us is that before they ate, their eyes were closed. That means God created them without sight, without understanding. And it would seem as we read this story that God wanted for their eyes to remain closed. God did not want them to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did not want them to see, to understand, to know.
At first glance this can be hard for us to understand. As humanity continues to strive to understand the world we live in through science, through astronomy, through medical research, as we become more connected to information through the world-wide web, this idea that somehow God didn’t want us to know seems absurd. But in today’s gospel lesson as well, when Jesus is risen, walking with the disciples on the way to Emmaus, Luke tells us that their eyes “were kept from perceiving him.” They were kept from the knowledge of who he was. How do we understand this omniscient God who creates us with closed eyes and who “keeps us from perceiving”?
This story tells us that Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, taking charge of their own best interests. They chose not to depend on God to know or do what was best for them. And in making that decision they set up a wall of mistrust between themselves and God. In eating they saw, but in receiving knowledge in this way, they became filled with shame. They became aware of their nakedness, or rather their vulnerability and weakness. Their eyes became open to the dangers of the world and to their own lack of power to face it. They saw that they were not gods with the power to discern what is best for themselves. And in their fear and shame they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. Because the leaves were inadequate to cover them, they simply heightened their sense of shame. Only God can cover that nakedness, that shame, that vulnerability but they had separated themselves from God. So they were unable to cover themselves and they hid. The serpent had spoken the truth – their eyes were opened. But God, too, had spoken the truth – in that one action, the innocence of humanity had died.
This story in Genesis is not a past tense event. It is a story about growing up. It is a story about what all of us go through as our eyes are opened, as our naivete is destroyed. A while ago on a TV program about kids and their thoughts and feelings, a well-known host asked a nine-year-old girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. The little girl in a very childlike confident and assured way informed the host that she wanted to be president of the United States. The host responded by asking the little girl why she thought no women had been president in this country before. Still with a face of innocence and confidence, the nine-year-old girl told the host and the audience that it was because 2/3rd of all men did not believe in the gifts of women, and would not support a woman becoming president. The host was astounded. But he decided to prove her wrong. So he polled the audience. He asked the men by a show of hands to indicate how many would support a qualified woman becoming president if that woman represented the values that they supported. He then asked how many would vote against her simply because she was female. The child was right, and before her nine year old eyes and on national television, 2/3rd of the men in that room said they would never vote for a woman president. The pain and confusion on the face of the little girl was hard to watch as her head knowledge became the more experiential learning of seeing their vote right before all of our eyes.
Kids’ faith in adults and in the world is broken at younger ages. We hear too many stories of young children whose innocence has been ended by prejudice, drugs, abuse, kidnapping, rape or murder. Our children’s eyes are opened and they come to distrust their world, to be cynical and fearful. More frightening still, we see in their knowledge of good and evil the power and ability to choose – good or evil. The numbers of young people engaged in violence, and even murder in this country rises each year. School shoot outs are one example of the naivete broken in our kids’ lives. The numbers of children abused appears to be rising. And it is hard to blame these children who have experienced so much personal violence for turning to violence themselves.
Perhaps the most painful thing to see is our own part in the world’s evil. We see the accelerating destruction of our environment and we know our consumerism and waste is destroying our world. We see species on the verge of extinction and know it is because our buying supports this kind of abuse of nature. Closer to home we experience people acting outrageously in their cars. We see cynicism in increasingly younger people. We see the cross and wonder where we would have stood in the crucifixion.
I’ve shared with you before about the movie, “The Color of Fear”. A group of men from different ethnicities, backgrounds, races gathered together for a weekend to talk about racism. One white man who was present dominated most of the weekend fighting hard against the idea that racism was even real. He kept saying to the men of color in the room, “Why do you see yourselves as different? We’re all the same. Why can’t you be just like me? You’re imagining your oppression. No one really treats you differently because of your appearance.” No matter what the other men in the room shared with him, he could not hear their experiences of racism, of abuse, of oppression. Finally one of the men said to him, “What would it mean to you if what we are telling you about our experience were true?” The man looked startled for a moment. Finally he answered, “It would mean the world isn’t as safe or beautiful as I had thought…And it would mean that I was part of the problem,” and with those words he began to cry. It hurts to see. And from this vantage point we can wish desperately that the end of our innocence had never begun. But innocence has been broken, and we die constantly in our “enlightenment.”
I took Jasmyn to see Beauty and Beast last weekend. One of the lines that Beauty sings is, ““I was innocent and certain. Now I'm wiser but unsure. I can't go back into my childhood, That my father made secure.” And again, that is the story of humanity. It is the story of growing up. It is our story.
So where is the Good News in this?
I do not believe that God is AGAINST humans obtaining knowledge. I believe deeply that God does wish for us wisdom and growth. But God does not want our insight into good and evil to come through disobedience, through breaking the trust between God and humanity. When it does, our first glimpse, our first understanding of good and evil comes through seeing our own inadequacy, misjudgment and our first response is always both shame and fear, often with some denial thrown in for good measure. But the good news in this is that we don’t reap what we sow. God is the God of life, who, even now, even after we turn from God and mortally wound ourselves, God continues to love us. God maintains relationship with humanity, and clothes our vulnerability with grace. Then, God leads us out of the garden so that our immortality will not be lived out in the dangerous, shameful world we have envisioned for ourselves. In other words, God calls us to see past the crucifixion, past death. God calls us to keep looking, keep our eyes open, past the pain.
On CNN a while ago there was a story that traced the old legal practice of sterilization. It turns out that in our country in the 40s there were places that regularly sterilized people with mental disabilities and other disabilities. IN addition, some hospitals at the time were considering using euthanasia on those same people with the justification that they had no quality of life. But this ended abruptly during WWII with people’s awareness of where such atrocities could lead. These little insights, these small changes which come from seeing, happen all around. Many who were abused as children work on educating the communities and on healing the survivors so abuse doesn’t continued. Mothers Against Drunk Driving began as a result of the loss of a child from a drunk driving accident. Mothers against Gangs which educates and works to find after-school alternatives for kids began, again, with a mother who lost her child through gang activity. That is not to say that there is good in evil situations. Nor am I trying to say, “just look on the bright side”. There is no excuse for evil. But even out of the most awful things, even out of the deaths we die each day, if we keep our eyes open, God can help us find ways to bring new life, bring grace, bring good.
The two disciples on their way to Emmaus had seen only enough to know that Jesus had been crucified. They were in deep sorrow. They had seen only enough to believe that their hopes had been shattered. Their friend, leader and lord had been killed in a most horrible way. The one they’d hoped would rescue them from Roman tyranny and oppression was dead. And after three days it seemed, on top of everything, that his body had been taken from the tomb. But God would not leave them there. God did not leave them there. God brought about the most amazing miracle in all the world. Jesus was alive. Death had been overcome. Christ was arisen! He came and walked among them. Still they did not see. He interpreted for them all scripture and the prophets, the foretelling signs of his resurrection. But still they could not believe in the risen Christ. Finally he broke bread with them. He ate with them. He was present in a most intimate way with them, and they saw him. Just for a moment they saw – long enough for them to believe and know that he was risen!
Still, the question might be asked, why did God “keep them” from recognizing Christ at first? For most of time and for most people in the world, we have been unable to see first-hand Jesus resurrected. And so God began then what God calls forth from us now: that we might learn to see with our hearts and our faith as clearly as they saw with their eyes. God knows we are imperfect. And for this reason God does give us signs, God does help us to see, through Bible stories, through our experiences, through one another. We are called to keep our eyes and our hearts open. Because while it is true that some things we have to see to believe; the things that are most important, those things with the most value and meaning and promise, those things we have to believe in order to see.