A native American story teller used to begin his tribes creation story with the following words: "I don’t know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true."
There is great wisdom expressed in that line. It reminds us that for something to be true, doesn’t mean that it is historically true. Jesus told parables: A man was on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers and left for dead. A variety of religious leaders walked by on the other side of the road. A Samaritan stopped and took care of him.
In that parable, Jesus is teachings us certain truths about the nature of what it means to love one’s neighbour as oneself. But it is a fictional story. The truth of the story does not depend on the story being historically true. It is a reminder that truth is something bigger than fact.
When it comes to the story of Adam and Eve, like the story of Noah and the Ark that we looked at last week, it is possible to read the story in different ways.
One way is to read the story as a record of history, as literal historical facts about the creation and fall of the very first human beings.
But just like the Noah Story, we are soon confronted by some uncomfortable questions:
- If the Adam and Eve story is historically true, who did Cain and Abel marry? Did they have to marry their sisters? Would that not have been incest, which is later out-lawed in Leviticus?
- How did the snake talk to Eve? It takes a very particular kind of mouth and tongue that enables us to talk and pronounces words and sounds.
- Where is the garden of Eden today? Why can we not literally find the Garden of Eden somewhere on the earth that and angel is literally guarding with flaming swords so that we are unable to enter?
Another way to read it is to approach it as an ancient parable, designed to convey a different kind of truth. And so we might say like that native American story teller, “I don't know if it happened exactly like this, but I know this story is true." In other words, I know that there are truths within this story if we are willing to listen.
What then might some of the truths be that the story is seeking to communicate to us. In exploring this question, I rely on some of the interpretation given by the Rev. Alan Storey, who does a quite masterful job of exploring the depth of this ancient parable.
1) The first thing that the parable seeks to communicate to us is the sense of the generosity of God the Divine. The story begins with God providing abundantly for Adam and Eve.
And when we look at the world, we see that it is true. This world is filled with such abundance and variety. Everything that we need for a contented and happy human existence has been provided for us. The variety and abundance of the natural world is astounding.
The parable underlines the sense that God has generously provided by the richness and diversity of this beautiful world we live in.
In the little parable, God says: this whole garden is yours to enjoy, but just don’t eat of that one tree in the middle of the garden. We’ll come back to the tree in a moment.
2). Secondly, in this story, we encounter a snake that speaks.
Have you ever heard a snake talk? Well I guess probably not, because Holy St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland! Anyway, for those who have seen a snake, live and in person, you will know that snakes don’t talk. Alan Storey, says, we may all be able to agree that snakes don’t talk, but that doesn mean that we don’t hear them speak.
His gives a few examples:
When he gets to a traffic light in a car, and a big 4X4 SUV pulls up next to him and he can hear it sort of rumbling and grunting, we know that motor cars don’t talk, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t hear them speak. And so when he sees that 4X4 SUV and he hears the rumbling of the engine, it begins to speak to him. And do you know what it says: “If you get yourself inside behind the wheel of this car, you will feel like a real man.”
I think it is true that different cars speak to different people. Maybe a 4X4 doesn’t speak to you. Maybe it is the latest Audi or BMW... if you sit behind this wheel, then you will have arrived.
Or perhaps when you are driving past a particular housing estate or a particular house that you have seen for sale. We know that bricks and mortar don’t talk, but if we are all honest, we have all heard them speaking to us at one time of another.... if you could just move into this house, then you will be truly happy. Houses don’t talk, but we hear them speak.
Or perhaps a pair of shoes... shoes don’t talk, but we hear them speak. Have you heard a pair of shoes speaking to you before?
Snakes don’t talk, but they do speak.
And in this ancient Jewish wisdom story, this parable, the snake speaks with all sorts of enticing promises. It is the voice of discontentment with the abundance we have received. The voice that makes us forget God’s abundant provision. The voice that begins to say: “Brian... if only you had that thing over there, then, Ah, then, you would be truly happy”.
We all know that snakes don’t talk, but we hear them speak. The snake in this story is true, it is anything and everything in life that makes us doubt the loving abundance of God.
Instead of finding happiness in the Divine gift of life that has been abundantly given, we begin to look for happiness in the wrong places. The snake tempts us to find happiness in things that are never able to fulfill our truest and deepest longings. Only God can do that. As St Augustine famously said, “O God you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.” Or as Pascal famously said, “There is a God-shaped hole in every human heart, that only God can fill.
3) Thirdly, This little ancient parable teaches us the truth that freedom is the air that love breathes.
Love, by definition must have the freedom not to love. The air that love breathes is freedom. If you remove oxygen from the air that you breathe, you will soon suffocate and die. If you remove freedom from love, then love too will soon suffocate and die.
Love is not something that can be forced. That is why controlling and manipulative relationships are so destructive. Love can never be forced. That is why abuse of various kinds is so destructive. Abuse robs another of their freedom. As soon as you rob another of their freedom, love begins to die.
Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Zen monk writes that if we want our love to grow, we need to ask our beloved: “Is there space around your heart” In other words, do you have the freedom to be yourself.
Alan Storey believes that God has made us in love, by love, and for love. But for love to truly be love, it has to be free. Free to choose.
And that is one possible significance of the mythical tree of good and evil in the centre of the Garden. We read the story and wonder why God placed temptation in the way of Adam and Eve. Why did God make the snake in the first place. If God had not put the tree there, perhaps it all would not have gone wrong.
But if God had never made the snake to speak to us, and if God had never placed the forbidden fruit in front of us, we would never have had the opportunity to to truly love.
We might ask the question, why did God make us with freedom, and the ability to make really stupid and sometimes destructive decisions in life.
But if we were made with no freedom, we would all be robots with no capacity to truly love.
And so from this perspective, the perspective of love, the forbidden tree in the middle of the garden is a necessary part of life, because it creates the freedom to choose. And without that freedom to choose, there can be no real love, only pre-programmed robots.
When God created us with freedom, to love or not o love, Alan Storey suggests that God took an incredible risk. In fact, he says that love is spelled R.I.S.K. Whenever we love, we take a risk. You cannot have love without it. It is a risk, because when we start loving we feel vulnerable.
And so, May we cherish the abundance with which God has made this beautiful world. Truly, we live in the Garden of Eden, if we had the eyes to see. Secondly, may we become more aware the snakes that speak to us.... enticing us to find happiness where true happiness can never be found. And lastly, when we despair at the destructiveness of humanity, may we remember that freedom is a necessary gift, for without it there would be no real possibility to love. May we honour the freedom of our loved one’s, and may we always make sure that they have space around their hearts. And lastly, like God, may we be willing to make ourselves vulnerable, and be willing to take the risk of loving others. Amen.