Grace Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2023, Lent 1A
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Trespass and the ‘Free Gift’
The scriptures for this first Sunday of Lent, in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, offer up three separate yet interrelated passages for our understanding: the Genesis account of the “original sin,” Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus, and from Romans, Paul’s attempt to make the connections between the two.
The Genesis account is painfully familiar. Adam is given the garden in which to live (as of 2:15-17 Eve had not been created yet), with only one thing forbidden; goaded by the serpent’s twisting the words of God’s command, that one forbiddance is quickly violated. Our lectionary reading leaves off as after eating the fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (3:7, Revised English Version).
[“A serpent so wily,” stanza one]
In his addressing of this event in Romans 5, Paul uses some interesting words to describe just what Adam has done. (To clarify: Paul does not mention Eve at all in this discourse, mostly because he is working to create a rhetorical parallel between Adam, the first created one, and Christ, the harbinger of new creation. This isn’t the first or last time a woman has been treated as inconvenient for a man’s narrative, to be sure.) The word “sin” appears, to be sure, but Paul also uses the word “trespass” several times here.
For us modern types, that word might appear in one of two contexts. If you were to attend, say, a Methodist church that uses what they would regard as a traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, you would hear the word “trespasses” just about the time your reflex leads you to say “debts.” There were a number of Methodists attending the seminary I attended, and this contrast was the subject of a running joke. Regarding the Lord’s Prayer, one of the Methodists would accuse us Presbyterians (based on that word “debts“) of being obsessed with money. In turn, the Presbyterian at hand would retort (based on that word “trespasses”), that Methodists were obsessed with property. (To be fair to us Presbyterians, at least Matthew’s version does use the word “debts;” Luke actually uses the word “sins.”)
The other context in which we know the word “trespass” is most likely on a sign reading “NO TRESPASSING,” found on the edge of some property or other. Doesn’t immediately set off biblical expectations, does it?
But back to Paul, who seems to be the main one to describe sins as “trespass.” It might not be typical, but it’s not necessarily a bad choice. To speak of “trespass” (as in that stereotypical “no trespassing” sign) is an indication entering into a place one doesn’t belong. In making the choice to eat that fruit, Adam (and Eve) put themselves in a position or place that was not theirs to claim; the authority to eat that fruit from that tree was not theirs. God put the two in the garden as caretakers – “to till it and keep it,” as Genesis 2:15 says, not to “run” it. Eating the fruit was a repudiation of God’s authority over the garden, a violation or indeed “trespass” onto a property – that one tree – that was not theirs.
Now in our world, when we speak of “trespass” we expect the response to be some kind of citation, perhaps a fine, maybe even an arrest if some major location is the one that has been trespassed upon. Paul will spend a good bit of ink demonstrating how that isn’t so, but first let’s remind ourselves of what happens in the gospel reading, where temptation is in fact not victorious.
Jesus has been out in the desert those forty days and nights, presumably very hungry by now, and as if on cue the Tempter shows up. Since there aren’t any shiny fruit on hand, the Tempter turns to another food temptation, something quite within Jesus’s powers. Then the Tempter tries luring Jesus with a spectacular display of his heavenly connection, and finally with the lure of ultimate power – which, strangely enough, already belongs to Jesus, and which the Tempter did not have to offer at all. Suffice to say that Jesus rebuffs all three temptation attempts, each with an appropriate verse from the book of Deuteronomy.
[“A serpent so wily,” stanza two]
Of course, this resisting of temptation was really just a starting point for Jesus’s earthly ministry. In all that is to come in that earthly work, Jesus shows God’s reign in a word that does not submit to it. In his execution on a cross, and in refusing to stay dead, but instead being raised up by God, Jesus became (among many other things) the One who fulfilled the Law, that Mosaic record that (even though it was given after sin entered the world) made sin all the worse by making it known and inescapable. As that One who fulfilled the Law (and, you know, Son of God), Jesus was in a position to execute authority over humanity.
Instead, what Jesus did was the “free gift.”
Paul will, many times, declare that “the free gift is not like the trespass.” That’s how he describes it in verse 15, and he’ll go on to say many times how the “free gift” isn’t like what happened through Adam. In short, the one “free gift” is the negation not of the one trespass, but of many, many, many trespasses, indeed a whole human history of trespasses.
By the end of this passage Paul is now ready to acknowledge how the trespass and the free gift are alike, in verses 18-19. One man’s disobedience set sin loose among all humanity, and one man’s obedience set righteousness loose among all humanity.
[“A serpent so wily,” stanza three]
For the “free gift” that blots out all the trespass, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #275, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; #440, Jesus, Lover of My Soul; #166, Lord, Who throughout These Forty Days
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