As I was looking for way to open my homily today, I started to search for ideas. As we begin Lent with the readings today, they all converge on the topic of temptation and the human desire to always have more than we currently have. So I looked up on Google such things as “too much of a good thing,” and “a blessing and a curse,” and “be careful what you wish for.” I discovered something interesting: these are all titles to actual country music songs. I have to admit that I don’t listen to a lot of popular music, let alone country, but I guess this shouldn’t surprise me. Country music has always worn its emotions on its sleeve, putting it out there and owning it, whether it is heartache or joyous excess. This is of course always true of great art, whether it is music, visual arts, literature, or any other – it reflects our human condition back at us as an attempt by the artist to understand it.
Today’s readings are the passages from Scripture that most directly address the issue of why humans have fallen into sin. Original sin is a difficult concept to understand, even though its effects on human beings are clear enough to see. I personally have found the concept difficult – I am an engineer, and find grasping abstract concepts more difficult than observable phenomena. Let me pass on some insights from an article from a theological journal which looked for scientific parallels to Church teachings.
The philosopher Patricia Williams examined a branch of science called sociobiology, in which scientists try to figure out what various animals do when in various interactions with animals of their species and other species, and why they do it. [Williams, Patricia A. "Sociobiology and Original Sin." Zygon, vol. 35, no. 4, Dec. 2000, pp. 783-812.] What makes humans different from other animals is telling, since it gets at the way that God made us different, and therefore provides a clue as to His purpose. The most striking example is that animals do not, as a rule, commit acts of violence for what would be, if done by a human, a sinful reason. Sure, they kill other animals, but it is for reasons such as for food or for the protection of their young or family group. They are genetically programmed to protect themselves and their social group as well as pass on their DNA and perpetuate their species. In other words, once their needs are met in life, they are generally content. It is humans alone who are not content when their biological needs are met, and engage in conflict for self-serving reasons, for wanting more than they actually need or depriving others of what they need for the mere fact that they wish them to suffer. What we are taught by the Church, that humans are born with original sin, is supported by this branch of science, although they express it differently: the scientists would say that a person is genetically disposed to be selfish, whereas other animals are not.
We see this in the lesson from Genesis. Adam and Eve are not content with all the blessing given them by God. No, they want more. They become convinced, with the devil’s aid, that God is withholding the knowledge of good and evil, which would make them better, make them like God Himself. We look on the scene like we do a suspense movie, wanting to yell at first Eve, and then Adam, “No, don't do it! You have so much already but you are risking everything!” But they cannot resist, and neither can we unless we call upon Christ to change our nature.
This is what Paul tells us in the second reading. Just as we inherited from our ancestors a propensity towards sin through Adam, now through Christ we are freed from that. Through baptism, we are given the reason for overcoming our sinful nature – that is everlasting life in the presence of God – as well as the grace of God to assist us. We must cooperate with that grace: it is not a magic spell. But if we ask for God's help and sincerely desire to live in God's love, we can overcome our sinful nature.
It is in the human discontent with our current conditions that is most responsible for sin. Adam and Eve had everything they could desire, and all their biological needs were amply supplied for. But that wasn't good enough. They had to have the one last thing that they felt was denied them.
We too also suffer from this. If we have a nice house, we want a larger one. If we have a job, we want one that pays more. Troubles in marriage always come from a spouse thinking that there is something better than what is provided for in the marriage. How many people get hooked on drugs or alcohol because they are dissatisfied with their everyday existence and the people around them?
Christ today is our example of how we should act. In the Gospel we have the devil literally offering Jesus the world. But Jesus is not tempted – He knows his mission and accepts it, the good with the bad. And as we start Lent we know just how bad it will get leading to Good Friday. One is reminded of the response of Job, a successful person who was afflicted with severe problems in the Old Testament book that bears his name. He said: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”
As we are beginning our Lenten journey, we should reflect on what we really want in life. Are richer people happier than poorer ones? Are handicapped individuals less joyful than those without the handicaps? Are famous people more content with their successes in life than those of us who are not? The devil wants you to think so, and we so often fall into this way of thinking. But it just isn't so. Being thankful and content with all the things that we do have, that God has given us, is the surest way to be joyful. Conversely, being ungrateful and envious of those around us that have things we don't have is the path to sin and unhappiness.
Dr. Williams, in her review of sociobiology I mentioned earlier, also mentioned another difference between humans and most other animals. Animals will do each other favors, but generally only in situations where there is reciprocity – that is, where there is a trade where they will get something in repayment for their efforts. Humans, on the other hand, have a sense of pity and compassion that can result in works of kindness in which they will not directly receive anything in return, what is called altruism. In other words, God's gift of free will means that we can use it for good or for evil. When we become Christians at Baptism, we promise to use it for good, and declare that our biological nature towards selfishness is not our destiny.
As we continue the Mass with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let us ask the Lord to guide us in His ways. God wants us to be joyful. We know in our minds and in our hearts that the truly happy and joyful people in this world are not the ones that have the most stuff. They are the ones who have the most love, for God and His many blessings, and the ability to share them with those around them. Let's make a Lenten promise to be grateful, starting with the Body of the Lord we are about to receive and continuing on after we leave the Church today, and thereby be truly joyful.