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Posted by on Feb 26, 2023

The Trickster in the Garden

The Trickster in the Garden

A common feature in stories told in culture after culture around the world is the presence of a trickster. The trickster is a character who is always up to some mischief. All is well in the world. People or animals are getting along well with each other. Things are happy and peaceful. Then the trickster appears (Coyote, Fox, Hare, Spider, Raven, Hermes, Loki, and many others) and begins whispering things into the ears of the characters in the story. These things may or may not be true. Often they are not strictly true, but they raise questions in the minds of those who hear them. Sometimes they might even be what the listener wishes were true, so they become easier to believe.

In our Judeo-Christian religious tradition, we also find a trickster. Two creation stories are found in the book of Genesis, the first collection of stories telling of the relationship between God and humans. The first tells the story in terms of seven days of God’s creative activity, which culminate in a day of rest, as God sees all of creation and pronounces it good. It’s a lovely story. Humans are created in the divine image. Males and females are equally created in God’s image and are placed in a position of responsibility to care for the rest of creation.

A lovely story, but somehow, it didn’t quite answer some fundamental questions. Why don’t people all get along? Why do bad things happen to people? Why is life hard?

In the second story of creation (Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7), God creates a human being from the clay of the earth. Then God creates a beautiful garden and animals and all the rest, to live in the garden. Finally, because the human is lonely, God takes a bone from his side and forms it into a companion for him. This companion is his equal, because she was formed from his rib. They live happily together in the garden, until the trickster arrives.

In this story, the trickster is a serpent, a cunning animal. The serpent begins whispering into the ear of the woman that God has forbidden them to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because they will become like God if they do. But what would be the matter with knowing the difference between good and evil? So the woman tastes the fruit and convinces the man, the Adam, to do so as well. And they begin to understand and experience the entire range of possibilities between the absolute good and its opposite. They begin to experience shame and fear. They make clothing for themselves and hide from God. They are separated from the absolute trust and comfort of their former relationship with each other and with God. They come to understand and experience separation from absolute love. It is a form of death, death of the former relationship.

Sadly, to protect them, God escorts them out of the garden and into the world that is no longer perfect. They cannot return to the childlike innocence of that garden any more than we who are older than about nine years of age can return to the innocence of our younger years as long as we are healthy people. But God does not abandon them. God gives them the gifts and tools they will need to grow in wisdom in their lives together.

Jesus too met a trickster. After his baptism in the Jordan River, he went into the desert to fast and pray. His baptismal experience had been a deep and transformative moment. The Holy Spirit of the Most High had settled on him and he had heard the Lord’s voice proclaim that he was the Lord’s beloved son. One doesn’t just go home to the carpenter shop after such an event.

In the desert, he was approached by a stranger, a trickster, a deceiver. ( Mt 4:1-11) This tempter suggested, “If you are the Son of God…”  Jesus could provide for his own comfort by turning stones into bread. Or Jesus could gain great fame by throwing himself down from the top of the temple and trusting that angels would catch him. The trickster quoted scripture to make his case. Each time, Jesus responded with another scriptural reference that overruled the one given by the opponent. Finally, the tempter offered Jesus power over all the world if he would just bow down and worship him. Jesus firmly rejected that option, sending the tempter away with a reminder that only the Lord is to be worshiped. At that the trickster left him and angels came to comfort and minister to Jesus. And thus began his public life.

Jesus didn’t fall for the lies of the trickster. And because he didn’t fall for the lies of the trickster, a new beginning came to the world and its people. Just as with the first humans, pain, suffering, anger, hatred, and all of the negative, unloving things came into human life, when Jesus turned away the lies of the trickster, a new beginning opened to all of us. We as humans could be reunited with our loving creator, the Lord, the Most High.

St. Paul (Rm 5:12-19) speaks of the actions of Adam and Eve as sin and notes that even before humans received the Law through Moses, people were sinning. But it’s important to note that the word he used and that we translate as sin means to take an arrow from a quiver, aim at a target, and miss the mark. Humans are prone to miss the target. Jesus didn’t miss it. And because he didn’t miss, the gift of life was returned to us all.

As we travel through Lent this year, let’s agree to keep our eyes and hearts open so that we notice when the trickster is trying to trip us up. Let us join Jesus in sending away any voices that coax us to make wrong choices and instead focus on seeing God’s presence in the lives of those around us. Let us become people of peace and joy who actively reach out in love as we go through our days. On the way to work. In the line at the grocery store. When a child interrupts our rest or relaxation. And in all the many ups and downs of our days.

We may still meet the Lord God in a garden: the garden of our daily lives.

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent – Cycle A


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