The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Limits are hard to accept. We always want to push against the things imposed upon us, and sometimes do so to our detriment. As we make our way up I-79, taking that long slow slog up to Morgantown, we face a continual desire to get there just a bit quicker. The signs tell us, 65 mph, 70 mph when we are lucky. Construction that constantly stalls us slows us to 55, but we are always looking to see if work is really being done that day so we can punch that gas pedal just a little harder. We seem to ignore that, even if we go 80 the entire way up to Morgantown, we will only save 4 minutes. We want to push against any limit, because we feel it will serve us better to do what we want than what is asked of us.
American culture is founded on this kind of rejection of limits. We began as a country because taxes were imposed on import businesses, and those with money and means wanted unlimited wealth, not metered income. That is shown in the radical independence of American culture. “Who cares what benefits those around me, as long as I get what I need? Who cares what I can do for my country, when it can do so much more for me? Neighbors? Who needs them, I want a house and a lawn, all as far away from the world as I can get it.” Rugged individualism, the idea that “greed is good,” it is as American as apple pie.
We pretend that our problems are new, that they are the result of generations younger than ourselves that have poisoned the future we have worked so hard for. However, the problem is much older, as is our tendency to blame anyone but ourselves for it. It goes all the way back to a garden planted at the source of all rivers, a garden with every good fruit and vegetable you could ever want, and a single tree that was off limits.
Scripture does not tell us what kind of fruit was on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We usually think of it as an apple, just because “Evil,” in Latin is “Malus,” which is the same word for apple – a bit of a literary confusion we never quite got over. However, whether it was pomegranates or apples or even something we have never dreamt of or seen, the fruit itself is far less important than what it represents. In chasing after that fruit, humanity was gaining knowledge of everything they could ever want to know, and in chasing that fruit, humanity gave up the joys of paradise they had once known.
The Garden is one of the stories in scripture that we can easily get wrapped up in the details of and miss the point of. Countless oceans of ink have been spilt justifying why God would plant a forbidden tree in the garden, and trying to explain why humanity would be given a choice so massive and dangerous as this to begin with. I’m uninterested in that kind of exposition. In my mind, the Garden and the tree tell a story that is played out eternally all around us, there are choices that we can make and when we make them poorly there are consequences.
We talked at length about the finality of choice just a few weeks ago, and we looked at how God gives us guidance to choose life again and again. It is important to point out that God also imposes limits to prevent us from making choices that would ultimately harm us as well. Despite attaining all knowledge they could ever want, no good comes to Adam, Eve, or the Serpent who mislead them. The serpent loses its limbs and becomes a slithering thing, robbed of intellect and now a beast like any other. The primordial couple meanwhile must face the reality of life outside of Eden, a world where childbirth is dangerous and where weeds are far more common than produce.
In our own life, the limits imposed on us by God take many forms. For one thing, there are restrictive commandments – things like do not steal, lie, or kill. For another, there are the human limitations imposed by our mortality. We cannot know everything, we cannot do everything, and while most of us get our three score and ten no one ever gets more than one hundred twenty years to sort their lives out. Limits abound all around us, and they are as frustrating as can be.
The writer of Ecclesiastes spends most of the book complaining about how limited life is. The seasons of pain cannot be seasons of joy, because God has ordained both for their set purposes. The waters from the ocean race back to the rivers to race back to the oceans. Life and death are always chasing after each other, and we have no control over what anyone does to our legacy once we die. God set a knowledge of eternity in our hearts, and yet has made us limited. For Qoheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes, there are few things as miserable as that.
Yet, on the other side of those frustrations, is an acknowledgment of the good that they can produce. The hard times are made bearable because they do have an end. The waters that constantly replenish one another sustain life. The legacy we leave may be out of our control, but we can work to enjoy what we have now, and set up a future where others can continue and enhance what we have begun. The life we live is limited, and that can be frustrating, but every limit can also impose a blessing if we are open to understanding the fullness it provides.
For the first humans the choice was between expulsion and continued presence in paradise. For us today, the issues are much more layered and sometimes not obvious. The teachings of Moses, for example, make sense if you are in an ancient agrarian community, but are sometimes hard to translate to our modern life. Do the teachings of Moses, then, only cover so much of what we now face? The prophets seemed to think so, as their own proclamations augmented and clarified these teachings in a different era. Even Jesus, the one who fulfilled and preserved all of Moses’s teachings, gives us new insight into the “Yes,” and the “No,” that God has given time and time again.
For us today, we are interpreters of scripture for a new era. We cannot answer questions the same way we always have. What does it mean to bear false witness in an era where it is easy to share falsehoods accidentally? What does it mean to build fences to protect people from accidental injury, not on the roof of a house, but in the way we build the world around us? How do we leave an ox unmuzzled as it mills grain, when we are no longer dependent on animals to produce our food like we once were?
Every generation is given unique opportunities to understand what God commands. We do so as limited people, people who easily can make mistakes and misinterpret what is set before us. Yet, we do so with an understanding that everything we want to be able to do, is not always what we ought to do. We want to have freedom in every aspect of our life, but we are reigned in from that for the good of all people. We do not horde, so that others can have what they need to live. We do not say whatever we want, however we want to, because others are worthy of fair treatment and dignity. We do not get everything we want when we want it, because to do so we would have to exploit those around us and enforce an autocracy of the self.
The Church is known today as a place that tells the world what is shouldn’t be doing. So much so, that I think we often forget to represent what we as people of faith are called to do, rather than what we seek to abstain from. However, I think that we are also guilty of telling the world “No,” and ourselves “Yes.” When we want something, it is fair and reasonable, when we are asked to give something up it is the worst thing we could ever be asked to do. Today I invite us to be honest with ourselves, about the bad habits and behavior we tolerate in ourselves and put limits upon them. We must tell ourselves no sometimes, if we ever want to be better at saying “Yes,” to what God has for us. Learn to glory in limitation as well as in freedom and find that both have their place in God’s economy of goodness. – Amen.