Sun, Mar 01, 2020

'Can' doesn't necessarily mean 'Should'


Many of the stories that we know so well––

folk ballads, legends, even nursery rhymes…

which have been passed down from generation to generation––

have, in their re-telling and the passing of the years…

taken on a life of their own.

Take, for example, “Waltzing Matilda”.

These days it’s synonymous with the Australian Rugby Union team.

At one time, it was considered a possible national anthem.

Banjo Paterson’s original poem was written in the aftermath of a shearers’ strike on a property in Queensland––

a strike that turned violent…

resulting in the woolshed being burnt down.

One of the culprits––

pursued by the police and the homestead owner––

shot and killed himself at a waterhole rather than be captured.

So most scholars believe that Paterson wrote the poem—

loosely based on these events––

as a carefully worded political allegory.

A few, however, disagree…

arguing that it was never intended as an anti-authoritarian, left-wing anthem…

but was, rather, simply a ditty he wrote to impress a girl.

Although the former explanation is more likely…

neither has any correlation with or connection to rugby…

where its use imparts a whole different meaning.

So many stories––

through the passage of time…

and being divorced from their original context––

take on a meaning of their own…

such that their original meaning can be lost or distorted.


The same thing happens with stories in the Bible.

So often, what the author was trying to say to the original audience…

is so different from what we hear today.

This morning’s reading from Genesis––

the so-called story of “The Fall”–– 

is a classic example.

It’s a very familiar story––

one that has thoroughly permeated our thought and culture.

The number of artistic representations of it, alone, is legion.

And yet, it’s a story that has been badly misunderstood.

Countless layers of dogmatic tradition have been imposed over the centuries…

obscuring its original meaning and intent.

So, at the start, let’s dispel a few misconceptions.

It almost goes without saying…

that this story is neither scientific nor historical––

nor was it ever intended to be.

It is, in the purest sense, mythological.

And yet, it’s not a foundational myth.

It’s not a myth that’s attempting to explain the origin of evil in the world––

because it doesn’t do that. 

Nor is it really a myth attempting to explain the origin of human evil or sinfulness.

If it were, it probably would have had a pivotal place in ancient Hebrew thought…

but it doesn’t.

There’s no clear reference to it in the rest of the Old Testament.

And, as one commentator notes… 

it’s not really interested with such theoretical or abstract philosophical questions.

Rather, it’s more of a morality tale––

dressed up in mythology, symbol, and metaphor.

It’s a reflection, if you like, on human destiny…

or, on the relationship between God and humanity.


In the first instance, it’s a story of grace.

God makes a lush garden and, gratuitously, places a man in it.

But, more than that… 

God places the man in the garden to nurture and sustain it…

to make it productive.

In other words, God invites the man to share in God’s creational creativity.

That is his vocation.

At the same time, everything necessary for his sustenance is provided and permitted:

“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden”.

God gave the man freedom to use the garden in order to sustain life…

but that freedom wasn’t absolute.

God also set some boundaries:

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”.

That’s not intended to be a threat, but a warning––

a warning that certain actions have consequences…

an acknowledgment of cause and effect––

like, telling a toddler not to touch a hot oven.

But, then along comes the wily serpent…

who turns that warning into a threat…

bringing to the surface the humans’ latent insecurity and resentment––

which is reflected in their distortion of what God told them.

No longer is it “you shall not eat”––

now, they claim, “you shall not eat…nor shall you touch”.

Like petulant toddlers, they blow things out of proportion,

turning boundaries into barriers…

focusing on what they’re not allowed to do, rather than what they are––

or even on what they ought to be doing.

No matter what they have…

no matter how privileged their lives are…

they want more.

They want what they can’t have.

And what is it that they seek?


And yet, the pursuit of knowledge is really the pursuit of power:

God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”.

The humans in the story want power.

They want to be like God.

And that is the beginning of their downfall.

This story–– 

as it was originally intended––

was meant to be a reflection upon what it means to live in God’s world and on God’s terms;

and on humanity’s inherent failure to do that.

Of course, the story reflects a more primitive time…

and a more primitive understanding of God and the world.

But, if the man in the story is a symbol––

a representative––

of all humanity…

then is this not, essentially, the story of our world?

Is this not our story?


In our living in this world, we have not respected certain boundaries––

even if, today, we wouldn’t understand them as God-given or God-ordained.

And perhaps the story is suggesting to us…

that the unadulterated pursuit of knowledge is not necessarily a healthy thing.

Yes, we have a right to know and to understand the world around us––

but is that right absolute?

And at what cost?

Is there knowledge that comes at too high a price?

Does what we learn from space exploration really justify its financial cost?

Has learning how to split the atom really benefited humankind?

How many people have been harmed in the pursuit of such knowledge?

Furthermore, does freedom mean living our lives without limits, boundaries, or accountability?

When does our pursuit of power and control become problematic?

Is it right for us to “play God”?

Is it right for us to maintain life at all cost––

hooking people up to life support-machines—

when they ought to be allowed to die…

or helped to die with dignity?

Is it right to play around with human cloning?

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should.



if we were to put aside our unbridled lust for power… 

and our pathological need for control…

then maybe we could focus upon what would sustain the whole of creation…

and all of God’s creatures…

and, in so doing, fulfil our primary vocation.

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