Tillers, Tenders, and Takers

Lent One Year A

Genesis 2: 15-17, 3:1-7

Tillers, Tenders, and Takers

We begin Lent at the beginning—namely the Garden of Eden.  Our first ancestors were called to be tillers and tenders of the garden.    But this is also where the trouble started.  This is a story to which we can return time and time again, and still learn something new.  In our primeval history we see the fundamental flaw of the human heart…we want freedom without limits.  We would rather live in a world of our own creation, than live by God’s rules in God’s world.

We studied this passage from Genesis in Bible Basics last year.  We decided that the expulsion from the garden and subsequent fencing off of the tree of life was a mixed blessing.  Yes, paradise was lost and they would now taste death.  But had they eaten from the tree of life, their sinful state would have been eternal.   They would have been doomed to endless physical life in a fallen world.  So, God leaves the story open to the future, with the possibility of redemption and paradise regained.   We have an optimist for a God.

We note that the fall altered all relationships:  The one between man and woman, between humans and the rest of creation, between humans and God, and last, within ourselves as we begin to know shame and guilt for the first time.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the tree of free will.   Think of it simply as the “tree of all knowledge”, to know what God knows.   Knowledge is power. To eat of this tree is to have the freedom to decide our own destiny, independent of God’s will for us.  We now can determine what is in our best interest.  But is freedom without limits really free?  Adam and Eve found out that nothing could be costlier.

God has set limits.  We know what those limits are.  For starters, we have a list of 10 thou shalts and thou shalt nots clearly stated in the Bible.  Jesus’ response to the devil with each temptation is “it is written…”  Jesus knows the limits.  Then there are the obvious limits in life.   There is a limit to the amount of time we have on this earth.  And then there are the natural consequences of actions…if you don’t know how to swim and you fall in the pond, you drown.  Those are the limits of natural laws. Yes, there are limits in this world.

But there is also free will.  We are free to believe anything or nothing.  We are free to seek other gods.  We are free to sin. One point we made in our Bible Basics study is that disobedience began with the first generation, and got worse with each subsequent generation.  As the saying  goes, freedom without limits isn’t free…there is always a cost.  It’s just a matter of who is paying the cost.

As I wrestled with this text, I had trouble coming up with an example of freedom without limits.  Then my husband and I watched an amazing film called “Inside Job.”  Bingo.  This Oscar winning documentary represents the best current example of freedom without limits. This is not a Michael Moore poke fun at the big corporations sort of thing.  It is an analysis of the economic crisis of 2008.

We know that the global financial meltdown, at a cost of over $20 trillion, resulted in millions of people losing their homes and jobs. We’re seeing the ripple effects right now in the PA budget.  Through extensive research and interviews with major financial insiders, politicians and journalists, the documentary traces the rise of a financial services industry free of government regulation. The analysis reveals the resulting corrosive relationships which have corrupted politics, financial institutions at the highest levels and even the economics departments of our most respected universities.

One reviewer put it this way.  This film is as gripping as any thriller. Aided by some fascinating interviews, (Director Charles) Ferguson lays out an awful story. In the 1980s, the markets and financial services were deregulated, and the driving force for this liberalization was Alan Greenspan, formidable chairman of the US Federal Reserve board from 1987 to 2006. Banks and loan companies were freer to gamble with their depositors’ money; they were themselves freer to borrow more; they were free to offer investors dizzyingly complex financial instruments, with income streams from different debts bundled up, including high-interest home loans offered to high-risk borrowers – the so-called “sub-prime” market that offered mouthwateringly high returns. I would add that individual borrowers were free to make spectacularly bad decisions on their own behalf.

The good times rolled. The banks ballooned. They offered their traders mind-blowing bonuses to encourage risk-taking chutzpah, corporate loyalty, and a neurotically driven pursuit of profit. Ferguson argues that crucially, the banks were allowed to insure against bad debts with credit default swaps – any number of these insurance policies could be purchased against one particular risk. Chillingly, the banks now had a vested interest in selling insanely risky products, as they themselves were lavishly insured with these swaps.[1]

This involves at the worst, corruption, and at the least, influence peddling, in government.  For every member of Congress, there are at least 5 lobbyists from the financial services industry.  The same financial services industry insiders get recycled as economic advisors and cabinet level posts going back 5 presidential administrations.  Economists from respected universities receive millions from the very corporations whose fitness and health the economists are being asked to comment upon.  Little remains unscathed in this scandal.

The operative word throughout all of this “free.”  They felt free to take, and take they did.  These are people who are entrusted with the wealth of our nation.  And placed in positions of the highest authority and trust, above reproach, at the pinnacle of their profession, they robbed our nation and precipitated an economic crisis second only to the Great Depression.  And to date, not one of them has gone to jail.  At least Adam and Eve blushed after their transgression!  These folks didn’t even blush let alone apologize.  Great sin against God and neighbor has been committed.  Once we see ourselves as separate and independent from God, sin against neighbor is never far behind.  Generations to come will pay for this.

The gap between the very rich and the rest of us here in this great country is greater than ever in history.  It is the biggest among all the developed nations. The cuts we see in the current PA budget are just the waves of tsunami lapping up on the shore.  We don’t have to look far to see what happens when a country loses its middle class.  We are confronted with a basic justice issue, of biblical proportions.  Instead of tilling and tending the Garden, trespassers are stealing from the Garden.

What is the proper response for us tillers and tenders of the Garden?  I don’t think we can just go back to our own lives, do the best we can and let it go at that.   There is an awful lot of trust that has been placed in us by the Creator.  I think we are called to confront freedom without limits when it threatens everything good that has been created for us.  Pursuit of profit at the expense of the public good is a yeast that can and will leaven the whole loaf.  Nothing will remain untouched if we do not act and act quickly.

I recall one of my favorite All in the Family episodes.  Archie and Meathead are arguing about religion and morality.  Archie cites the Garden episode to make some particular point. “God said to Adam and Eve get your clothes on and get the heck out of here.” Maybe it’s time for us to say the people responsible for this mess, get your clothes on and get the heck out of here!  Part of my Lenten discipline this year is to begin writing letters to my elected representatives and educating myself about this crisis.  I believe we are called to do so. Tillers and Tenders of the Garden-let’s wake up!

Our reading from Genesis states clearly our real purpose in being placed here at the center of God’s creation.  We are here to till and tend the Garden. We are not just to take from the Garden.   Jesus taught us how to do that just that:  live within limits and love without limits.  We are to be servants of creation, not servants of self-interest.  As tillers and tenders of the garden, it is up to us to call others into right relationship with God and neighbor.  We must sound the alarm for there are trespassers in God’s Garden.



[1] From a review by Peter Bradshaw of the UK Guardian