Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 16, 2001
Stand before life, holding out empty hands
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
Theologian, James Mackey, once shared this story: A man he knew was part of a hunting expedition in Africa. His group was camped in a jungle. One morning he left camp early, hiked a few miles into the bush by himself, and shot two wild turkeys.
Buckling these to his belt, he was walking back towards camp, when he heard noises and realized he was being followed. Frightened, his hands tight on his rifle, he scanned the woods for movement.
His fear was quickly dispelled. What he saw stalking him was a young boy, about 12 years old, naked and hungry. He realized instantly that what the boy wanted was not him but food. He stopped, opened his belt, let the turkeys fall to the ground, and backed away.
The young boy ran up to the turkeys, but didn't pick them up. Instead he looked towards the man and, in his own language, began asking him for something. Not understanding what the boy was asking, but sensing that he wanted permission to take the birds, the man began gesturing to him that it was okay. But the boy still was not at ease. He kept asking and gesturing for something.
Finally, in desperation, the boy took several steps back from the turkeys and stood silently with his hands out, open in front of him - waiting until the man came and placed the turkeys into his hands. Then he ran off into the jungle. He had, despite his hunger and need, refused to take the birds. He had waited until they were given to him.
This story, in essence, captures what makes for the opposite of original sin. This young boy did what Adam and Eve didn't do. He accepted that life had to be given him and that he could not take it all on his own, no matter how desperate he was.
How is this so? To answer that, we need to look at what constituted the original sin. What did Adam and Eve do that so badly violated God's plan? How is their action the opposite of this young boy's?
The story of the fall of Adam and Eve is coloured throughout, especially at the end (nakedness and shame), with sexual imagery, so much so that we can easily conclude that their transgression was of a sexual nature. It wasn't. The sexual motif in the story is a metaphor, an image of rape. Adam and Eve took, as by force, something that can only be received in love.
The condition that God gave Adam and Eve might be summarized this way: "I am giving you life. I will bathe you in life. But you must receive it and never take it. As long as you receive it, it will always be life-giving. But on the day you begin to take, rather than receive, your actions will begin to deal death, distrust, alienation, nakedness and shame." That single commandment encapsulates all morality.
Sometimes we ask why God gave a commandment to Adam and Eve in the first place: Why a condition? Why not paradise without conditions? The question is a valid one, but, in answering it, we must be careful to not see the commandment as a test, as some arbitrary thing that God might have asked or not asked.
The condition here isn't arbitrary, it's something inherent within love itself. How so? God made a love-contoured universe. In such an order of things, everything is gift. Nothing may be snatched, grabbed by force or claimed by right. Life can only be received as gift, respectfully, in its own time.
It's the same with love. Something is only love and it can only give life, when it is freely given and gratefully received. This condition is part of love's DNA. Love is not unconditional and never can be. There is a condition innate to love itself. To be love, something must be received as gift. Conversely, if love is snatched by force rather than respectfully received as gift, we have another word for that - we call it rape.
The original sin of Adam and Eve wasn't sexual, but it was an act of rape. They wrongfully took what was intended as gift. Our culture, which rewards aggressiveness and tells us that we are foolish not to take for ourselves the good things we want, too often invites us to do the same thing.
The story of Adam and Eve was written centuries after the Ten Commandments were given and is an attempt to summarize all of them in a single condition: "You may receive, but you may never take!" That's also the lesson in Jesus' gentle correction of the rich young man: The man had asked: "What must I do to possess eternal life?" Jesus' answer: "If you would receive eternal life, you must, like the young African boy, stand before life with empty hands and wait until it is given you."