2nd Sunday of Lent (A) – March 5, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-20, 22; 2 Timothy 1:8b-10; Matthew 17:1-9
Why is everything still so obviously messed up?
Human beings do a lot of really bad things; really quite evil things. The question is “why”? (And yeah sorry, the bad news continues today. We can only embrace the good news to the extent that we understand the bad news, so we need to dig just a little deeper.) Last week, we answered the question, “Why is everything so obviously messed up?” by saying that it’s because there is a rebel, an Enemy, that has introduced this rebellion into the world—who captured this world, has captured the human race. The issue is that it’s easy to then just play the victim: everything is so bad because of the Devil. And yet, as we look around, we see that it’s humans that are doing really bad things. The question is “why?”
Sociologists will say, “Well if you oppress people, they’ll respond with violence. If you oppress people, those unjust social conditions cause evil and violence.” Well, the only problem is, “What made the oppressors bad?” Because very often they never were oppressed. Psychologists will say, “Well, if you you neglect somebody, if you abandon them, if you abuse them, if you don’t give them love—they can do horrific things.” Yes! That’s true. But it’s also true that a lot of people who do horrific things have not had that kind of background.
There’s this really good, but really difficult book, horrifying book called Ordinary Men. And it’s about a police force from middle class Germany during the Second World War. Most of them were middle-aged family men, middle and lower class—but considered too old to be drafted into the army, so they were drafted into this police order. Their job was to come in after the German army had conquered a place to sort of “mop up” after the army: to make “peace,” keep things in order. So one thing they did was help to round up all of the Jewish men between 18 and 65, gathering them in stadiums and then ship them off on the trains. And they didn’t know what Auschwitz was or what so going on—they just thought it was a typical work camp. But that’s not where they ended up. The book begins by describing their first major operation. They arrived early one morning in a small Jewish village called Józefów. And their commander, this fifty-three year old career police officer named Wilhelm Trapp (who they all called “Papa Trapp”)—he gathered the men. And “pale and nervous, with choking voice and tears in his eyes,” he told them that they had been given the task to round up the 1,800 Jews in this village. The men between 18 and 65 were to be taken to the work camps. The women, and the children, and the elderly … they were to be shot. But then Trapp made an offer: he said that if they didn’t feel up to the task, they could go home. But they carried out the task. And it’s not like they enjoyed it! They were physically ill, vomiting; it describes the psychological horrors they went through—so it’s not like they were sadistic. No, they were ordinary men! But here they were, executing women and children.
What if these conditions don’t create evil in us. But what if those conditions just magnify something that’s already there?
In 1961, Adolf Eichman, one of the masterminds of the Jewish Holocaust—in 1961 he was captured and put on trial for his crimes. One of the people that testified at his trial was a man by the name of Yehiel De-Nur. Yehiel was a survivor of the death camps. But during his testimony—sitting in the box across from Eichmann—Yehiel started sobbing uncontrollably, and fainted. Twenty-two years later in 1983, Yehiel was being interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. And Wallace showed him this clip and asked him about it. He asked him “why” he was overcome—was it fear at seeing his former captor, or rage or anger. And Yehiel’s answer was startling. He said, “No hatred. But hatred about human beings. I was afraid about myself.” Face to face with the man that had ripped up his visa, and sent him to the death camps—Yehiel was overcome because he realized that this was no demon, not some “superman,” no. This man who had sent millions to their death—he was an ordinary human being, exactly like Yehiel. Yehiel became terrified about himself. He told Wallace that he realized, “I am capable of doing this? I am capable just like this? It’s not a god! It’s not Hitler! It’s not Eichmann! It’s me.”
Today, this is where the bad news gets extra personal. Last week we saw how each one of us enters into this world in captivity—we are born under the dominion of Sin and Death, born into the kingdom of darkness, Scripture says. But lest we think we’re mere victims (although we are victims!)—today…well, today we need to see that we are also at time “co-conspirators.”
Our goals today are simple. First, we want to recognize the “new normal” after Adam and Eve’s rebellion—specifically, the new normal for the human heart. What is wrong with the human heart? But then, we also want to see how this plays out in what theologians have called the “ego drama” versus the “theo drama.”
The New Normal of the Human Heart
If you go read Genesis 4-11, you’ll discover how things immediately begin to spiral out of control. So remember, we’re not reading a modern historical narrative, but a poetic historical narrative. And so right after Genesis 3 helps us to answer the question “why is everything so obviously messed up?” it then goes on to show just how deep the problem goes. The first man and woman begin this rebellion by “eating fruit”—but then, in the next generation, brother kills brother, Cain kills Abel. And then, as Genesis traces Cain’s descendants, it gets worse and worse! By the seventh generation of Cain’s line (so remember, seven is the number in Genesis 1 that shows completeness and perfection)—in the seventh generation we’re introduced to a man named Lamech, who has taken several wives and kills anyone that gives him a sideways glance. Here in the seventh generation, evil reaches a kind of perfection. And even in the descendants of Adam and Eve’s other son, Seth—things are initially going really well for them! Until they see what all of Cain’s descendants are doing … and they become no different. Brother versus brother, tribe versus tribe, nation versus nation—Genesis traces it all.
But what’s the deeper point that Genesis is revealing? Remember, it’s not just some literal play-by-play of what happened. So what’s it saying? It’s saying that, whatever Adam and Eve did, whatever this rebellion looked like—they have sold our race into captivity to power against which we cannot compete. God isn’t blaming us for something Adam and Eve did. We are infected with the disease. The Church compares this captivity to a “contagion” (c.f., Rite of Baptism)—it’s a disease, a pandemic that infects everything (which we know nothing about, huh?).
So, Genesis is trying to help us to see that the problem isn’t Adam and Eve, it’s not your brother, it’s not your neighbor, or that political party, or that nation. No. “They” “them” “those people over there”—they are not the issue. IT’S YOU. Do we see that? Our initial reaction is always to point the finger! That’s what Adam and Eve do. God asks Adam and Eve what they’ve done. Adam says, “The woman made me do it.” Eve says, “The serpent made me do it.” Over and over and over. We point the finger! But what Scripture and our Tradition are desperate to point out to us is that the problem is a lot closer to home than we want to admit … it’s right here *points to heart*.
Take Cain and Abel for instance! We can easily read that story as, “Well, Cain is the bad guy and Abel is the good guy.” Sure. But even more deeply, that story is trying to describe you. And it’s so easy as to say, “Well, some people are Cain and some people are Able.” No, wrong! That story is saying, “You are both.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a famous Russian novelist, and he spent close to a decade in a Russian gulag, their labor camps. And even after seeing the horrors of that, after seeing the horrors committed by the Russian communists—in a situation where “they” could easily have been said to be evil, he wrote this: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago).
What did we learn about Ordinary Men? What did Yehiel De-Nur discover? What did Solzhenitsyn’s experience teach him? The real challenge, the real hardship in my life … it’s me. It’s always been me. This line between good and evil is at play in my heart.
The Ego Drama: Deceived Into Self-Love
You know, the Bible, Scripture isn’t just some rule book. Scripture (among other things) is a brilliant insight into humanity. It paints a portrait of Sin and our heart—and why it is that we try so hard to find happiness apart from God. Why do we do that? Because the captivity we experience is one that tells us that we can find happiness if the most important person in the world … is me! This is the “Ego Drama”; the ego, the “I”-centered drama. “I produce it, I direct it, and I (above all) am starring in it! Life is about me, myself, and I. The most important part of everything that’s going on is me! Everything happens in my life if I make it happen. Look at my job, at my career, at my kids, at my bank account—I did all of that! It’s about me! Life is about me!”
And when life is all about me, when every decision and everything has me at the center, that’s when people get very destructive. I mean, abortion is the classic example: here comes another human life, but this new life is threatening the plans and hopes and dreams of this young woman—it’s threatening the plans and hopes and dreams of her boyfriend or husband, or her parents and grandparents. And the solution? Place yourself at the center of the universe, affirm the ego drama, the “I”-centered universe … and destroy anything that gets in your way.
This plays out in a hundred-and-one different ways: abortion, euthanasia, deception, manipulation, greed, work, racism, nationalism, economics—you name it! We begin forging our own path. Life is about what I do, what I can accomplish, and what I can provide: here’s my career, my political opinion, my person I choose to love, my interpretation of how the world should work. We decide to make ourselves the center of the universe. And everyone else suffers because of it. And in the end, I suffer because of it.
One of Jesus’ most famous parables illustrates just this. Luke 15 tells the story of a Father and his two sons. And one day, one of the sons says, “Father, give me my share of the inheritance coming to me.” What’s the first thing we hear? “Me. Me. Me.” All about me. But also, what did he just say? How does someone get an inheritance? Someone has to die. So in essence, while focusing everything on himself, he then says, “Father, I wish you were dead. In fact, you’re dead to me. Give me my money.” This son, in exalting the ego drama, seeks the destruction of his own Father. And when the Father gives him this inheritance, he strikes out on his own—living his best life! Cars, and booze, and parties, and women. But then one day he wakes up, alone, hungry, broke, empty … sleeping with the pigs. This is where the ego drama leads—our destruction, which is the Enemy’s goal. And notice! This isn’t just because this son was a captive to the enemy; he’s not just a helpless victim, no! He went along with it. He’s a “co-conspirator.”
One worry of mine is that we hear these things and think, “Well, I mean, I’m not perfect, but I’m not executing women and children. I’m not Adolph Eichmann. I’m not this or that!” But you are. I am. And no matter how good of a person you are, this is still in your heart. Because this is the human heart. The ego drama is always at work.
The Theo Drama: The First Promise of Hope
Now, you may think, “Well, you’re right, Father! So I’ll repent and start to be a good person.” And while that’s great, and yes, repentance is going to be important—repentance is not enough. Let me say that again: repentance is not enough. Scripture tells the story time and time and time again of even the best of figures falling and repenting…but repenting doesn’t fix it. Repentance doesn’t save us from the captivity we find ourselves in, and it definitely doesn’t heal our hearts of the contagion which plagues it, no. We are incapable of escaping from this. What did we hear last week in the book of Wisdom? “Through the envy of the devil, death entered the world. And those who are in his possession experience it.” (Wisdom 2:24) The Devil’s goal isn’t to possess you (like some exorcist movie)—but you are his possession. What does Jesus say? “When a strongman full armed guards his house, his possessions are safe.” We don’t just get to decide that we’re done with all of this and walk out, no.
And so that’s where the Theo Drama begins. That’s why there at the beginning, right after the rebellion of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3:15, God promises to do something about it. He promises to send someone, an offspring of a woman, who will crush the head of this serpent … but will himself be killed by the bite of this snake—one who will defeat the snake by allowing himself to be defeated by it. God himself begins a plan, a “drama” which won’t leave us in this frightful state. God himself initiates a plan to overcome the captivity in which we find ourselves. God himself promises to save us. We are incapable of doing anything to fix this, ultimately—right? That’s the claim: Adam and Eve sold our race into captivity to power against which we cannot compete. So God promises to compete on our behalf. He will die so that we might live.
It’s those words we heard in our second reading from the second letter of Timothy, and I’ll close with those: “He saved us…not according to our works but according to his own design…through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (c.f., 2 Timothy 1:9-10). The gospel, the good news, the explosively good news. This is where we move next week.