Critic magazine reported in the late 1960s that Pope Paul VI had called a panel of experts to Rome to discuss original sin.

The group surfaced several interesting ideas. No one denied the disordering of our human nature which post-biblical theologians labeled "original sin." Its effects are too evident to be discounted or ignored. But they stressed that the historical triggering device of this universal condition was probably different from the biblical myth we learned as children.

Pope Paul's team of anthropologists, Scripture scholars, theologians and other specialists concluded that our primal ancestors' sin wasn't something they did; it was something they didn't do. They were presented with a God-given opportunity to change the environment in which they lived, but they refused to do so, forever condemning their descendants to a lifetime struggle with the sin-causing, disordered surroundings they willingly accepted.

The panel forces us to hear Sunday's readings from a new perspective.

Nakedness

The always perceptive author of Genesis presents us with an undeniable sign of our disordered human condition: clothes (Gen 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7). Every culture or tribe known to anthropologists covers some part of their bodies. It might be minimal, not even concealing the parts we normally hide. But humans never reveal all of themselves to everyone. It's too risky.

Though small children have no problem with nudity, once they reach the point of knowing good and evil, they alter their behavior. The first man and woman could have changed all that, but they refused to do what was necessary to bring about a transformation of their surroundings. They sacrificed a fulfilling life for an all-pervasive death.

Paul's reflection on Jesus' significance takes on a new meaning when we begin to look at Adam's sin as one of omission rather than commission (Rom 5: 12-19). By permitting the sinful dimensions of his surroundings to dominate his existence, the first man guaranteed that sin would be part of our existence. Only by challenging His environment did Jesus provide us with the power and example to change our environment.

Paul reminds the Romans, "If death began its reign through one man because of his offense, much more shall those who receive the overflowing grace and gift of justice live and reign through one man, Jesus Christ....Just as a single offense brought condemnation to all, a single righteous act brought all acquittal and life."

One courageous, environment-changing action will benefit everyone who lives in that environment.

Testing time

Matthew is the first evangelist to specify the temptations Jesus overcomes in the wilderness (Mt 4: 1-11). Expanding on Mark's simple comment that Jesus was "put to the test by Satan," he clicks off three areas of testing.

Scripture scholars agree that the temptations which Matthew lists aren't so much those Jesus faced in the early 30s, as they are the ones His community experienced in the late 70s.

Turning stones into bread implies that some in the Gospel community believed they did enough for others by just meeting their physical needs. Throwing oneself from a great height and walking away unscathed contradicts those who thought stupendous, headline-making actions were the most important of our faith. And the human desire to gain political clout can be inspired by no one but Satan.

Doing or saying something to counter each temptation, Jesus sets an example for us. By the dying/rising way He lived His life, He not only resisted these specific temptations, but also created an environment which ran counter to them.

Presuming Paul VI's experts are correct, Jesus saves us from original sin by showing us how to alter the sinful surroundings in which we live. There's just one problem: It takes a death to accomplish such a transformation.

(2/10/05)