I wonder whether you have ever been to the Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens? It is billed as the most poisonous garden in the world. So long as you do exactly as you are told by the tour guide, you will be perfectly safe; but decide that the rules don’t apply to you, and you might make yourself violently sick, or even die.
The Lord God, we are told, planted a garden and took on the human as apprentice, to learn the care and use and misuse of plants. One of the trees in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, had fruit that was poisonous to us. Of course, humans are not the only creatures the Lord God created and provides for, and there are plants whose fruit is poisonous to us but good for some other animal or bird. There are also plants whose flowers, or berries, or leaves, or bark are highly toxic, and yet whose bark, or leaves, or berries, or flowers, rightly prepared, have medicinal properties. It is almost impossible for us, who do not have to discover these things for ourselves, to imagine how frightening the world might be for our ancestors, were it not for divine protection and tutoring.
Note that evil is already present in the world, the result of some element of creation, here represented by the serpent, being in rebellion against the Lord God. The human gardeners will need knowledge of good and evil, will need to learn how to do good and avoid evil. And there is provision for this: but God would avoid them learning it by a Russian roulette trial-and-fatal-error. (Not that either Russia or roulette had yet been invented, you understand.) Note also that death is already a reality in the world. The humans would have experienced it. There is no “all animals were plant-eaters before the Fall of Man” nonsense here. But again, God would have the humans avoid a sudden and premature death, with all the fear that brings.
So, the Lord God provides a tree, among the trees, with purpose and parameters. But the parameters are broken, and the purpose remains at least partially unfulfilled—although the consequences are ameliorated.
This tree of the knowledge of good and evil comes up, albeit unnamed, in our Gospel reading. Jesus declares, “I am casting out demons and performing cures.” In other words, he has knowledge of evil, and how to cast it out; and knowledge of good, explicitly how to cure the sick. Jesus has mastered what the first apprentice failed to do. Even so, it is a risky business: and he too will die, even if not today or tomorrow or the next day.
We are called to join him, in growing in our knowledge of good and evil under the direction of God’s instruction. To get our hands dirty, with Jesus—and at times under his protection. But are we willing?
This week, yet again, we have heard news of children who went to school and grew in their knowledge of good and evil, as classmates were gunned down and a football coach laid down his own life to protect the children in his care. Yet again, we see sly political leaders offer empty ‘thoughts and prayers’ while refusing to address the cause of death. From where we stand, the American obsessive love-affair with that tool of violence, the gun, is beyond understanding. The danger is that such reports obscure to us our own context, to the evil we are called to cast out and the cures we are called to perform. Jesus gave his followers power and authority to do the things that he had been doing. May God open our eyes to see, and our ears to listen.