Some years ago, I sat in on a series of lectures on the theology of the Trinity given by James Mackey. At one point in these lectures, Mackey suggested that perhaps the best words available to help us understand somewhat the flow of life within God are the four Eucharistic words of Jesus: Receive, Give Thanks, Break, and Share.
In explaining the first of these words, Receive, he shared with us the following story:
A man he knew was once part of a hunting expedition in Africa. One morning this man left the camp early, by himself, and hiked several miles into the jungle where he surprised and eventually bagged two wild turkeys. Buckling his catch to his belt, he headed back for camp. At a point, however, he sensed he was being followed. With his senses sharpened by fright, he stopped, hands on his rifle, and looked around him. His fears dispelled when he saw who it was that was following him.
Following him at a distance was a naked, and obviously starved, adolescent boy. The boy’s obvious objective was food, not threat. Seeing this, the man stopped, unbuckled his belt, and letting the crane fall to the ground, backed off and gestured to the boy that he could come and take the birds. The boy ran up to the two birds but, inexplicably, refused to pick them up. He was, seemingly, still asking for something else. Perplexed, the man tried both by words and by gestures to indicate to the boy that he could have the birds. Still the boy refused to pick them up. Finally, in desperation, unable to explain what he still wanted, the boy backed off several meters from the dead birds and stood with outstretched and open hands … waiting, waiting until the man came and placed the birds in his hands. He had, despite hunger, fear, and intense need, refused to take the birds. He waited until they were given to him; he received them.
That simple story is a mini course in fundamental moral theology. It summarizes all of Christ’s moral teachings and the entire Ten Commandments. If we, like this boy, would always wait until life was given to us as gift, as opposed to taking it as by right, seizing it, or raping it, we would never break a single commandment. Moreover we would have in our lives the first, and most important, religious virtue of all, the sense that all is gift, that nothing is owed us by right.
In a way, this story is the opposite of the original sin story. In the Adam and Eve story, God gives them life and then adds a commandment which, on the surface, appears rather strange and arbitrary, “do not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and good and evil”. What is this commandment?
In essence, what God is telling Adam and Eve is … “I am going to give you life. You may only receive that life. You may never take it. To take it is to ruin and destroy the gift that it is.” Adam and Eve’s sin was, ultimately, one of rape, the act of robbing, despoiling, and taking by force something which can only be had when it is received gratefully and respectfully as gift. Their sin, as is all sin, was an irreverence, the failure to respect the deepest foundations of a reality that is love contoured. Simply put, the original sin was a failure in gratitude and receptivity, the failure to respect gift. It is no accident that the author of the story employs images (nakedness, shame) that are suggestive of sexual violation. That is the very point of the story, except that the rape that is being talked about here is wider than sex. In turning away from the posture of receptivity to the posture of seizing, Adam and Eve began to take by force, as by right, what was theirs only as gift. The result of that is always, shame, a darkened mind, rationalization, and the beginnings of a dysfunctional world.
In the story of the boy who refused to take the very food he needed to live on, we see what the opposite of original sin looks like. That kind of patient receptive waiting and respect might aptly be termed “original virtue” … and it is so needed today!
In a world whose spirit defines morality by achievement and the accumulation of things, and which invites us to demand our rights and suggests that “God helps those who help themselves”, it is radically countercultural to suggest that a patient waiting to be given life (even when we are hungry) is better than the active seizing of it. But …
To Adam and Eve, God said: “It is good, but it is gift, respect it as such. Don’t ever take the apple!” All of morality is still summarized in that line.