Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler
Debonair Care, or Use in Love
The Fifth Sunday in Easter in Year C
What does it mean to have a servant’s heart for creation?
The pioneering Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler was fond of playing with the implications of different translations of the biblical text. He was especially intrigued by a common French translation of Matthew 5:5, which in English is commonly translated as “Blessed are the meek.” Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as “Blessed are the debonair.” While “debonair” in common parlance might call to mind connotations of a dapper French gentleman sipping espresso in a Paris café, Sittler pointed out that something else might be going on in the time of the French Bible of Calvin:
But “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything. Such a one knows status for what it is and knows that it isn’t everything and knows beauty and human acclaim for the promising and deceptive things that they really are. This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…
Sittler went on to tie this sensibility to creation care.
It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth, or have a real estate option on the big pieces. It says they shall inherit the earth. What’s the difference between owning and inheriting? The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift. Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place, with their technological assaults upon it. Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.
This sensibility by Sittler helps explain the linkage between the Acts text and the gospel for this week. The gospel lesson from John recounts the classic instance of Jesus operating as a servant towards his disciples: washing their feet and giving the commandment to love. It may seem a stark contrast that this is then paired with the Acts reading, in which Peter is given license to kill and eat food that would have previously been unclean for him as a Jew.
But the gospel sensibility informs the Acts text. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This is a key to true service. Like Adam and Eve, Peter is granted creation for use; however, the use is not to be one of domination, but one of gentle engagement—recognize the goodness of creation (“what God has made clean”), use it, but recognize it precisely as a gift.
The awe that this inspires is what produces the servant’s heart. To serve creation is to regard it with love, and this love is what inspired right use of it—and perhaps even advocacy against those for whom use would turn into abuse.
Sittler brings the point home with an anecdote:
The same time I was studying this beautitude, and began to see some light . . . .I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became. Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.” They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”
And so the preacher this week has the unique challenge to speak to we heirs of Peter, those whom God calls to use the earth wisely and with love.
(All quotes from Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24).