Faithfulness Will Spring Up from the Ground – Tom Mundahl reflects on God’s shalom trumping “royal theologies.”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 10 – July 16, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Many have read with excitement Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, issued in 2015. By the simple act of taking advantage of the magisterial (teaching) function of the papacy, Francis focused renewed attention on climate change as the most pressing issue of our time, which if unchecked will lead to unimaginable desolation.
Bill McKibben, who has been working on this issue longer than most, having written the first widely-available book on climate change, The End of Nature (1989), posted an excited blog about the encyclical on the New York Review of Books website. Among the comments McKibben shared was that “the heart of the encyclical is less an account of environmental or social destruction than a remarkable attack on the way our world runs: on the rapidification of modern life, on the way that economic growth and technology trump all other concerns, on a culture that can waste billions of people.”
McKibben marvels at how this encyclical draws on both the teaching authority of the church and the ‘magisterium’ of modern science to reach its powerful conclusions. However, even truth this compelling must reckon with the long record of failure by the international community in reaching enforceable agreements. As the Pope has suggested in his earlier encyclical on economic justice, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of the deified market; consequently the most one can expect (from political leaders) is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern.”
The scriptures know well the conflict between power and the way of merciful justice, a conflict we see in this week’s appointed readings from Amos and the Gospel of Mark. Amos shows us the paradigmatic conflict between prophet and king, in this case, Jereboam. The prophet faithfully continues to deliver God’s message to the people, this time sharing the image of a “plumb line” which will reveal how ‘crooked’ the culture has become (Amos 7:8). Not only will this “plumb line” expose the level of corruption, but the result will be “laying waste” the sanctuaries and Jeroboam’s death. (Amos 7:9)
This is too much for Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. After sharing Amos’ prophecy with Jeroboam, he comes down hard on Amos. “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13). Here we see the power of royal theology, a pernicious ideology that we know all too well. In claiming Bethel for the king, Amaziah attempts to take away any future except that decreed by King Jeroboam “The present ordering, and by derivation the present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. That claim means there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it” (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 60).
As violent and threatening as Amos’ words are, they seem to be the only means of liberation from this “managed world.” Of course, this royal theology also contains threatening implications for God’s creation. Put simply, two understandings of the land are clearly presented. In the first, the land, like the temple, is ultimately the king’s to be managed for the good of the regime. Anyone who says differently, like Amos, must flee for their lives. “History is closed and land is manageable” (Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 102). Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies or watched the recent BBC film knows what this royal theology is about.
But Amos stands firm. While it is true he has no ‘royal commission’ to add to his vita, in fact, he is not even a hereditary member of the “company of prophets,” but simply a “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14), he has one advantage. It was the LORD who called him, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). With this authority he intensifies his first prophecy:
“Now, therefore, hear the word of the LORD. You say, do not prophesy against.
Israel, and do not preach against Isaac. Therefore, thus says the LORD:
Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters
shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; and you
yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:16-17).
For Israel has forgotten the second, but most basic understanding of “the land.” “The land is mine, with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). A good reminder to Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and all of us.
A similar conflict between the blindness of ‘royal ideology’ and the prophetic message is found in our reading from Mark. Like Amos, John the Baptist is true to his calling to be an Elijah, speaking truth to power. Here, he has roundly condemned the political marriage of Herod Antipas, often called “king,” but in fact only one of the tetrarchs ruling Galilee and Transjordan (ca. 4 BCE-39 CE). This has especially angered Herod’s new wife, on whose account the tetrarch has John imprisoned.
While everyone knows the story, no one has dramatized it better than Richard Strauss, with his opera, “Salome.” Relying on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name as a libretto the most dramatic moment in this work comes with Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Drunken Herod is so moved by this erotic performance that he makes a promise common to folktales, a promise no one should ever make: “Whatever you ask me I will give you, even half my kingdom” (Mark 6:23). We know the result: after consultation with her mother, Salome asks for the John’s head, which, brought in on a platter, becomes the final course in this celebration of the irresponsibility of royal power.
Mark portrays Herod Antipas as genuinely grieved at the outcome. No wonder when Herod hears of the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus and his disciples, he concludes, “John, whom I beheaded has been raised” (Mark 6:16). Adele Yarbro Collins writes, “The identification of Jesus with John suggests that Jesus will meet a similar fate at the hands of the authorities. But the mention of resurrection implies, ironically, that Jesus, not John, will rise from the dead” (The Beginning of the Gospel, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 62).
Yet the similarity needs to be retained. As Ched Myers reminds us, “The point of identification of Jesus and John is this: the political destiny of those who proclaim repentance and a new order is always the same . . . insofar as they inherit this mission, they inherit its destiny.” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 217)
This has been all true too among those seeking to serve creation. It is now twenty years since Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian government for his protest against Royal Dutch Shell’s petroleum waste dumping. Just this year, Fr. Fausto Tentorio and others in the Philippines have been killed because of their resistance to transnational mining and petroleum interests. Even (or especially) in the U.S. one thinks of the nearly 400 women and men arrested to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2014, or Tim Dechristopher, who protested opening the fragile red rock area of Utah for oil leases by the Bureau of Land Management by bidding on leases he never intended to pay for. This earned Dechristopher twenty-one months in prison, but it also nearly stopped this unwise exploitation of this beautiful natural area.
If our readings from Amos and Mark describe conflict all too common to our condition, today’s second lesson from Ephesians provides a welcome vision of unity. Following a conventional salutation, our text is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origin in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong trinitarian elements (Ephesians 1:3, 5, 13). This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14), strongly suggests liturgical song.
Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism—“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians, then, is creating a “new family” through “breaking down he dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for an expanded family of faith.
The widening scope of this home-building is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the centuries-spanning work of Irenaeus and Gustav Wingren—builds a new foundation.
The nature of that plan is now stated. It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ. The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The common meaning at the time was “to sum up,” to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find . . . its principle of cohesion (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 17).
In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase “God’s plan” in a helpful way? It is crucial to recall that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οίκονομία, a word that implies an ordering of the household, and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for “the earth household” is the harmonious gathering of “all,” τα παντα, so that every member of this “buzzing blooming creation “can be “at home” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 161).
This blueprint or pattern for creation may be best summarized by the simple Hebrew word, shalom, a word that many of us have jettisoned fearing charges of naivete. Yet this is precisely how this week’s Psalm (85:8-13) summarizes our hope.
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase” (Psalm 85: 10-12).
This certain vision and the empowerment that comes from living it trumps even the “royal theologies” of our time that see God’s earth and its people as resources to exhaust in the pursuit of the false security of wealth and power. As I reflect on the recent gift of “Laudato Si’,” I recall a few times when this vision became real for me. It was in 2004 when my wife and I were visiting friends at Mariakloster, a newly established Trappistine community on the Island of Tautra, at the northern end of Trondheimfjord in Norway. In the midst of the Sunday Eucharist, I was suddenly asked to offer an extemporaneous reflection on the readings. As I stood in the midst of that small community and looked out the large window at the fjord, I was silenced by the immense harmony. While I cannot recall anything I said, the experience of suddenly being enfolded by this silent wholeness spoke most elegantly of the melody of creation—a tuneful οίκονομία.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2015.