The Best Title for Jesus? He is the Lord and Servant of Creation! – Dennis Ormseth reflects on who the Gospel of Matthew tells us Jesus is.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday August 21-27, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023, 2026)
Who do you say I am? The Lord and Servant of Creation.
“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus of his disciples in the Gospel for this Sunday after Pentecost. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” his disciple Simon Peter answers. Our own response to Jesus’ question, based on the readings we have given to the lections thus far in Year A, is this: “Jesus is the Lord, the Servant of creation.” We have argued for the validity of this new title for Jesus through a now rather extended commentary on those lections. In our comment on the readings for The Holy Trinity we summarized our reflections towards that conclusion, and we would refer our readers to that comment for the substance of our argument.
Peter’s answer raises the question of the validity of our answer anew, however. Because the title of “Messiah” tends to evoke for the Christian reader a rather high Christology, our answer may seem to have less than a clear claim to be revealed by Jesus’ “Father in heaven.” It is, perhaps, more like those answers the disciples reported “people” were giving, answers derived no doubt from “flesh and blood,” which Warren Carter suggests, “denotes the human situation before God, . . . as the inability to know God and God’s ways. It underlines the limitations of ‘human intellectual, religious and mystical capacities’ before God” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. London: T&T Clark, 2005, p. 56).
We acknowledge such limitations! It can be noted, however, that contrary to conventional views, there was in fact “no standard expectation of a messiah, nor did every Jew look for a special anointed figure.” Use of the term, Carter insists, rather “raises a question. For what special task or role has God anointed or designated Jesus?” An answer is given early in the Gospel: “He will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). But it takes the entire gospel to develop fully what this disarmingly simple answer actually entails. The account of Peter’s confession can accordingly be seen as a “summary scene” that “restates the central issue” as it relates to the narrative of Jesus’ story at the end of the third block of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 11:2-16:20): “Have people been able to discern from Jesus’ ministry that he is God’s Christ, the one anointed to manifest God’s salvation and empire (cf. Mt 11:2-6)” (Carter, p. 332).
It seems clear that while “the people” do not see in Jesus “the Christ,” the disciples do. On the other hand, it is not clear that the disciples know what the actual role of this Messiah is. At the conclusion of his commentary on this section of Matthew, Carter cautions that “as the unfolding narrative will show, the disciples do not yet fully understand what Jesus is commissioned to do” (Carter, p. 337). Carter has reference, of course, to Jesus’ announcement that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Mt 16:21), part of the Gospel reading for next Sunday. But without anticipating what that will mean for our answer, how can we presume to know more than the disciples do at this point? How legitimate is it for us to make the claim we do? What really could we know about what it means to “manifest God’s salvation and empire,” in Carter’s phrase?
What is Jesus’ mission? To be shepherd to Israel.
For Carter, an answer to this question begins to emerge from careful analysis of the context of Jesus’ mission. The setting of this Sunday’s gospel narrative, we are immediately informed in v. 13, is “the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Carter comments on this information as follows: “The scene is set . . . some twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee south of Mt. Hermon. G. W. Nickelsburg notes it as a place of revelation and commission. . . , important elements of this scene. The site had been a shrine for the god Pan, god of flocks and shepherds (Josephus, Ant 15.363-64).” In Carter’s view, this information should remind us that Matthew has already told us that Jesus is also to be known as a shepherd of his people.
“The one who shepherds/governs my people Israel (see Mt 2:6), who has compassion for the crowds as sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Ezek 34), who is sent to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 15:24), and who sends his disciples on a similar mission (Mt 10:6), the son of the shepherd David who manifests God’s reign among the marginal (Mt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22) is again recognized as God’s commissioned agent” (Carter, p.332).
In this perspective, therefore, Jesus would be an alternative shepherd for the people. Thus is introduced a metaphor for the interpretation of Jesus’ role that we have seen to have considerable significance for our understanding of him within the community of his followers as “The Lord, the Servant of creation.” If Jesus is “the Messiah;” he is also “the good shepherd.” Do the “people” see this? No, and neither, strictly speaking, do the disciples. This is not necessarily what the title “Messiah” would have meant to them. But for the reader of the Gospel of Matthew who knows the territory and its culture, Jesus’ presence there nonetheless sets up the possibility for “discovery” of this meaning.
As shepherd to his people, Jesus restores people and land!
This proposal regarding Jesus as shepherd gives rise to further difficulty for our answer to Jesus’ question, however. In our comment on the lections for Good Shepherd Sunday, we suggested “the complex of relations brought to mind by [Jesus’] metaphor [of the shepherd] is incomplete without the lived-in context of the creation that shepherd and sheep share. A people or a community, centered on and founded by Jesus, the servant of creation, will flourish in the context of a creation that, especially in view of the resurrection, is being restored.” The first reading assigned for this Sunday actually amplifies this expectation: “For the Lord will comfort Zion,” the prophet writes; “he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3). As the Servant of God, Jesus would do what God would do; God, this lesson insists, restores not only the people but also the land to which they are returned. And the Messiah, the commissioned agent of God, will work to effect this restoration. God’s salvation includes the restoration, we might say, of the shepherd’s pasture.
But is such restoration a real possibility within the territory that Jesus now enters? How can it happen, in view of the fact that there is also another claimant to lordship over this very same territory? And this is something that both the people and the disciples had to know, since it obviously was a matter of ‘flesh and blood.” The location of Caesarea Philippi, Carter notes, “also underlines the issue of sovereignty.” The name of the city reflects its involvement with imperial power. King Herod built a marble temple there in honor of Augustus . . . Philip enlarged the city and named it Caesarea . . . Agrippa enlarged it further and renamed it Neronias in honor of the emperor Nero . . . After Jerusalem fell (70 C.E.), Titus visited the city, and “many” Jewish captives were thrown to wild beasts or forced to fight each other. . . Its names, buildings (typically using local wealth [taxes and levies], labor, and materials), activities, and history attest Rome’s claims and power (Carter, p. 332).
Even in land “ruled” by the Roman Empire, the shepherd comes to restore the land.
Is it not then quite astonishing that it is in precisely this place that a disciple of Jesus first names him “Messiah”? On the contrary, as it is precisely in the face of this difficulty that, as Carter observes, God’s purposes for Jesus and his followers are affirmed, purposes which contest Rome’s claims that Jupiter determines human affairs, that history is under Rome’s control, and that the emperor is the channel for the god’s blessing and presence . . . Jesus, not Rome, is the agent of God’s purposes, which will ultimately be triumphant (Carter, p. 332)
The pasture over which this shepherd watches, to follow through the implications of our metaphor, is the very territory that the Roman army has violated and laid waste in its imperial conquest. Even into such a place the one who is Christ comes to restore the creation.
But again, how could it ever actually be accomplished? The confession made by Peter does actually suggest how this will happen, perhaps beyond his own understanding. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah, the agent of God. And more precisely, he is “the Son of the living God.” This is perhaps the more decisive claim, in our view, as it begins to fill out the role of the Messiah by suggesting the source and purposes of his work. Carter helpfully explains the meaning of this second part of Peter’s confession:
“As the living God, or God of life (Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; 1 Sam 17:26, 36, @ Kgs 19:4, 16; Pss 42:2; 84:2; Hos 1:10; Dan 6:20), God is creative, active, faithful, and just. As God’s son/child or agent, Jesus expresses this life in his words and healings, feedings, exorcisms, and so on (cf. 11:2-6), and in creating a community that participates in God’s empire. To recognize Jesus as God’s agent confirms that he, not the emperor, manifests God’s purposes” (Carter, p.333).
Christians are a “Community that participates in God’s empire.”
Hence, the things that Jesus has been doing in the Gospel readings for the Sundays after Pentecost are precisely the kind of actions we would expect of the Messiah, if we understand his work as the Servant’s service to God’s creation.
Is such a reading legitimate? Much of this, to be sure, we are reading into the text. We read it into the text from diverse sources: from the first lesson, from the scholar’s careful reading of the entire Gospel in the light of what he or she knows about the cultural context, and from the creation–interested agenda of Christians concerned with care of creation. We think it appropriate to engage the text in this manner, first of all, because given the nature of these resources, together they constitute an apt proposal regarding his interaction with the historical context provided by Matthew’s narrative. But equally important, especially considering that this reading takes place within the context of the Christian assembly for worship, we think it conforms to what Jesus himself anticipates will happen with Peter’s confession. It builds on that confession, as Carter puts it, to create “a community that participates in God’s empire.”
Peter’s confession is the “rock.”
The exchange between Peter and Jesus takes a surprising turn here: Having acknowledged the divine inspiration of Peter’s confession, Jesus goes on to say, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Jesus shifts their focus from his own identity to that of Peter, and to the role that Peter and the other disciples will have in the future.
This shift turns on the introduction of a new metaphor, that of “the rock.” Quickly sorting the alternative interpretations of this much controverted saying, Carter takes Jesus’ reference to be “Peter’s faith or confession in 16:16,” albeit as embodied in the person of Peter as “the representative of every Christian,” (passing over the alternatives of “Christ” and “Peter the model bishop”) (Carter, p. 334). But in the assembly this Sunday, hearers of the Gospel will catch the allusion to Isaiah 51:1 from the first lesson, for the sake of which, we surmise, the church has brought this lesson into juxtaposition to the Gospel. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug,” says the prophet. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” Here “the rock” is the founding couple of Israel and their faith. And what does one see by looking to them? As we already noted above, we see the prophet’s promise that the Lord “will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.”
To be sure, the prophet spoke in a different time and place. But as we noted above, he spoke about what God does, and this is what the congregation will attend to. In addition, what God does, the Messiah, God’s commissioned agent, would surely also do, when and where the situation demanded it. The good shepherd attends to the needs of his sheep where they are at pasture. Does “the district of Caesarea Philippi” represent such a situation? We can’t say for sure, of course. But we can say with some confidence that Jesus himself would not contradict that possibility. His focus here is more general, but his intention is clear: Through the faith of Peter and his other disciples, Jesus will work to effect all such purposes as are consonant with the will of God for God’s empire wherever they may be called to do so.
As Carter adroitly observes, Jesus’ response quickly moves the conversation to a new levels, first political and then cosmic. On the rock of Peter’s confession of him as Messiah, he says, he will build his ecclesia. The word “ecclesia,” Carter insists, refers to more than we commonly understand as a religious community. “Frequently overlooked,” he notes, “is the observation that the term ekklesia is used in the political sphere. It denotes the ‘duly summoned’ . . .civic and political assembly of citizens in Greek cities which along with a council (the boule’) expressed the will of the assembled people (demos). . . The assembly is not primarily cultic but political, social, cultural. It gathers to reinforce and administer the status quo under Roman control. As R. A. Horsley notes in discussing Paul’s use of this term, by claiming the same name, the community centered on Jesus exists in ‘pointed juxtaposition’ and ‘competition’ with the official city assembly. . .(as) an alternative society to the Roman imperial order. . . rooted in the history of Israel, in opposition to Pax Romana. In God’s guidance of human affairs, history, which had been running through Israel and not through Rome,” continues in this counter society with its alternative commitment and practices (Carter, p. 335).
The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!
In this light, the significance of the linkage between the gospel and the first lesson for our concern for care of creation grows. The “alternative commitment and practices” could certainly include, with full legitimacy, such activities as will further God’s will to “comfort all (Zion’s) waste places” and to “make her wilderness like Eden her desert like the garden of the Lord.”
Carol J. Dempsey makes note of this possibility in commenting on the first lesson: “Embedded in this text,” she writes, “is a message to the natural world as well. When Israel was redeemed from exile, the people were also restored to their land, which itself was restored to life after the ravages of the battles it endured. God’s words that promise restoration to Jerusalem’s waste places and deserts need to be heard by all environmentalists today working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth. Indeed God is at work in their activity and their work is a sign of God’s saving grace in our midst” (Paula Dempsey, “Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002. Minneaplois: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 176).
The church has a mandate to care for creation
While we agree with Dempsey, we would restate her affirmation of care of creation much more broadly to include the whole community of the church. “Working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth” is something not only those who identify themselves as environmentalists do; consequent to our reading is commitment to such work as essential to the mandate of the community built on the rock of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. It is an important aspect of what those disciples are to “bind and loose” on earth, on behalf of the Father who is in heaven. As they work to understand and do “what God’s reign requires as declared by the scriptures and interpreted not by the religious leaders . . .but by Jesus, and by Peter and the disciples . . .all disciples are entrusted with the task of proclaiming and manifesting God’s empire (10:7-8)” (Carter, p. 337). Because of the situation and condition of the Earth today, it is, we believe, part and parcel of what all Jesus’ followers are called out to do together, as Jesus’ ecclesia for our time and place.
The potential consequences of such action are, Jesus promises, cosmic: “the gates of Hades will not prevail against” the work of the community so constituted and committed. “The phrase the gates of Hades,” Carter points out, “is metonymy in which a part (gates) refers to the whole realm of Hades. . . Hades, associated with the dead, contains the demons and evil spirits of death and destruction . . . Hades attacks Jesus’ community (as the rock is attacked in Mt 7:24-27; cf. 14:24). The gates of Hades open to let the attacking demons out. . . This attack is part of the eschatological woes which disciples experience as they conduct their mission before Jesus’ return. . . . In Matthew 13:24-30, 38-39 the opposition comes from the devil. It can take all sorts of forms: domestic (Mt 10:21-22), and religious and social (Mt 10:17; 16:21), cultural (Mt 13:21-22), and political, since the devil claims control of the nations (Mt 4:8; cf. 10:17-18). But Jesus promises that this diabolical opposition will not prevail against the community centered on Jesus (Mt 13:36-43) (Carter, p. 335).
Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!
Discouraged and pessimistic environmentalists, take note: Your work is not in vain. Heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the congregation in Rome, living in the shadow of the Empire’s capital: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). Working together, thinking “with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” we will see the creation through its crisis in the good company of “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” But there is also this: With Jesus’ promise, comes this cautionary word in next Sunday’s Gospel: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Christian care of creation comes with sacrifice.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.