The Fruits Among Us – Kris Litman-Koon ponders how relationships – divine, human, and ecological – are a common theme in our theology and in God’s intimate calling for us.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 10-16, Year C (2022, 2025)
Psalm 25:1-10 (4)
The texts found in today’s lectionary likely resonate with us in a variety of ways. The parable from Luke is so common that most Christians could recite its details. The Colossians reading is an example of how epistles of that day typically began with expressions of thankfulness. Psalm 25 speaks of a desire to live a life that faithful walks with God, and the Deuteronomy reading offers a description of God’s desire for life to prosper. There are a variety of angles that one could take when developing a sermon or study that is crafted from these readings. The purpose for this commentary is to highlight a common thread through these readings: being mindful of all our relationships. That is true whether relationships entail a connection with another person, with the divine, or with the broader ecosystem in which we live.
Let us begin with fruit. The word “fruit” makes an appearance in both the Deuteronomy and Colossians pericopes. The elder text speaks of God’s desire for prospering fruits: in the fruit of your body (human progeny), in the fruit of your livestock (expanding herds), and in the fruit of your soil (literal fruit, grains, and vegetables). A keen eye will recognize how easily this passage could give credence to “the prosperity gospel,” which is the idea that if you toe the line, then God will provide tangible rewards. Although this passage appears at first glance to support that idea, the broader view of Deuteronomy, of scripture, and of life itself tells us that such a proposition is not true. So then what message does this passage offer us? It is this: God delights when life prospers.
When Moses says in verse 11, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away,” we should be clear as to what this commandment is. It is not a “do this action” or “don’t do that action” commandment; it is a command to be faithful to the covenant God has created. This passage is a part of what is called the book’s third sermon (Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20), and the time and setting of the sermon is immediately prior the people’s entrance into the Promise Land. What this sermon says is that if the people go astray, all they have to do is return to God, who is patiently waiting for them. The question Moses raises in verse 11 is given an expounded answer in today’s pericope: returning to God does not require an elaborate scheme that is housed in heaven, nor is the path of returning to God hard to decipher, as though one were trying to perceive it from across the sea. How to return to God is already in the people’s mouths and in their hearts, so they don’t have to overthink how to do it. God is already intimately close to them, and this closeness is witnessed as they see life in its various forms prospering in them, around them, and through them. What is left unsaid in our pericope – but is elaborated on in verses 15-20 – is that our connection to the prospering life around us is directly tied to the idea of returning to a correct relationship with God. The alternative that is laid out is described as a curse, and my contribution to the dialogue about interpreting this text and applying it to life (i.e. midrash) is, “Could this actually be a chicken-or-egg scenario?” Does turning away from God mean that life around us will no longer prosper, or does our failure to cultivate prosperous life around us lead to our disconnection from God? Could it be both? Conversely, does our standing in right relationship with God go hand-in-hand in cultivating prosperous life in the land, waters, skies, creatures, and people around us? Such an interpretation is not far-fetched when we remember how this text originates from a time and people whose worldview had a much stronger understanding of life’s web than our own Western tendency to view humanity separate from nature.
The psalm for the day, Psalm 25:1-10, speaks again to the relationship that the people of Israel share with God. The whole psalm forms an acrostic poem, meaning that each verse begins with the subsequent letters in the Hebrew alphabet, although there are some subtle variations in this psalm. The assigned pericope cuts the psalm in half, which muddles the psalm’s intent, though most English speakers wouldn’t recognize it as poetry. The bulk of the psalm sounds like an individual seeking a restored relationship with the divine and holding God to account for God’s enduring promises of mercy and steadfast love (verse 6). However, the final verse, 22, changes course in the acrostic by returning to a previous letter of the alphabet, which was the Hebraic equivalent of bolding, italicizing, and highlighting this verse, which says, “Redeem Israel, O God, out of its troubles.” So this change in the acrostic may be the final verse’s way of telling us to reread the psalm as if the individual is actually the collective Israelites. That opens the door to seeing a clearer connection to the Deuteronomy reading: God is near, returning to God is not rocket science, and God desires for all life to prosper (see Psalm 25:13).
Today’s reading from Colossians is the beginning of the epistle, which follows the customary formula of that day of beginning a letter with a statement of thanksgiving for the recipients, who in this case are the Christians in the city of Colossae. The writer claims to be Paul, but scholars are unsettled on that claim, and many suggest it was likely a disciple of Paul who penned it. Whoever the writer was, in this thanksgiving section the focus is placed on the concept of growth, and “fruit” is used to describe this growth. In verse 6, it says that as the gospel has been growing in the world (among the Gentiles, which will be explored in next week’s commentary), so has the gospel been growing within those who are receiving this letter. Further in verse 10, the people bear fruit of good works and these people grow in their knowledge of the God. It would be dishonest to equate the fruit as described here in Colossians with the fruit mentioned in the Deuteronomy passage. These are two passages separated by authorship, time, and intent. However, both passages employ the imagery of fruit as something desirable in the eye of God because of the benefits people or creation receive from that fruit.
So far, these lessons have highlighted the relationships shared between Israel, God, Gentiles, and creation, but what about relationships of person to person? Or what about Israel to Gentiles? We turn to our gospel lesson to find that. It is parable commonly known as the Good Samaritan. You likely don’t need me to rehash this story for you, so allow me to point out a geographic and linguistic detail that is frequently overlooked, and far too often it is to the detriment of our Jewish neighbors and to the hindrance of a better understanding of the story.
In verse 30, we are told that the traveler was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jericho is located near the Dead Sea, which is the lowest place on earth, so Jericho’s elevation is about 850ft below sea level. Jerusalem is located about 2,500ft above sea level. There is only one path between the two cities, so when the verse says the man was going down the road (Καταβαίνω – to descend), it means he was literally descending the road. Verse 31 says the priest was also descending the road, and verse 32 says a Levite was likewise traveling.
Often Christian preachers will say that the priest and Levite were too concerned about their religious duties and their sacred cleanliness regulations to care for the traveler left for dead. Such proclamations by preachers are at best ill-conceived and at worst antisemitic. It leaves listeners with the idea that Jews of the day (and, by extension, today) were more concerned about religious rules than they were about caring for someone in need. That was not the case in Jesus’ day (the practice was always to put someone’s life first), it is certainly not the case today, and it is a poor reading of the text. The text explicitly states that the priest and Levite were descending the road – they were leaving Jerusalem and traveling down to Jericho – so if any religious duties were an unspoken part of the priest’s and Levite’s stories, they already conducted those duties, not heading toward them. The only reason left for why these two individuals didn’t care for the wounded traveler is because they were jerks. They simply didn’t want to be bothered with the wounded man. Someone eventually comes and cares for the traveler, and – literary twist! – it was a Samaritan.
The passage finishes with Jesus teaching that we should live mercifully. That in itself is another literary twist, because Jesus wasn’t asked how to be a good neighbor. Rather, he was asked how to inherit eternal life. Perhaps that is the point of this parable, however. Instead of being like the lawyer and focusing on myself and how I can find advantage in a scenario like eternal life, my focus is redirected by Jesus. Life – and the abundance of it – is found in relationship to others. Rather than being focused on what occurs after death and how to set myself up for the best result, and rather than resorting to our selfish tendency to behave like jerks, our teacher redirects our attention to life here and now, inspiring us to care for and be merciful in our relationships and connections on this side of death.
In the book A New Garden Ethic, author Benjamin Vogt masterfully uses language to help the reader see and comprehend the connections and relationships all creatures have in this world. Vogt writes, “We are connected to life through knowledge, whether it’s scientific or perceptual. We are made of exploded stars. We are affected by the stuff we cultivate. The soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae may activate neurons in the brain that contain serotonin, the chemical whose lack may cause depression. Even the blood of plants is the blood of humans – the only significant difference is the magnesium atom in chlorophyll and the iron atom in hemoglobin. One captures light, the other oxygen. There is an intelligence beyond ours, and when we begin to comprehend it – even without deciphering it – we’re better able to gain empathy if not compassion for others. Perhaps it’s not an intelligence beyond us, not really, but a way of being that confounds our complexity of emotion and culture, those made-up distortions of shared and lived experience that aren’t so different yet tend to make us feel separated.” (Benjamin Vogt, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2017, pp. 139-140)
Vogt makes the point that as we recognize the relationships we share with other animals, plants, bacteria, et cetera, then empathy and compassion are likely to result from it. In this passage, he also describes these connections as an intelligence, and perhaps this intelligence is not beyond us. Vogt elucidates throughout the book in ways that explicitly and implicitly connect to religious traditions and thinking. His words speak for themselves, but I believe readers of this commentary can see some commonalities between this quote from his book and the thread found in today’s lectionary readings: we are in relationship with others – people, creatures, the divine – and often we can’t fully comprehend these connections. God desires for these relationships – and life itself – to prosper, and when our lives are in tune with these connections, we may better see how intimately close God has been all along.
Originally written by Kris Litman-Koon in 2022.
Insights from Kris Litman-Koom can be found on Twitter, @_KrisLK.