Living in the Presence of God – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the care of all God’s creation being within our reach when we abide in the domain of divine love.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 3 – 9, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Psalm 25:1-10 (4)
The Gospel lesson for this Sunday carries forward several themes from the previous two Sundays. Once more, Jesus and his followers are in the hostile territory of Samaria. Once again, Jesus confronts the cultural and religious competition between Jews and Samaritans. Once more, he is challenged to clarify how the presence of God is brought near in the relationships between people who live in hostile relationships with each other. Once more, actually with climactic emphasis this time, we are called to “love the neighbor,” indeed, on this occasion, with central emphasis on the command “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Given this continuity, we might well expect that the readings should firmly underscore the learnings regarding care of creation we have developed those two previous Sundays.
There is one difficulty, however: the concept of the Kingdom of God is not specifically referenced here, rendering unavailable the eco-friendly translation of it as Great Economy that was crucial for our reading of those texts. Indeed, the topic introduced by the lawyer’s question seems to lead us in quite a different direction: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Accustomed as we are to hearing in this question an individual’s spiritual quest for salvation, we might expect to be disappointed with respect to our concern for creation.
That expectation is unfounded, of course. When the lawyer asks about “inheriting eternal life,” we notice, Jesus immediately redirects the question to the Torah and its greatest commandment. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, however, the Torah does not actually provide an answer to that precise question (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 173). Its main concern, as our first reading amply reminds us, is rather with the inheritance of the land and the life of the people there—“the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (Deuteronomy 30:9)—and with the very presence of God as mediated through the Torah—the “word” that “is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart and for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14). As Walter Breuggemann comments with reference to this passage in his discussion of Torah as mediator of God’s presence, “Moses, the giver of Torah from Mount Sinai, provides both the commands of Yahweh that Israel is capable of obeying (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) and the provisions of Yahweh wherein Israel may host the holy and enjoy God’s presence (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp. 583).
While those provisions normally have to do explicitly with Israel’s worship practices, there is also a profound sense in which Torah itself becomes the means of that communion. The completed Torah, Breuggemann argues, is “not simply a set of commands that determined the conditions of Israel’s existence,” as Christians are often inclined to see it. “[I]t is also a rich, dense field of imagination in which Israel is free to receive its life, playfully, as the people of God” (Theology, p. 590). As the people turned to Torah as a source of guidance and instruction (note that the Psalm appointed for this Sunday is “a Prayer for Guidance and for Deliverance”; NRSV, The Green Bible, p. 529) it was . . .no longer simply the revelation of Sinai; Torah is now drawn more centrally into the large, wondrous realm of all of creation. The Torah is, for that, no less Israelite, but now it comprehends all the gifts and offers of life from Yahweh, which are everywhere signaled in the life of the world and in the experience of Judaism in a gentile world. Torah becomes, in this later venturesome development, a Yahweh-oriented pondering of and engagement with the life that is everywhere available in Yahweh’s world. Thus, in Sirach 24, wisdom is food that nourishes (vv. 19-22) and water that sustains (vv. 25-31). That is, Torah is the very gift of life from Yahweh that permeates the world. And Israel, in its Mosaic stance, are the people who are first of all invited to “choose life” (Theology, pp. 592-93).
Put differently, “practice of Torah is not only study; it is also worship. It is being in the presence of the One who lives in, with, and under this authoritative text, and who is present in the ongoing work of imagination from this text.” As such, Breuggemann insists, this practice is “a way of thinking not only about Torah; for Christians it is a way of understanding Christ, who is both the one who commands and the one who offers self in intimacy” (Theology, p. 599).
The exchange between the lawyer and Jesus about “eternal life,” it seems to us, is an instance of such “Yahweh-oriented pondering of and engagement with the life that is everywhere available in Yahweh’s world.” In the company of the new Moses, the lawyer is prompted to explore whether Jesus knows not only about living according to the commandments, but also about living in the presence of God. Luke’s use of the term “eternal life,” which is relatively frequent in comparison with the other gospels, serves here to widen the circle of “inheritance” to the cosmic expanse of God’s own presence within the creation. What was a local conflict in the previous two Sunday’s gospels, albeit a conflict transcended in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom, leads here to a question of universal applicability, namely, the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:15). And appropriate to the scope of that question, Jesus’ answer to him is presented in, as Johnson aptly describes it, “one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel parables, the moral tale (unique to Luke’s composition) of the compassionate Samaritan” (Johnson, p. 175). The exchange is about the full domain of God, after all!
We will return to this expansive concern for life below, to consider its implications for care of creation. The details of the parable itself merit our attention, however, on the way to that discussion. The tale is highly provocative, Johnson notes; we are shocked on three levels. First, [t]he violence done to the traveling Judean is overt: he is stripped, beaten, left half dead. This is not a sentimental tale. Second, a deeper level of shock, however, is the recognition that Jews esteemed for their place in the people and dedicated to holiness before the Lord would allow considerations of personal safety or even concern for ritual purity (a corpse defiled) to justify their not even crossing the road to look. They “pass by on the other side.” If love for neighbor meant anything, it meant to care for the “sons of your own people.” But they cannot be bothered. A third shock is the discovery that a despised Samaritan, himself most at risk in this dangerous no man’s land of deserted territory, takes the chance of stopping, looking, and—increasing his own vulnerability—leading the man on his beast to an inn. It is the hated enemy who is the hero with a human heart (Johnson, p. 175).
We underscore: the graphic violence of the parable mirrors the possible consequences of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans, or for that matter, any other peoples in cultural and religious conflict. Furthermore, whether for reasons of ritual purity (symbolizing love of God through holiness) or “love of self” (manifest in self-concern for personal safety) persons expected to represent the presence of God in the land fail to keep the commandment. The Samaritan, on the other hand, risks much: not at home in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho, he nevertheless spares no expense—oil, wine, shelter, time (two days! and more later) and remuneration for the innkeeper’s care. Why? Because he “felt compassion” for him, “the emotion attributed to Jesus in 7:13,” Johnson notes. This sets up Jesus’ stunning reversal of the lawyer’s question: as Johnson puts it, “Jesus reverses the question from one of legal obligation (who deserves my love) to one of gift-giving (to whom can I show myself neighbor); and of this the despised Samaritan is the moral exemplar!” (Johnson, p. 173). The point, Johnson concludes is not who deserves to be cared for, but rather the demand to become a person who treats everyone encountered—however frightening, alien, naked or defenseless—with compassion: “you go and do the same.” Jesus does not clarify a point of law, but transmutes law to gospel. One must take the same risks with one’s life and possessions that the Samaritan did. One must, that is, if one wants to participate in the presence of God within the creation, and to share in God’s love for that creation.
If, as we suggested above, the exchange between the lawyer and Jesus, taken as a whole under the rubric of the quest for “eternal life,” is a demonstration of the extension of the practice of Torah into all of creation, then the parable is an illustration of how that extension is to take place: not by holy people safeguarding holy things, not by the self-interested concern that seeks safety and well-being only for one’s own, an orientation to life which results in an incessant competition between peoples for the blessings of life, but by the risking of self and all that one holds holy, for the sake of another, action inspired and driven by compassion to care for the other, that is a mark of living in the eternal presence of God.
It was an extension unthinkable for the times, from Jewish neighbor (“sons of your own people”) to anyone in need of mercy whom the Jewish lawyer might encounter; and then surely as the Christian community spreads out throughout the Roman Empire more fully—always on Luke’s agenda, from Jews and Samaritans to gentile pagans, caught up in their own quest for dominance. The need for this extension never ceases; and the impulse of compassion is also never exhausted. But in our time of ecological disaster, the challenge of extension clearly concerns our relationship not only with our human neighbors, those present now and those to inhabit the earth in the future, but our other-kind neighbors as well. They, too, lie brutalized in the ditch; and, without immediate aid, they will perish from the earth. Will the religious communities of the world also “pass by on the other side”? Or will we be inspired by the compassion of our God and Lord Jesus Christ to have compassion and do what it takes to restore them?
In his provocative essay on “Kenosis and Nature,” Holms Rolston argues that humans have the capacity beyond actualizing of self “to see others, to oversee a world.” This is “an exciting difference between humans and nonhumans,” in that. . . while animals and plants can defend only their own lives, with their offspring and kind, humans can defend life with vision of greater scope. They can sacrifice themselves for the good of humans yet unborn or, on the other side of the globe, the entire human community. Humans can also care for the biotic communities with which they share this planet; they can care for their biosphere. Here we recognize a difference crucial for understanding the human possibilities in the world. Humans can be genuine altruists; this begins when they recognize the claims of other humans, whether or not such claims are compatible with their own self-interest. The evolution of altruism and the possibility of kenosis is complete only when humans can recognize the claims of nonhumans (Holms Rolston, In The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, edited by John Polkinghorne. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001, p. 64).
The hazard of modern human culture is that our habit of managing nature tends mainly to escalate our “inherited desires for self-actualizing, tempted now into self-aggrandizement on scales never before possible,” now that we “are no longer checked by the long-standing ecological and evolutionary forces in which [we] have so long resided” (Rolston, p. 64-65). Our texts offer a clear alternative beyond this conundrum: love of neighbor as of self, which immerses us in the compassionate love of God which empowers love of the other. As our first reading assures us, that love is as close to us as the word of Torah and the word of the Christian gospel, which, is ‘”very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Wherever we are, whomever we are, we abide in the domain of divine love, the Kingdom of God; in Christ, we inherit eternal life. If so, care of all God’s creation is indeed within our reach.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2013.