Life Outside the Garden of Goodness – Dennis Ormseth reflects on overcoming the hostilities that divide us.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday June 5-11, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” (Mark 3:24-25). This saying of Jesus from this Sunday’s gospel prompts the observation that the American public is currently deeply divided on issues that weigh heavily on the future well-being of the nation, among them the crisis of the environment that is the focus of this commentary on year B of the lectionary. That the divisions on a range of issues are entrenched in religiously grounded affiliations is clear; political right and left correlate strongly with religious right and left. Indeed, so aligned are these political and religious factions, that the possibility that American religious communities can contribute at all significantly to resolutions of these conflicts seems rather doubtful (See the provocative discussion by James Davison Hunter, To Change the World; The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 99-196).
At first look, the gospel narrative for this Sunday offers little to alter this negative expectation. The exchange between Jesus and his opponents appears to be just the kind of alienating discourse that makes forward-moving compromise impossible. According to Ched Myers, Mark 3:20-35 is the “climax” of the opening phase of Jesus’ mission, a mission “in which Jesus must face the consequences of his campaign.” The conflict that now surfaces, Myers suggests, represents “a quantum leap in Mark’s narrative of hostility.” The exchange between Jesus and his opponents employs apocalyptic terms: “Beelzebul” and the “Prince of the demons.” The struggle that began in the wilderness “has moved steadily into the heart of the political geography of Roman Palestine, first in the synagogue exorcism and then in the Human One’s challenge to the symbolic order (Mark 2:10, 28). Now Jesus goes nose to nose with his opponents in a war of myths.” In response to the “double counterattack” by family and government investigators, Jesus “declares ideological war” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, p. 166).
Readers of this series of comments on lectionary year B will recognize that this exchange is part of a narrative, central to the Gospel of Mark, about the struggle between Jesus and the authorities of the temple-state, in the course of which he will displace the temple as the locus of divine presence and blessing amongst the people of Israel. With his cryptic riposte, Myers notes, Jesus here goes on the offensive, “turning his antagonists’ words back upon them as a question and a riddle” about the presence and power of Satan. Jesus, Myers argues,
“. . . is short-circuiting their self-serving ideological dualism by unmasking its contradictions and collapsing it in upon itself: . . . The carefully chosen images of the domain of ‘Satan’ (Mark 3:23, 26) bear remarkable correspondence to the ideological foundations of scribal Judaism: the centralized politics of the Davidic state (‘kingdom,’ 3:24) and its symbolic center, the temple (‘house’ 3:25). That these foundations are in crisis and ‘cannot stand’ will be articulated later in the story, when Jesus battles these scribal opponents on their home turf in Jerusalem. There Jesus will refuse to identify his ‘kingdom’ with David’s (12:35ff.; . . .). When he finally encounters the temple itself, he will ‘exorcise’ (ekballein) those who have “divided” the purpose of the ‘house of prayer’ (11:15-7). Then, in his second sermon, Jesus will prophesy that the temple-state will not be able to stand (13:2), and the true ‘Lord of the house’ will come and reclaim his domain (13:35).
With his scandalous parable of criminal breaking-and-entering, Jesus anticipates what overcoming the division of the kingdom/house entails: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” And perhaps that is in fact what is actually happening as he speaks, as the parallel conflict with members of Jesus’ family discloses: “Looking at those who sat around him,” Mark writes, Jesus says “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34). Whatever divisions there are among the people, they are being overcome in Jesus’ new “family,” the nascent church. “The old order based on obedience to family or clan patriarch is being replaced by a new order based upon obedience “to God alone (3:35)” (Myers, p. 166-67).
How might this narrative bring clarity and perhaps even resolution to the political and religious divisions that threaten our society? Set in our context, we suggest, the text proposes that whatever powers divide us and threaten the “standing” of our kingdoms and houses—our governments and our congregations—should likewise be amenable to resolution. Indeed, in this post-resurrection and Pentecost season we are to understand that the assembly in which this text is being read is that very domain of the Lord, to which he has come and which he has reclaimed as his own. This assembly was, as it were, the “strong man’s house;” but the “strong man” has been tied up by one stronger (note the introduction of Jesus by John the Baptist as “one who is more powerful” Mark 1:7), and his property has been plundered. Jesus here takes for himself those whom he rescues from the power of Satan. In this very assembly, the religiously sanctioned hostilities of the old order are to be overcome, by virtue of Jesus’ strong word of forgiveness in Christian community.
But is this really so? As noted above, the Christian community appears as fully divided as the public in general, if not more so. While we may not exchange accusations of demon possession, we do nonetheless often see real evil in the positions held by others of opposite views. Advocates concerned with ending poverty, for instance, are thought to threaten the future of the nation by sinking us ever more deeply into debt, the charge goes. Regulations designed to protect the environment are seen as unjustly and unwisely restricting companies from exercising their freedom for financial gain. Alternatively, failure to address global warming with adequate measures to reduce carbon dioxide, the warning goes, draws us into an irreversible process of climate change that will destroy habitat of both humans and many other species. What might it mean in this context, then, to “tie up the strong man” and plunder his house?
The first lesson from Genesis 3 is a particularly helpful resource for addressing these questions. The obvious connection with the Gospel text is the mythological tradition that the serpent of the temptation story in Genesis 3 is Satan; while the snake originally bore no such meaning, a deep resonance between the texts lies in the state of alienation to which each text points, the vitriolic exchange between Jesus and his political opponents and his family regarding Satan’s presence and power, in the one case, and the dialogue between the wily snake and the humans, in the other. The reading of the Genesis text alongside the Gospel narrative suggests that the state of alienation that we envision Jesus will overcome can be more fulsomely understood in terms of the multifaceted alienation of the narrative of the so-called “fall” of Genesis 3.
The reading from Genesis is, of course, of particular interest to us, in view of the fact that the relationship of humans to creation figures so significantly in this primal narrative. As we come upon Adam and Eve in our text, they hide themselves from their creator amidst the trees in the garden, the place they have been given to live, with the vocation of caring for it. The humans have permission to use the produce of the garden for basic sustenance. But there is also a prohibition; and, as Walter Brueggemann writes, “the primary human task is to find a way to hold the three facets of divine purpose together.” Indeed, the partnership between the man and the woman is equipped with a view to accomplishing precisely that purpose, with capacities to together honor their vocation, explore their freedom, and respect the prohibition. Taking their lives in their own hands, however, they fail at all three: the prohibition is violated, the permission is perverted, and, particularly noteworthy relative to our interest in care of creation, the vocation is neglected. As Brueggemann puts it, “There is no more mention of tending and feeding. They have no energy for that. Their interest has focused completely on self, on their new freedom and the terror that comes with it” (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1982, pp. 44-47).
How has this happened? In Brueggemann’s view, the discourse between the snake and the couple is key. They engage in talk that is not with, but rather about God, and the snake skillfully misrepresents God in what he has to say: “The rhetoric of fidelity has given way to analysis and calculation. The givenness of God’s rule is no longer the boundary of a safe place. God is now a barrier to be circumvented . . . . What had been a story of trust and obedience (chapter 2) now becomes an account of crime and punishment (Genesis 3:1-7).” The couple “had wanted knowledge rather than trust. And now they have it. They now know more than they could have wanted to know. And there is no place to run.” The power of evil, in other words, manifests itself in the state of distrust that their discourse generates between God and God’s creatures (Brueggemann, p. 48). They have become anxious in God’s presence, fearing death, and accordingly, in words from the great Christ hymn of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, they “grasp after equality with God.”
This three-fold failure involving both human and non-human creatures is tragically destructive of relationships in the garden. Enmity between the wiliest of creatures and the woman and their respective offspring, a pattern of domination of woman by man that will spread to all human communities and infect their partnership for care of the Earth, and hostility between the man and the soil from which they have all come: these are the consequences of the failure to trust the creator. And such a set of relationships is clearly unsuitable, in God’s view, for the Garden. The Gardener, Brueggemann insists,
“. . . cares for his garden. Everything hinges on that. The lordly voice of God presides over the entire garden and will not yield the garden, even to the most subtle of creatures. The serpent had a silly notion of outflanking the prohibition. He thought it was only a rule. But it turned out to be the wise passion of the Gardener. There is no escape from that wise passion. The rule might be overcome, but the Gardener is not so easily nullified. He finally must be answered, even by those so foolish” (Brueggemann, p. 49).
In the trial that follows, God sentences the humans to “life apart from the goodness of the garden, life in conflict filled with pain, with sweat, and most interestingly, with the distortion of desire (3:16).” Deserving death, they are instead given life, albeit in a new, wilder place. And what the couple cannot do for themselves, namely, deal with their shame, God does for them, so that their life together there may begin anew (Brueggemann, p. 50).
The story leaves us with a number of difficult questions. Is the banishment from the garden permanent? And is the vocation of its care therefore void? Is the good intention of the prohibition rendered meaningless for life outside the Garden? Does the distortion of desire forever corrupt the ability to obey? That all of these questions must be answered negatively seems certain, given that the purpose of the story is to urge upon us, not ignorance but, trust. None of the disrupted and distorted relationships are deemed normative as the will of the Gardener for the future. The central theological issue here, suggests Brueggemann, is instead how God deals with the anxiety that attends human life:
“The man and the woman are controlled by their anxiety (3:1). They seek to escape anxiety by attempting to circumvent the reality of God (Genesis 3:5), for the reality of God and the reality of anxiety are related to each other. Overcoming of God is thought to lead to the nullification of anxiety about self. But the story teaches otherwise. It is only God, the one who calls, permits, and prohibits, who can deal with the anxiety among us” (Brueggemann, p. 53).
In clothing the humans for life outside the garden, God takes the initiative to overcome the conditions of alienation that follow on their arrogant actions. As our second lesson for this Sunday reminds us, God will be reconciled with them, and will work with them to bring healing to all their house.
This analysis comes close, we would suggest, to describing what “tying up the strong man” is really about. Satan is a name for the power our anxieties have over us, binding us ever more tightly into kingdoms and houses of self-concern. The story helps us deal with our anxiety, Brueggeman argues, in three ways. First, it shows us that “the causes for anxiety among us are wrongly discerned. This text fixes the issue in term of accepting the realities of our life with God. Our mistake is to pursue autonomous freedom. Freedom which does not discern the boundaries of human life leaves us anxious.” Second, all attempts to deal with our anxiety, whether psychological, economic, or cosmetic, will fail—if they do not deal with fundamental causes. And third, with reference to the theme of overcoming the divisions in our society, because our public life is largely premised on an exploitation of our common anxiety and because the “advertising of consumerism and the drives of the acquisitive society, we are all too easily seduced into believing that there are securities apart from the reality of God.” The man and the woman, Brueggeman notes, “seek masterful discernment of all, without the capacity to suffer and be vulnerable. The assertion of this text is that every embrace of reason must live with the power of pathos. Every attempt to control by knowing must reckon with the anxiety-producing reality of God” (Brueggemann, p. 54).
In conclusion, life outside the Garden of goodness, we want to suggest, is best lived out in the context of a community that deals well with the anxieties of life as “anxiety-producing reality of God,” namely, as life lived on Earth in the presence of God. Christian congregations normally do that fairly well, if mostly in terms of interpersonal relationships, particularly those of marriage and family. What these reflections suggest beyond that, is the need for them to re-frame the field of concern to include the social and material settings of family life, indeed to include all of God’s creation in its modeling of community that overcomes the hostilities that divide us. God’s concern, after all, is with the garden or, more hopefully, it is about restoring the conditions of the garden that serve its original purpose—the sustaining of life for all God’s creatures. And since care of creation belongs to the original mandates for human life, there will be no resolution of our divisions that does not take that vocation into account.
Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.