Let all creation praise by not polluting! – Kathryn Schifferdecker reflects on creation’s ability to praise its Creator.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday October 16-22, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22, the religious and political leaders seek to trap Jesus. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes. If he answers, ‘yes,’ he will get in trouble with the religious authorities. If he answers ‘no,’ he will be considered a threat to Roman authority.
Jesus asks for a Roman coin and poses the question, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” When they answer, “The emperor’s,” he says, “”Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).
The distinction between God and the emperor reaches back to the Old Testament, where there are differing opinions concerning human kings. In 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel demand a king, God says to the prophet Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). The people don’t need a human king, because God is their sovereign. Nevertheless, God grants their desire and instructs Samuel to anoint Saul, then David, as king. And, of course, God eventually promises David that one of his descendants will always sit on the throne (2 Sam 7), a promise that eventually leads to the belief in a Messiah, a “son of David” who will redeem Israel.
The psalm appointed for this Sunday, Psalm 96, belongs in the first chorus of voices, the chorus that proclaims God as king: “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity’” (Ps 96:10).
This proclamation, “The LORD is king!” is great good news to the created world, and creatures, even inanimate creatures, respond with joy:
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad!
Let the sea thunder and all that fills it!
Let the fields exult and all that is in them!
Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy
Before YHWH, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Ps 96:11-13; cf. Ps. 98:7-9)
The LORD’s coming in judgment may seem to us at first reading a strange reason for the world and everything in it to shout for joy. “Judgment,” after all, usually implies punishment of some kind. For human creatures, the thought of judgment day probably evokes more fear than exultation; but from the perspective of the non-human creatures—who are the chief singers in these psalms—the fact that God is coming to judge the earth is a very good thing indeed.
The trees, the fields, the seas, and all the animals that fill them, are singing the Hallelujah Chorus because they see salvation coming. They are singing praise to their Creator who comes to judge the world, to set things right, to remove the sin and defilement of which the prophets speak. Our sin defiles the earth, according to the prophets, and the earth and its inhabitants suffer. We human beings, along with the rest of creation, were created to praise our Maker, but when we damage the earth and its inhabitants, their ability to praise is diminished. A polluted river cannot praise God with full voice. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1); but not as clearly when they are clouded with smog. The extinction of a species silences a unique voice in the chorus of praise.
Rainforest destruction, global warming, pollution of air and water—these results of human sin affect human beings, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, those without the means to protect themselves or to move away from unhealthy habitats. We sin against ourselves and our poor human neighbors when we engage in environmentally damaging practices. Psalm 96 reminds us that we sin also against our fellow non-human creatures and our Creator when we engage in those practices. The sin of environmental degradation is sin not only because it endangers or damages the lives of human beings; it is sin also because it diminishes creation’s ability to praise its Creator. “Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy / Before YHWH, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.” For the fields, the sea, the forests, and all the creatures that inhabit them, the fact that God is coming to judge the earth is very good news indeed. In that day, human sin with its pollution and defilement will be wiped away, and the creation will at last be able to sing with full and clear voice in praise of its Creator.
This proclamation, “YHWH is king!” is also, in the end, good news for human beings, as well. “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth” (Ps 96:13). Judgment in righteousness and truth will expose all our petty lies and self-deceptions, all our seeking after the things that are Caesar’s, all our greed and grasping. And then, stripped of all that weighs us down, we too will be able to join in the chorus of praise rising from the mountains and seas, the plains and forests, to the God of all creation. “O sing to YHWH a new song; sing to YHWH, all the earth!”
Originally written by Kathryn Schifferdecker in 2014. Much of what I’m saying here about Ps. 96 is published in an article I wrote entitled, “’And also many animals’: Biblical Resources for Preaching about Creation” in Word and World 27:2 (Spring, 2007), 210-223. In the piece on Ps. 96, I relied on memories of a sermon I heard by Ellen Davis during my student days at Yale Divinity School. Davis, of course, has been a leader in ecological hermeneutics for many years.