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Second Sunday of Advent (Dec. 6) in Year B (Ormseth11)

Advent Is about Gathering for the New Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on wilderness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Again this second Sunday of Advent, we gather with heightened expectation for the coming of God. “A voice cries out,” the first lesson proclaims: “‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3). “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” echoes the Gospel, “who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:2). Again we are being reoriented to God’s arrival, but also, as we suggested in our commentary for the first Sunday of Advent, to God’s creation: as we read in the surprisingly eschatological second lesson, we need to consider “what sort of persons [we] ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire[;],” for “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

This combination of texts strikes us as discordant and confusing. We are at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  But we also read what for most hearers will be a word about the end of the world: “the day of the Lord” that “comes like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it be disclosed,” (or, as some ancient authorities read, “will be burned up” NRSV note). What, we might ask, does the end have to do with the beginning? And does the voice cry out in the wilderness, “to prepare the way” for Jesus? Or is the voice itself the preparation of the way in the wilderness, as alternative readings of Mark suggest? Or does the voice call to prepare a way through the wilderness towards Jerusalem, as the reading for Isaiah suggests? Aside from inherent difficulties of interpretation that these questions raise, at stake for those whose concern is a mandate for care of creation are the meanings to be attached to the heavens that pass away, the elements that are dissolved, and the value and uses of wilderness.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

The story of the Gospel of Mark, interpreters of the book advise us, needs to be read on two levels. There is the first-time-through story of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is the eventful account of Jesus’ mission as it unfolds through his gathering of disciples, his teaching his way to them, and the conflict with religious and political authorities in Jerusalem that leads to his death. But there is also the re-reading of the Gospel invited by the direction the young man at the tomb gives to Jesus’ astonished followers, to go back to Galilee where “you will see him, just as he told you.” Readers revisiting the Galilee of the beginning of the Gospel will see things one did not notice in the first reading.

Ched Myers shows how this works with respect to the first sentence of the Gospel in Mark 1:1. On the first level, the beginning is simply what it indicates, the starting point of the story. But on the second level, Mark’s arche is also an “echo of Genesis” which according to Myers serves three functions:

“First, Mark is boldly suggesting that his story represents a fundamental regeneration of salvation history, as will soon be confirmed by his citation of the prophets. Secondly, it introduces at the outset the ‘palingenetic’ thrust of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse: this is a story about a new heaven and new earth. Thirdly, it has a specific meaning in light of the ending of the story . . . where Mark will point back to the place where the discipleship narrative was originally generated—Galilee. A rereading of (reengagement with) the story offers a ‘new beginning’ for the discipleship adventure.” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p.122).

Salvation history, eschatological cosmology, and discipleship are folded into the narrative of the Gospel. Interestingly, the selection of texts for this Sunday accordingly serves well to bring these “hidden” structures of meaning to light. The first lesson introduces relevant material from Isaiah that will help to uncover what the author of the Gospel does to regenerate salvation history. The second lesson presents apocalyptic material from early Christian tradition to help illuminate the promise of a new creation. And the Gospel reading itself engages us in the call to discipleship with a telling account of the first gathering of potential followers. We will consider each of these inter-textual connections in order. What is of special interest to us, of course, is the way in which this re-reading transforms the narrative at its very outset into a story that draws together the new salvation history, the new cosmology, and the anticipated interaction of Jesus with his followers in a narrative of the renewal of creation.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

This is precisely what our reading of the scriptures for the First Sunday of Advent led us to expect, of course. The “heavens and earth” represented by the Jerusalem temple and the orientation to the creation which its social and political organizations involved, we recall, were “heavens and earth” in which righteousness was clearly not “at home” and, with the coming of the Son of Man, will give way to the dawn of a new world “in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 323; cf. our comment in this series on the texts for the First Sunday of Advent). The beginning of the Gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the campaign for “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” And, as we will see, readers are drawn dramatically into this enriched narrative, along with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”

The campaign opens on two cultural fronts, the imperial Roman and the local Jewish. The very title of the Gospel, Myers points out, is intended to serve notice that “Mark is challenging the apparatus of imperial propagation.” The “good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” proclaims ‘the advent of an ‘anointed’ leader, who is confirmed by the Deity and who proclaims a ‘kingdom.’ In other words, Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myth” with “a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire” (Ibid., p. 124).  Secondly, the prophetic voice crying “prepare the way” is indeed the voice of the prophet Isaiah from our first lesson, but with certain important revisions of the text. The “way” to be prepared, Myers notes, functions to introduce “the central discipleship motif in the gospel.” The “way” is “no mere path; a new way of life is being built [Mark’s verb is “constructed”] in the shell of the old world.” Additionally, the voice of “one crying out in the wilderness” is a reawakened voice thought by many of Mark’s contemporaries to have fallen silent forever with the prophet Malachi. But where that last prophetic word “announces that Yahweh is about to make a dramatic appearance in history,” it also “envisioned the site of Yahweh’s epiphany to be the Jerusalem temple (Malachi 3:1).” Not so Mark, who “conspicuously omits this part of the oracle, and in its place grafts on an almost literal quotation of Isaiah 40:3,” which, contrary to the plain meaning of Isaiah 40:9-10, in which Zion itself is the voice that calls the “cities of Judah” to attend to God’s arrival in their midst, also serves to direct attention away from Jerusalem. “The messenger will appear instead in the wilderness (1:3)—which is precisely where we find John the Baptist in the opening act (1:4)” (Ibid. p.127). Thus does Mark engage his second front, a polemic against the temple cult in the city of Jerusalem, which we discussed in our comment on the lessons for the First Sunday of Advent.

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

“Wilderness” is a “crucial coordinate of Mark’s narrative world,” Myers notes. It has “the principal narrative function” here in the Gospel’s prologue, he suggests, of representing the “peripheries:”

By inserting this coordinate in place of ‘Malachi’s temple (representative of the “center”) as the site of Yahweh’s renewed action, Mark creates a spatial tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces. This wilderness/temple polarity becomes explicit in Mark’s wry report—a typical Semitic hyperbole—that ‘all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem’ seek John in the wilderness (1:5). According to the dominant nationalist ideology of salvation history, Jerusalem was considered the hub of the world to which all nations would one day come (see Ps 69:35f. and Is 60:10-14) (Ibid. p. 125).

“Wilderness” is, of course, a “crucial coordinate” in the narrative world of contemporary environmentalists as well; and the reading of this Scripture can perhaps provide an occasion for reflection on this shared symbolism, for reasons shared by the semantic field of Mark’s readers: “In literal terms, wilderness connoted an uninhabited and desolate place, marginal existence: John lives on locusts and honey (Mark 1:6), and persons hunger there (Mark 8:2f).  Symbolically, it was the site of a community in flight (as in the exodus tradition) or a refuge for the persecuted faithful who await deliverance.” These are meanings wilderness has certainly had in the story of the American west, meanings which are also commonly used in the ideological struggle for the preservation of untrammeled regions of forest, lake and mountain. We wonder, however, if another meaning of wilderness isn’t significant for both contexts. Wilderness is also the place of renewal and even redemption. At least it certainly appears to have that significance here in the Markan story: as earlier at Sinai, the wilderness is the location of a new encounter with God, to which is attached a new story and a new set of religious practices. Wilderness is the location of a reorientation to God that Mark regards as necessary to redemptive history, a complete break with the temple state—and, as such, needs the open and indeterminate space of the wilderness for its thorough realization. It is the “down to earth” counterpart to the relocation of God from the temple to the open skies of the cosmos.

 In that general way, it serves needs like those we find in the much-quoted statement of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The wilderness is a spiritual anchor for the renewal of both personal life and civil society in our time. We cannot dwell on this topic at length here; Mark’s gospel will provide additional occasions to carry the discussion forward. However, one meaning essential to the appreciation of this meaning of wilderness in either context is expressed in the first lesson from Isaiah. When the prophet asks what he shall cry, he is instructed to cry, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The acknowledgement of being part of a fragile and vulnerable creation is an essential element in a sound theology of creation; and it is also the foundation of every campaign to discourage the human presumption of dominating and controlling nature to serve our purposes (See Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind for a discussion of “The Wilderness Cult’ in American experience; and Wallace Stegner’s brief “Wilderness Letter” in Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, pp. 110-120 for a range of meanings of wilderness in American culture).

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Mark thus proposes the regeneration of salvation history by means of a pointedly altered prophetic voice and the reorientation to God’s presence by relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology. These are coupled to the dramatic movement of peoples from the “whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” out to the river Jordan to be baptized by John. We have noted above the hyperbole of this statement. Mark’s exaggeration serves to remind us of the significance of these events in the eschatological perspective we developed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. “Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling,” we wrote, reflecting on the apocalypse of Mark 13:27. “Off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man.”  Myers suggests that as Mark “envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled,” the implied regathering at the end of the story makes the crucial connection to Mark’s story of discipleship.  The young man at the tomb

“sends the disciples back to Galilee—that is, back to the ‘genesis’ of the discipleship narrative. And how does Mark’s story commence? ‘The beginning of the gospel’ (1:1), the new creation! Like the ‘end,’ the ‘beginning’ too is archetypal, representing the invitation to join anew in the journey of discipleship, that struggle for justice in the only world there is.

So too all later readers of the Gospel are to be immediately caught up in the movement of people from Jerusalem out to the Jordan where they will witness the baptism of Jesus and the conferring of his mandate to bring about the new creation.” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 344)

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

All of which suggests a powerful theme for Advent preaching, namely, Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth. The church gathers for many different reasons in different seasons and at various times of day, but in this first season of Advent, our gathering establishes the pattern for righteous gathering in worship all year long. The “elect gathered from the four wind, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” going out to John to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. When we gather as we do in Advent, at the beginning of the whole story of Jesus Christ, we gather in a way that is prototypical for every time we gather for eucharistic worship, in which, similarly, the pattern of the whole story is recapitulated in gathering, word, meal, and sending.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

If this is so, then might it not also be properly said, that according to Mark’s gospel, the Christian gathering for eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness, calling us to come out of the cosmologies that entrap us in nationalistic, socially and politically self-serving appropriations of God’s good creation? And if wilderness is the appropriate location where all this becomes very obvious, then perhaps it can also be said that Christian worship, rightly done, always begins in the wilderness under open skies, looking forward to the coming of God and the new creation that God’s Son brings, and in genuine repentance for the harm we have done and continue to do. Of that confession of sin, more later. But the psalmist is entirely correct in singing, as this morning’s psalm has it,

Surely his salvation is at and for those who fear him,
That his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground;
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
And will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:9-13.)

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent (Nov. 29) in Year B (Ormseth11)

We Await the Transformation of the Cosmos. Dennis Ormseth reflects on an orientation to God’s Creation in the season of Advent.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

A new church year begins as the last ended, waiting and watching, in hope for the coming of God’s future kingdom. Appropriately for the beginning of a new year, the readings for this Sunday are significantly cosmological. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” begins the first reading from Isaiah 64. “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth,” prays the psalmist. And with the Gospel reading we are directed to the vision of the “Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). However, the contrast with the beginning of the secular New Year to come a month from now couldn’t be clearer: instead of the eternal return of the natural world, marked is it is in this season by the fading strength of the sun, we are oriented towards the future which God will bring the cosmos. Although in either perspective we find ourselves waiting in darkness, these texts invite us to look forward in time to when all things now darkened by human sinfulness will be restored. As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

Temple is the heart of the cosmos and Israel’s social order.

In his Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Gordon Lathrop alerts us to the importance of cosmology for interpreting the Gospel of Mark. Mark, he points out, is very “interested in ‘heaven’ (e.g., 1:11; 6:41; 8:11; 13:25; 14:62).” This interest, according to Lathrop, is driven in significant measure by Mark’s concern to break open the cosmic myths of the ancient world. “A hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere” of Plato’s Timaeus, for instance, opens the way for Mark’s own cosmology of “the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” Similarly, in Mark 4:30-32, the ancient cosmic image of the great tree of life “that holds all things in order” is broken open to reveal new meaning as an annual bush, still with room for all things in its branches, which is the cross. Most significant in our view, however, relative to our concern for creation in these Advent readings, is Mark’s treatment of “the Jerusalem Temple, that ancient symbol of the heart of the cosmos, the navel of all things.” “The temple is cleansed (11:25-19) and then held under the threat of destruction (13:2). But the cornerstone of a new temple (12:10-11) or its architect and builder (14:58; 15:29; compare 6:3) is the Crucified One” (Holy Ground, pp. 34-35).

Why does the temple hold this importance for us? First, because of its place at “the heart of the Jewish nation,” as Ched Myers puts it. “It was where God dwelt, and in it the whole ideological order was anchored and legitimated. It was the one holy place universal to all Jews, toward which all pilgrimages and contributions were directed.” Because the temple was the center of Jewish political, economic and social as well as religious organization, its existence and meaning were matters to which “every Jewish social group and strategy had to take an ideological stance” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 78-79). The destruction by the Roman army in 70 C.E. was a cataclysmic event which some scholars have regarded as giving occasion to the composition of Mark’s Gospel. While Myers argues otherwise (See Binding the Strong Man, pp. 417-21), he nonetheless maintains that for Mark “the temple state and its political economy represented the heart of what was wrong with the dominant system.” What distinguished Mark’s agenda over against the others who also rejected the control of the temple by the religious and political elite, the rebels leading the Jewish revolt and the Essenes who withdrew to the desert, Myers argues, was that Mark “had no wish for greater access to, or control over, the cultus—only its demise. In the same breath, he was at pains to reassure his Palestinian readers that God’s existence was not tied to the temple” (Ibid. p. 80).

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere

Understanding what Lathrop describes as the “breaking of the myth” of the temple is therefore crucial to appropriating the Gospel’s message. One commentator has insightfully captured what’s at stake in framing the question that is “first and foremost” in Mark’s theology as “where do we find God?” She answers: “Not in the glorious temple but on the cross. Not in the city proper but outside the city walls. Not in the center of power and authority but in the wilderness.” Which leads her to pose a great question for Advent: “Where will we look for God this Advent season?” (Karoline Lewis, “Where Are We?” Commentary on the Gospel for First Sunday of Advent, Mark 13:24-37 at www.workingpreacher.org).

Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation? 

While we appreciate this perspective, what concerns us here is the possible displacement from the story of Mark, along with the temple, what more the temple represented in Jewish cosmology, besides the locus of God’s presence. Myers calls attention to “four elements of the ‘primordial landscape’” appropriated by Israel from ancient Near Eastern temple traditions: “the cosmic mountain; (2) the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation; (3) the spring waters of life, symbolizing both chaos and salvation; (4) the tree of life” (Myers, p. 79; he cites J. Lundquist, “The Legitimizing Role of the Temple in the Origin of the State,” in SBL Seminary Papers 1982, p. 171ff.). Clearly, the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation that incorporated these elements, were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation. What, we are asking, are the consequences of the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus? What happens to the mountain, the hillock, the waters, and the tree of life when the sanctuary in which they are located is vacated? Are these elements of the “primordial landscape” relocated to the story of Jesus, and, if so, where do we find them? Does Mark find a place for them in his story of Jesus? Or are the readers of Mark’s Gospel, on account of Mark’s opposition to the temple state and its economy, possibly left without any orientation to creation whatsoever? This is our question for Advent:  Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation?

Mark displaces creation: Temple, fig tree, and mountain

Our search in Mark’s Gospel is at first rather discouraging. In the chapters leading up to this Sunday’s reading, Jesus enters Jerusalem and takes a first, quick look around the temple. This visit is followed “on the following day” by the strange action involving a fig tree. “He was hungry,” Mark tells us, so “seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.” Finding “nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs,” he cursed it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:12-13). His cleansing of the temple follows immediately; and the next day, having gone out of the city with his disciples again, they discover that the fig tree has “withered away to its roots.” When Peter points this out, Jesus responds rather obliquely, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11:20-23).

In explaining the significance of the cursing of the fig tree, Myers cites William Telford’s argument in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, in which he points out that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of nonsymbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given. . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . (Ibid. pp. 297-98).

So much for the cosmic tree, it appears, and the beneficial orientation to the creation that it symbolized: Jesus’ curse has killed it!

And there is much more to discourage any hope of reorientation to creation from him.  Faith in God, his response to Peter might suggest, will dispatch not just the cosmic tree, but also “this mountain” before them. Which mountain he means is not spelled out, but obviously he intends the sacred mount Zion, location of the temple. Indeed, the mountain will “be taken up and thrown into the sea,” thus rhetorically returning cosmic tree, temple, and mountain into the waters of chaos from which it arose! It would appear that Jesus’ followers have no need of any of these things. The temple and its primordial elements are rendered meaningless. As he says, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The central concern will not be one’s relation to the temple and its correlated orientation to the cosmos, but rather one’s relationship with other human beings, as verse 25 shows us: Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

So will the religion of the temple with its socially and politically important orientation to creation be wholly displaced by a religion of personal forgiveness? It seems so! And isn’t it largely so in contemporary Christianity in America? In any case, when we arrive at the exchange between Jesus and his disciples just prior to our reading, we cannot be too surprised that Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. In what Karoline Lewis delightfully calls the disciples’ “Little Red Riding Hood” moment (“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”), Jesus assures them that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2). If this is true—and by the time most readers come to the Gospel, it has of course long been true as a matter of historical fact—what will replace it? Taking a seat on the Mount of Olives “opposite the temple,” Jesus has a stern word of warning for his disciple, and for us: “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.” It is a definitive moment. As Myers notes,

With this dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14). The “mountain” must be “moved,” not restored.

Mark envisions a new world free of domination

And with that, Jesus offers them “a vision of the end of the temple-based world,” but also, fortunately, “the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 323). What that vision of a new world is we shall have ample opportunity to discover in the year to come, but already the readings for this first Sunday of Advent point the way.

It is, after all, the creation itself that will alert the disciples to the coming of the Son of Man:  “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Reorientation in both space and time is part of the expected action to come: the elect will be gathered from the four directions of the winds, and from the depths of the earth as well as the heights of heaven. The Son of Man comes in the center of the cosmos! Upon seeing the “desolating sacrilege” that violates the holiness of the temple, as Jesus anticipates earlier in his warning (Mark 13:14-15), they will have fled from the city to the mountains. There they will be extremely vulnerable to conditions in the wilderness, having no time to fetch a coat or provide for nursing mothers. But for the sake of the elect, God will cut short that time of exposure. The main thing is to be alert to the signs in both the heavens and on earth that announce the arrival: “keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Given the assumptions of popular apocalyptic in our culture, combined with broad familiarity of the second law of thermodynamics, it is easily assumed that these signs point to the destruction of creation: the sun burning out, the moon losing its light, and stars falling from the sky.  But as Myers points out, “[c]osmic portents symbolic of judgment are common in apocalyptic literature.” The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the “desolation” of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the “fall” of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).  As this morning’s reading from Isaiah 64 reminds us, creation acts in concert with the actions and purposes of God.  The heavens are torn, the mountains quake. It is like “when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil,” moments in which recent science has located seemingly chaotic and intractable changes which nonetheless result in a new ordering of nature: creation explodes with great energy when God comes suddenly out of hiding (Isaiah 64:1-2, 7).

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe

Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling; off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man; the withered tree bursts into flame as the temple tumbles into the turbulent waters over which the Spirit of God moves: so, it seems, God’s departure from the temple means the re-engagement of all creation in God’s purposes. Is this the end? No, says Myers: The scope of the ingathering is from one end of creation to another; Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled” (Myers, p. 344). And the most telling sign of this renewal of creation in God is the greening of the fig tree, which Jesus now gives to his disciples in parabolic form (Mark 13:28). All these things, Mark says, are like the greening of the fig tree: when you see it happening, you know that summer is near. So also, with these things, you will know that the Son of Man and the renewal of life that the Son of Man brings is near, indeed, is “at the gates” (13:28-30).

The leafing of the tree, Myers notes, implied for William Telford a blessing for the Christian community “as a counterpoint to its withering in 11:20 and against the curse of Jerusalem.” On the contrary, Myers argues, the narrative relationship between the two trees does not in fact suggest contrast, but continuity. Mark’s reader “must once and for all learn the lesson of the fig tree. Which was:  the world of the temple-based social order must come to an end (11:20-26) in order for the new order to dawn” (Ibid. p. 345).  The parable of the fig tree actually summarizes the teaching of Jesus’ earlier parables:

The leafy fig tree symbolized “not the kairos for fruit”; the “bad soil” (cf. the sower parable, 4:16f.) symbolizes the oppressive temple state, which causes fruit to “wither’ (11:21). Similarly, the leafy fig tree means that “summer” (or “harvest,” to theros, 13:28) is imminent. . . This was already spelled out in the seed parable of 4:26-29: the kingdom seed grows unseen, but when it yields fruit the “sickle” is sent (apostellei) for “the harvest” (ho therismos). The war means that the “moment of truth” is “at the door” for the community” (13:29) (Ibid.).

The teaching of Jesus is full of new life, not only metaphorically and spiritually, but also existentially and materially. But one must remain alert to see its blossom.

What, then, can we conclude thus far with respect to an orientation to creation in the season of Advent? Yes, to be sure, the “heaven and earth” of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds. Even as the disciples will fail in their struggle to stay awake in that garden, the reader of the Gospel is alerted to the birthing of a new heaven and a new earth in the life and death of Jesus. What Jesus encourages here, Myers suggests, is “a mythic moment of watching, however eerie and uncorporeal it may seem to us,” that was widely understood by the early Christians:

It was the cornerstone of the primitive church’s understanding of eschatological existence on the edge of history, and perhaps the most strongly attested of all New Testament catechetical/parenetic traditions (cf. Mt 24:43-51; Lk 21:34-36; 1 Thes 5:2-8; Rom 13:11-13; Col 4:2; 1 Pt 5:8; Rv 3:2). For Mark, it is the culmination of Jesus’ sermon on revolutionary patience. The discipleship community is exhorted to embrace the world as Gethsemane: to stay awake in the darkness of history, to refuse to compromise the politics of the cross. (Ibid., p. 347)

We await a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe.

This is indeed a new orientation to the creation for us. Perhaps there is no better way to begin a new year. Whether or not it will make a difference for the well being of Earth, perhaps only time will tell. “Heaven and earth”—cosmologies, that is to say—come and go, as the history of science shows us; and some are more fruitful than others. One could argue that currently we are caught up in the struggle between, on the one hand, the mechanistic cosmology favored by the construction of the world according to the fossil fuel industry, which along with its deeply entrenched commercial, political, and military powers, is killing life on earth, and on the other hand, a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe. Which of these Mark’s Jesus would applaud is surely clear, if it true that his Word, like a fig tree, endures. We shall indeed keep awake this Advent season, to see what’s coming.

As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

Temple is the heart of the cosmos and Israel’s social order.

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere

Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation? 

Mark displaces creation: Temple, fig tree, and mountain

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe

We await a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Christ the King Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We are the people of God’s Earth. Dennis Ormseth reflects on  the inclusion of land and water in God’s reign.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentcost), Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The long awaited king comes in glory, accompanied by God’s angels. He comes to judge “all the nations”—which includes “all people, Christian, Jews, and Gentiles” He comes as a shepherd, separating out his sheep from the goats, those who follow him in care of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the ill, and those imprisoned and those who do not follow him. He comes as “the humble, not conquering, king of the triumph.” Indeed, he comes as one who identifies himself with “the least of these,” and now judges on their behalf according to the purposes and authority of his Father (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 493-95).

The sheep have followed Jesus in service to the least.

In themselves, the six actions listed—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison—are, as Carter notes, “traditional (Job 22:6-7; Isaiah 58:6-7; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Tobit 4:16-17; Sirach 7:32-36; Testament of Joseph 1:5-7). Jesus performs them to manifest God’s reign/empire or saving presence in a world of sinful oppression . . . He has taught disciples to perform them as they carry out their mission of manifesting God’s reign/empire.” It is significant that as compared with “dominant cultural practices,” these actions “are nonreciprocal and are concerned for the needs of the other, not the honor and social credit of the giver” (Ibid.  p. 493). Remarkably, Jesus, as the powerful Son of Man, enacts the judgment which involves actions done to Jesus, the suffering servant. The righteous and the unrighteous alike are surprised by this strong identification of the king with the poor. Judgment of the people is based on whether they have taken on his role as their servant. The final verb of the judgment, as Carter notes, is “to take care,” which

“literally means ‘to serve.’ It is the verb by which Jesus sums up the mission of the Son of Man in 20:28 (‘not to be served but to serve’). It denotes actions by angels (4:11), and by women disciples (8:15, giving him food and drink, welcoming him; 27:55). Its cognate noun ‘servant’ names the identity of disciples as a marginal, low-status community in 20:26; 23:11 (cf. 24:45-51; 25; 14-30). The condemned have not lived as disciples. They have not recognized Jesus’ authority over their lives, despite calling him Lord” (cf.7:21-23) (Ibid., p. 497).

Followers of the king who is to be revealed in the remaining chapters of Matthew’s Gospel as the suffering servant of God will follow him in this service, and their service will be vindicated as such in the final judgment. Like those saints identified in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount, they are blessed by Jesus’ Father, and they will inherit the kingdom of God.

The needy have an ecological context, as they have a socio-political context.

Given the finality of this vision and this strong emphasis on the role of the servant, we could wish that care for the non-human creation was among the six actions in which the servant is to be encountered. As we have demonstrated in our comments on the lectionary for Year A, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is appropriately seen as the Lord, the servant of all Creation. The focus here would seem instead to be exclusively anthropological, typically so, one might lament: once more the needs of the human creature are privileged over those of the non-human creature. This focus is probably unavoidable, however, since the emphasis here is on Jesus: the human Jesus will be present in and among the representative human needy. And, in any case, these needy do have real social, political, and even ecological contexts. As Carter points out, the actions Jesus calls for are directed to meet the very real practical needs of people who were likely to be found

“among the majority (non-elite) population of a city such as Antioch, the likely place of Matthew’s audience. Among the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, the uneven and inadequate food and water supply, limited sewage disposal, the epidemics and infections fed by urine, feces, trash, corpses, decay, and insects, and the general misery of poverty, lack, and debt, disciples are to use their limited resources to meet these basic human needs of the poor” (Ibid. p. 495).

Among those needs, in short, are conditions that we would indeed describe today as “environmental,” conditions that impact in every way the quality of the people’s life. The servanthood of Jesus recognized by the righteous encompasses care for neighborhood as well as neighbor, to draw on another metaphor we have encountered in our readings and, finally, for all creation.

Indeed, above all, sheep need land, good pasture!

Attentive listeners to the first lesson read this Sunday will be prepared to receive this more inclusive, ecological understanding of human need. This human Jesus, servant king of the poor, our reading of Ezekiel 34 asserts, is also a shepherd, and indeed, not just any shepherd, but God, the true shepherd who addresses the need of his sheep in comprehensive scope:

As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 34:12-14).

In this vision of the prophet Ezekiel, the preeminent need of the sheep, we note, is land: fertile, well-watered mountainsides where they can rest and feed “on rich pasture.”  We have also encountered this metaphor earlier, in the Season of Easter. It’s inclusion here as part of the statement of the church’s eschatological conviction underscores the importance of care of creation in the future witness of the church; if Jesus the Good Shepherd is properly part of the vision of how God will bring all things to conclusion, not only his sheep, but also the pasture in which his sheep graze belongs to that vision.

Note the rest of Ezekiel 34 dealing with pollution.

That being said, we can regret all the more that the appointed reading from Ezekiel 34 does not include verses 17-19. The problem between the sheep, these verses make clear, is that not only do the fat sheep refuse to give place to the lean sheep (“you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide” [v. 20]), but they harm the pasture as well: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” And they foul the water: “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?” (v. 18). The point is repeated for emphasis: “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (v. 19). A contemporary analogy comes quickly to mind: the feed lots of industrial agriculture not only foul the air, water, and soil of the pasture, but drive out the environmentally-sensitive, small farmer, who struggles to compete in a market structured to favor the large scale operator. This is a vivid metaphor and very much to the ecological point: there are those who make place for others in which to live; and there are those who do not, who indeed on the contrary lay waste the space that others need for life. Social justice and ecological justice are clearly coupled to each other in this picture. God’s servant David was one of the former; so also, we confess, was Jesus. And so also, our readings insist, shall be those who follow him.

And, the promise of a natural covenant of peace

It will help to bring this insight forward in this Sunday’s sermon, if Ezekiel verses 17-19 are included in the reading, and the reader would do well to extend the reading further to include verses 25-31. The additional verses show why these servants of God do what they do; they do, quite simply, what God does; namely, they serve and keep the garden of Earth:

I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods secure. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid.  I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God (Ezekiel 34:25-31).

We are the people of God’s pasture!

Allowing that in biblical ecology the banishment of wild animals does not mean their extermination, but rather their restoration to a place in which they also can live in peace, this covenanting God promises to restore all creatures to their appointed place in the creation. God will sustain them there, in accordance with God’s purposes, in the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). There, we might imagine, they will join the angels of God in the hymn of praise appointed as the psalm for this Sunday—a truly ecologically sensitive hymn, in the view of one commentator (see Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, pp. 135-36). Thus does the year end with all God’s creatures, saints and servants, joining in praise of their Creator and his Servant: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” (Psalm 95:6-7).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday November 13-19 in Year A (Ormseth)

Claiming the Future as Precious Gifts of People and Land. Dennis Ormseth reflects on acting boldly for restoration and healing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Zephaniah  1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At first look, the lessons seem to be unrelated to care for creation.

We approach the end of the church year, and our focus is directed by the lectionary towards the end of all time. The scriptures for this Sunday before the festival of Christ the King (The Reign of Christ) bear careful reading, lest care of creation be crushed under the weight of apocalyptic narrative popular in American culture. Zephaniah 1:18, for instance, speaks of a time when “in the fire of [the Lord’s] passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” “Who considers the power of your anger?” the psalmist asks (90:11). And while our second lesson holds out the promise that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it says nothing about the fate of the non-human creation.

Accordingly, when we hear the Gospel speak of “a worthless slave” who is to be thrown “into the outer darkness,” we are fully ready to throw our lot in with those who pursue the strong “growth strategy” of the first two servants of Jesus’ parable. Obviously, one doesn’t want to have to deal with the anger faced by that fearful, no-growth slacker of the third servant. His economic behavior might be a great thing for Earth’s climate, but that could hardly matter if the whole earth is to be consumed! Since we know not the “times and the seasons” and are “children of the day,” we can “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak, and enjoy the Lord’s bounty while it lasts.

Fortunately, this total reversal of everything we have come to expect of Christ the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is not the only possible reading of our texts. On the contrary, when read with appropriate attention to the narrative of the Servant of Creation we have uncovered in this year’s lections, these scriptures comprise a fine, penultimate word of encouragement for care of creation.

Injustice among humans and the devastation of the land go together.

The “great day of the Lord” described in our first reading is a place-specific and time-specific day of judgment upon Judah in the “days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1), due to their idolatry (“I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priest”; 1:4) and their sin “against the Lord” (1:17). The people, it seems, have lost their fear of God and disregarded God’s call for justice. They “rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” The people may have great wealth, but their wealth will not save them: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

The passage thus expresses a theme common to the biblical prophets. As Carol Dempsey puts it in commenting on this chapter from Zephaniah, “Breach of the covenant relationship on the part of human beings reaps repercussions that devastate not only humanity but the natural world as well” (Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, p. 87; cf. Terry Fretheim’s discussion of the same theme in Jeremiah, in God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 171-74). As to the scope of this devastation, Dempsey cautions that the Hebrew term ‘eres translates interchangeably as earth” or “land,” and suggests that the more appropriate interpretation “when used in conjunction with the idea of suffering is ‘land’” (Ibid. p. 76-77).

Breaking the covenant results in social injustice and ecological injustice

Our first lesson thus reaffirms points of great importance for the story of the Servant of Creation:  while the reading does not foresee a final, all-encompassing destruction of Earth, it does say that human sinfulness stemming from faithlessness in relationship to God the Creator results in both social injustice and eco-injustice. God’s judgment is worked out in relationships with both humans and the creation more comprehensively. The reading should give us cause to tremble: We do not know the times and seasons, but the morning newspaper presents headlines warning both that the “poorest poor hit record high” and that “CO2 takes ‘monster’ jump” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Friday, November 4, 2011, pp. 3 and 9). Might this dreadful combination of unequal distribution of God’s gifts and disregard for the health of the planet culminate in an apocalyptic destruction of the creation, as so many environmental experts fear?  We dare not dismiss the possibility out of hand; the call to repentance in the face of this possible judgment must be heeded!

Still, if it is true that we are “children of light and children of the day,” as the second lesson says, we will also read the times as the Servant of Creation would have us read them, and “encourage one another and build up each other” so as to persevere all the more in the care of creation, both humankind and otherkind—for that is precisely the good word we take away from Jesus’ “parable of the talents” in today’s Gospel.

Interpretation of the parable of the talents is made problematic by the fact that it seems so contrary to much of Jesus teaching. Warren Carter describes the contradiction as follows:

“In this parable the master behaves in tyrannical ways that imitate dominant cultural and imperial values (25:25-30) and contradicts Jesus’ previous teaching. He rewards the first two slaves for their accumulation of wealth and punishes the third slave for not doing so. The parable takes the perspective of the wealthy elite and legitimates a ‘rich-get-richer and poorer-get-poorer’ approach. It punishes the one who subverts the system” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 487-88).

Who is this master? Conventional allegorical interpretation says that he is Jesus, who thus challenges his disciples (the slaves) to be ready for his delayed return by setting out for them the possible consequences of their failure to properly prepare. But if the master is taken to be Jesus, Carter argues, it would seem that “the gospel has co-opted dominant cultural values in picturing the establishment of God’s empire. God’s empire imitates, rather than provides an alternative to, Rome’s empire, in which the wealthy and powerful become even more so at the expense of the rest.” The strong, positive message that the disciples are “to be actively seeking their master’s good, faithfully carrying out the tasks he has entrusted to them,” has overridden all other concerns, including what exactly that good is, relative to the purposes of God. As we have suggested above, the possible implications of this for care of creation are dreadful: could Jesus have been so careless about the role of his disciples as co-servants of creation, or could Matthew have been so clueless?

The parable is contrary to the values promoted everywhere else in the Gospel.

Bernard Brandon Scott provides us with an alternative reading that rescues the parable for care of creation.  The first two servants have indeed done well. They have made proper use of the wealth that has been placed in their hands. “These servants,” Scott suggests, “are not slaves but stewards acting in the master’s stead.  From the profit they make for their master they will be able to enrich themselves, for they expect to share in his good fortune” (P. 226). Their future, following on their master’s return, is secure, as is the master’s estate.  And from the narrative of the Servant of Creation, we might interpose, as co-servants of creation, they are to enjoy the marvelous increase in value resulting from their care of that which the master has entrusted to them.

None of the options are viable—neither predatory greed nor paralyzing fear.

The unfortunate third servant, on the other hand, has an image of his master that, as Scott suggests, “deprives him of a future, for it freezes the servant in fear.” Is this image of the master wrong? There is poignant ambiguity to the parable here, Scott notes:

“The master never accepts the description of the third servant’s aphorism [reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed] but points back to the first two servants. His refusal to take back the talent implies his rejection of that image. A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servant’s attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? How do we know which of these two views is correct?” (Ibid. pp. 233-34).

We know which image is true of God by virtue of attending to the larger narrative of the Servant of Creation in which this story is placed. The Creator sows the creation richly and graciously and the servants of creation do have incalculable wealth to be responsible for and to take care of.

How can we claim the future as precious gifts of people and land?

What emerges from the parable, Scott urges, is “how one goes about claiming the future. Is it claimed by preserving the precious gift? Or is it claimed in the present as freedom of action, liberating the servant from an aphoristic, conventional vision that paralyzes him?” For Scott it is clearly the latter: “The parable as a window onto the kingdom demands that the servant act neither as preserver nor as one afraid; but act boldly he must. If one is to act boldly, then the rules have been changed. They are no longer predictable.” Again we interpose from the narrative of the Servant of Creation: not frozen preservation, but restoration, healing, and enhancement of a living and dynamic creation is the servant of creation’s proper role. And for that, a trusting faith, wide awake to what’s happening with the creation, is essential. It’s true: terrible in aspect, indeed, is the “outer darkness” of climate change and ecological devastation that will follow from failure to properly serve and steward the wealth of God’s creation. If that is truly the future of Earth, there will be all too much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who trust the Creator, on the other hand, can hope with the psalmist “to be satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 30 – November 5 in Year A (Ormseth)

Called To Be No Less Than Servants of Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on servant leadership.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 30 – November 5, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
I Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Live a life worthy of the creator.

The scriptures appointed for this Sunday after Pentecost are focused on the theme of authentic leadership. Over against “prophets who lead my people astray” and rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Micah 3:5, 9), “those who are deceitful and unjust” (Psalm 43:1), and those scribes and Pharisees who “do not practice what they teach,”  Matthew’s Jesus lifts up the images of the “one Father, the one in heaven” and the “one instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:9, 10), to the end that his disciples should be mindful that “the greatest among you will be your servant” and that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). In the second lesson, Paul writes to the congregation at Thessalonica as “brothers and sisters” who will recognize shared burdens and a fatherly concern for a ‘life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (I Thessalonians 2:9, 12).

 Care for creation practitioners: Practice what you teach!

Those who would lead the Christian community into care of creation do well to heed these counsels. To be credible, leaders on any issue of environmental concern must “practice what they teach” with a seriousness that goes beyond mere show. The burden of behavioral change necessary to restore creation is indeed heavy. Sharing that burden equitably in relationship to one’s responsibility is a complicated challenge; it can probably be met only by those who are willing to forego their own claims for equity and set an example by strict adherence to principle. Especially those who draw on special authority to instruct us regarding environmental damage (climate change scientists, for example) will find that their effectiveness is proportional to their ability to demonstrate their own serious commitment to real behavioral change.

The servant model of leadership.

The most significant element in these readings, however, is the way in which Jesus again lifts up the model of the servant. Jesus’ criticism of the leaders serves to underscore the practical importance of this model: their way is the exact opposite of how a genuine servant would lead. We recognize the model as his own: we confess him to be the Lord, the Servant of Creation (see our comments on Passion Sunday). What particularly interests us here is the way in which the model serves to bridge the way leaders conduct themselves in relationship to their community, with the way Christians, following the model of Jesus, might understand the relationship of humans to creation. The servant model of leadership reinforces the servant model of human care of creation in a manner that other models do not do.

Steward as Model?

In his discussion of three such models, those of steward, citizen, and servant, Norman Wirzba points out that “at least in the popular imagination,” the model of the steward “maintains the notion that human beings are in control, and so stewardship stand in stark contrast to other environmental approaches that stress a more egalitarian view’ (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 130). “Though it serves well as a titular designation, its programmatic neutrality with respect to means and ends . . . makes it susceptible to misuse and distortion” (Ibid., p.132). The way that the model functions in human community, in short, does not work well as an image for our relationship with nature.

Citizen as Model?

Alternatively, Wirzba suggests, the model of humans as citizens in nature serves to emphasize that “we are through our bodies necessarily and beneficially embedded in a historical and biological context that, while making our individual lives possible, is nonetheless greater than us.” This model is well suited for illuminating our pursuit of self-interest in nature’s arena of conflicting and competing interests, and thus points to our need to expand our range of interest to the “health of the whole” as “citizens entwined together in a common fate” who “harm ourselves and each other if we think and act too much on the assumption of our individuality.” On the other hand, the model so closely identifies human identity and ecological context as to ignore moral and spiritual capacities unique to humans that are needed for the ”transformation that will bring our hearts and minds into alignment with the divine intention for creation” (Ibid., 134-35.)

Servant as Model—in the Image of God

What is needed, Wirzba argues, is a model that “takes seriously the imago Dei and that acknowledges our ecological interdependence, an image that recognizes human uniqueness without turning it into despotic exploitation.” The model of servant of creation meets this need. The model of servant,

“…which itself draws on many human responsibilities, can help us as a focal image that animates and is at work in the various tasks we perform. Servanthood, in other words, permeates the many roles of the religious follower, often by informing the specific practices associated with religious life: prayer, worship, and work each require, at some point, exemplification in a life of service. Moreover, to speak of servants, rather than stewards or citizens, of creation is to highlight the counter-cultural nature of the task before us. Servanthood, unlike major emphases in current cultural life, shifts the orientation of our action away from ourselves to the well-being of others, to the work of ‘making room’ for others to be, and finally to the praise of the creator. It takes our minds off the current obsession with the consumption of creation and redirects it to the work of enabling the continuity of creation. Servanthood, in short, introduces us to the long, patient labor of fitting ourselves within God’s creative work.” (Ibid., p. 135-36. Wirzba develops this theme more fully in his The Paradise of God, “On Being Servants of Creation,” pp. 136 – 145.)

And, we would add, it has the obvious advantage of authorization by the Servant of Creation, as in our Gospel reading for this Sunday!

Live a life worthy of the creator.

Care for creation practitioners: Practice what you teach!

The servant model of leadership.

Steward as Model?

Citizen as Model?

Servant as Model—in the Image of God

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 23-29 in Year A (Ormseth)

To love neighbor involves love for their neighborhood. To love God involves love for God’s creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on loving as God loves.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 23-29, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it; ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Coming as it does at the end of a block of narrative in which the conflict between Jesus and his opponents over his mission and his authority is brought to the fever pitch that leads to his death, this saying, the so-called ‘double commandment to love,” constitutes something of an epitome of both Jesus’ teaching and his practice. Citing both Moses and the holiness code from Leviticus, Jesus demonstrates his loyalty to the faith of Israel and thus silences his critics. Again we have an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of care of creation in the mission of Jesus, if we can show the connection of this saying to that concern.

To love the neighbor requires love of their ecological neighborhood.

We have previously given attention to the second half of the saying, concerning love of neighbor, most recently in our comment on the texts for Lectionary 23. With reference to Paul’s ethical counsel in Romans 13:9-10, we asked, “Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the ‘hood’ in which the neighbor lives?”

“Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor,” we urged, “encompasses all aspects of the web of relationships, natural no less than social, economic, and political.” We refer the reader to that discussion, and turn to what happens to be the more important and decisive matter of the first half of the saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all our soul, and with all your mind.”

Love for God involves loving all that God loves.

In a recent discussion of the biblical meaning of love, Michael Welker makes the key points that are needed here. “If we take the time to compare the numerous statements about love in the biblical traditions,” he writes, “we are first struck by the multitude of ‘relations’ that cause them to speak of ‘love.’” Contrary to what he regards in contemporary discussions of love as “captivity of thought” to a “paradigmatic concentration on the affective person-to-person relation,” Welker argues that “[a]part from the great variety of ‘love relations’ in the biblical traditions it is striking that for centuries the love of God is strictly connected to the respect for and “attention to the commandments” or to the ‘holding fast to God’s word. Correspondingly, ‘to love God’s name’ and ‘to serve God’ (Isaiah 56:6) can be connected.’ . . . The ‘love of God’  . .  quite obviously also means to take up and pursue God’s intentions as they pertain to the good order and the well-being of creation in general.” Love of God, he urges with specific reference to the saying of Matthew 22:37,

“. . . includes, and even opens up, law-abiding and loving relationships to the world, to fellow human beings, and even to other fellow creatures, according to God’s intentions. The so-called ‘double commandment of love’ should thus not be regarded as a combination of two different basic relations, but as a strict connection that says something important about the biblical understanding of love in general” (Welker, “Romantic Love, Covenantal Love, Kenotic Love,” in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, John Polkinghorn, editor, pp. 130-31).

The “love God loves with and wants to be loved with” is both revealed in Jesus and made available to us through him as a power with which we, too, can love the creation.

Covenantal love dignifies our role as God’s partners in tending creation.

Love in this perspective takes two forms, covenantal love and kenotic love. Both are of crucial significance for the care of creation. The covenantal form of love, Welker stipulates,

“. . . bestows a great dignity on human beings. They are dignified to take up and pursue God’s intentions in relation to creation, God’s interests in the well being of creation. They are dignified to reveal God’s will and God’s plans for creation. And they are dignified to work toward the fulfillment of the divine creative, sustaining, and transforming agency. No less is expressed in the notion of the imago Dei” (Ibid., p. 133).

But given the great “weight of love” thus conferred on human beings—“For who could claim that he or she could respond to this calling and take care of God’s intentions for the creation? Who could claim to participate in God’s strength and being?” (Ibid.)—, God also “unconditionally turns to creatures in order to liberate them out of the depths of confusion, lostness, and sin, to win them for the coming reign of God, and to ennoble them to the experience and enactment of God’s love, something they can only experience and enact as a new creation.”

Kenotic love is God’s burning passion of all living things in themselves.

In this kenotic form of love, God reveals God’s own “burning passion for creatures” in themselves, and “not just for their suitability to the divine plan for the world.” This love involves “a passionate interest in the otherness of the other, a passionate interest in letting the other unfold himself-herself in freedom, a passionate interest to pave ways for the unfolding of his-or-her life, all are characteristic of kenotic love.” Not just a matter of curiosity, this love

“. . . seeks to win the other for a new life in a new creation. The kenotic love of God seeks a new covenantal relationship—without boundaries, without exclusion, but with the divine purpose to win the beloved one for participation in the divine life and in the divine plans for creation. The life of Christ offers guidance to help us become familiar with these plans” (Ibid., p. 134).

How can we—Christians and congregations—not love and care for creation?

With this assertion we profoundly agree, in light of our course of discovery of such guidance in our comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. We can perhaps sum up his argument this way: If love of neighborhood is inherent in love of neighbor, so also is love for God’s creation inherent in love for God. To love God is to respect God’s work of love, the whole creation. It is to love what God loves, with the love with which God wants it to be loved, the love which is ours in and through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This love can be exercised most directly and effectively in relationship to one’s neighbor and the ‘hood’ that we and our neighbors share. Surely it belongs to the practice of every Christian congregation to demonstrate to the community surrounding it that this is very much what Christian faith is about.

To love the neighbor requires love of their ecological neighborhood.

Love for God involves loving all that God loves.

Covenantal love dignifies our role as God’s partners in tending creation.

Kenotic love is God’s burning passion of all living things in themselves.

How can we—Christians and congregations—not love and care for creation?

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 9-15 in Year A (Ormseth)

It Is God’s Will Dennis Ormseth reflects on joining with the Lord, Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is the Feast of Victory for our God!

The coupling of the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” from Matthew 22:1-14 with this Sunday’s first lesson from Isaiah 25 suggests that the parable must be understood as referring to the messianic banquet. Reading these texts together in Christian worship, however, raises a difficult question for those who rejoice in God’s love for all creation.

A verse of one of the canticles of praise sung by Lutheran congregations at the opening of eucharistic worship expresses the expectation that all of creation joins in the feast that celebrates the triumph of God over all evil:

“This is the feast of victory for our God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
. . . Sing with all the people of God,
and join in the hymn of all creation. . . .”

The liturgy “Now the Feast and Celebration” makes the point even more emphatically: “Now the feast and celebration, all of creation sings for joy.” We have urged this perspective upon our readers at every opportunity in this series of comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. That the “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” suggests a markedly less inclusive vision might therefore give us pause concerning this expectation. The refusal of the invitation by a whole host of humans, coupled with the final exclusion of a person brought in from the streets because he is not appropriately dressed, tends to lessen our confidence in the inclusiveness of God’s victorious love. What, then, really counts for inclusion or exclusion in the great feast? Why is the proper wedding garment the crucial factor related to inclusion? And what actually is this exclusion about?

Why the inclusion and then the exclusion?

In Bernard Brandon Scott’s view, Matthew’s version of the parable of the “Man Who Gave a Banquet” needs to be read in sequence with Matthew’s earlier parables of “A Man had Two Sons” and “A Man Planted a Vineyard.” In the progression of the three parables, Matthew “sketches out his vision of the kingdom and its coming,” which represents an “ideology of salvation history” and which “concludes, on the one hand, that Israel has rejected God’s messengers and, on the other, that the church’s good fruits show forth that it is the true Israel.” At the same time, however, this progression undercuts the apparent verisimilitude of the parables, which removes the cause of offence taken at the rejection of the man having no wedding garment. Matthew simply wants to make clear, Scott suggests, “as is most evident in his Great Judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46),” that “if grace calls, the threat of no fruits remains for judgment.” The man without a wedding garment is a man “without the fruits of the kingdom” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 162-63).

The key to the series of parables is that we join God in care for all creation.

Our reading of the parables of these last several Sundays, while making use of Scott’s suggestion that Matthew undercuts their verisimilitude, also supplants the ideology of salvation history with a theology of care of creation. We would accordingly include in this progression the parable of “the laborers in the vineyard,” the point of which, we suggested (following Scott and Norman Wirzba), is that “God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing” (See our comment on the readings for last Sunday). God’s call to work in the vineyard of creation is a principle motif of the entire sequence, which invites us to enter into “‘the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head.” The invitation is “’to join God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen. 2:8-9). It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality’” (See our comment on the readings for Lectionary 25.  The quote is from Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 155).

Accordingly, the parable of “A Man had Two Sons,” while also part of the ideology of salvation history in which the church becomes the “true Israel,” in this reading can be seen to imply that the Son who actually went to the vineyard and engaged in its care is the true Servant of the creation. Our reading of the parable of “A Man Planted a Vineyard,” furthermore, enlarges the scope of this line of interpretation by drawing on the primary vineyard texts of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46 for development of the metaphor: those who reject the son reject their role as caretakers of the vineyard; and the new tenants who replace them are those who reclaim the heritage of the Son and join him in the work of restoring the creation, a near parallel to the Gospel for this Sunday.

Warren Carter explains the connection: like the harvesting of good fruits, “feasting and eating indicate participation in God’s purposes.” The readings of Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 serve to illustrate and underscore the point: the “meal also symbolizes the yet-future completion of God’s purposes when God’s empire will be established in full. Isaiah envisions God’s future triumphant return to Zion, where God will make “for all peoples a feast of rich food. . . . In the parable those who refuse to attend the wedding celebration are excluded, while those who come participate in God’s purposes.” The man who comes without a wedding garment, fails “to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king,” and therefore suffers the worst imaginable consequences because “to be called and chosen means honoring God (22:37-39) and doing God’s will (7:24-27; 12:46-50) until the judgment” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins, p. 434).

Just as we join the Lord in care for the poor and distress, so also we join the Lord, the Servant of Creation in unending care for God’s creation.

Brandon Scott’s treatment of this parable, which he renames “’What If No One Came?” provides an additional insight worthy of mention here. The banquet, he argues, along with the excuses, which allude to a list of reasons for refusing to participate in holy war, add to the reader’s expectation that this is the messianic banquet that celebrates victory over the Lord’s enemies. But strangely, the meal in the parable “never escalates to the expected messianic banquet, because the master is powerless to attack those who have snubbed him.” Furthermore, the master “loses his upper-class status and must join those who live in the streets.” In contrast to the passage from Isaiah, in which “the poor and distressed receive new value from being associated with God,” in the parable, the “householder cannot raise the poor up but must himself join them.” Perhaps this is the way the Servant of Creation would have originally told the parable. If Matthew, on the other hand, insists on the necessity of vengeance to restore the king’s honor, the point is well taken: it is God’s will that we join with the Lord, the Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday October 2-8 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Parable about Caring for Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost remind us that, according to God’s purpose, the life of God’s people is securely grounded in the Earth. Our first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all have in common a key metaphor that brings this home, the metaphor of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; (Isaiah 5:1-7).

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land (Psalm 80:8-9)

Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. . . (Matthew 21:33-34).

In Walter Brueggemann’s judgment, the Song of the Vineyard in our first lesson is the “paradigmatic use of the metaphor in the Old Testament.” And the Parable of Matthew 21:33-41 is correspondingly “the most extended and complex usage of the imagery in the New Testament” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 257). In the commentary for these lessons, we explore the significance of this metaphor for our call to care for creation.

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

We have encountered the metaphor of the vineyard before in our reading of the selections from the Gospel of Matthew, most recently with the texts for Lectionary 25, with the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard.” There we pictured a God who cares passionately about his vineyard and is pleased to call laborer after laborer to the good work of caring for it. As the landowner explains to the laborers who criticize the equal pay they received for unequal time spent at labor, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” As we suggested, God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing. While both Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and Matthew’s rendering of the parable of “the wicked tenants’ evoke this same level of concern for the vineyard, these narratives also draw the reader into the deep anguish of God over what happens to the vineyard, when its inhabitants refuse to engage in their work in a righteous manner.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

In Isaiah’s narrative, God is envisioned, not as the manager of the vineyard but as its “Gardener-Vinedresser,” an image which links the narrative to the garden in the story of creation in Genesis 2, and as Brueggemann suggests, “connotes fruitfulness and the full function of creation (Num 24:6).” As the use of the metaphor in the accompanying Psalm 80 makes explicit, the image also links the story to the narrative of the Exodus, as it was expressed already in Exodus 15:17: “You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established” (Ibid., p. 255). God’s investment in the vineyard is made absolutely clear in the detailed accounting of the planting. The digging, the clearing of stones, the selection of choice vines, and the building of a watchtower all provide detailed substance for the claim reflected in the anguished question of v. 4a:  “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

The gardener’s expectations are high: the vat for the wine has been hewn out and is ready to receive the fruit. The gardener’s disappointment is equally great: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4b). And his action is correspondingly astonishing. With no thought to trying another variety in another season (the standard modern gardener’s perennial response to a disappointing crop), the gardener resolves to destroy the whole vineyard: 

“I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

So serious for the gardener is this failure to produce good fruit. The gardener’s response goes beyond the passionate concern that the vineyard be well tended; he is angry enough to bring to bear the full weight of both enemy armies and cosmic forces against the vineyard and its occupants, an anger that is sustained, in the prophet’s telling,  until “the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust” (6:24a). Why so great and consuming anger? “For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (6:24b).

Brueggemann notes that the metaphor of the gardener-vinedresser is what he calls a “metaphor of sustenance,” contrasted with “metaphors of governance,” according to which God is imaged as “one who nurtures, evokes, values, and enhances life,” as opposed to the concern “to maintain a viable order in which life is possible for Israel and for all of creation” (Ibid., p. 250).  But it seems then that there is a certain unexpected wildness about this gardener. The vine and the vineyard together are destroyed in his cataclysmic fury! What are we to make of this?

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

That the Song of the Vineyard has reference to the experience of the people of Israel in exile is obvious, of course; and the agenda of the prophet concerns not gardening but the lack of political and economic justice on the part of the leadership. The sour grapes that so anger the gardener are the unjust and uncaring actions of those leaders. As Brueggemann observes, the metaphor of the gardener and his garden or vineyard is:

“able to express both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in time of displacement.  In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine” (p. 257).

But the metaphor guarantees that the fate of the vineyard cannot be separated from that of the vine. The vine and the vineyard are of one piece; people and land are caught up together in the destruction that the leaders of the people have brought upon them all. It comes, surely, of the deep rootedness of the people in the land, a rootedness that perhaps only a gardener who has dug soil, cleared stones, and planted with expensive “choice vines” can fully appreciate. 

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

Contemporary readers concerned with care of creation might see in this a warning that social justice and environmental concern are inseparably linked, however remote the connections may appear to be on the surface. This would suggest, at the least, that neither social justice nor environmental restoration should be pursued in isolation from or at the expense of the other; eventually the linkage will make itself manifest. We might also be struck by the fact that the vineyard, once so carefully tended by God, is, as it were, to be turned back into wasteland or wilderness. No wall shuts out wild animals; no knife or hoe disturbs whatever grows there; and it matters not that drought parches the land. There is an ironic sense of justice to this:  after all the care God extended, the vineyard yield’s only wild grapes. And so the land is returned to wilderness. It was Thoreau who famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and the idea is perhaps no more prophetic than it is apt as a basis for setting aside tracts of land called “wilderness.” The wildness that haunts our culture’s disregard of calls for social and eco-justice pertains to energies that are far more comprehensive and threatening than anything that can be designated as a preserve. Such ideas need to be used carefully, of course, as has been demonstrated lately by the claims of politicians to know just exactly what “sins” are responsible for the environmental “wildness” we are experiencing globally in recent times. They seldom seem to have in mind acts of injustice that involve our relationship to the Earth. But the return of the land to wildness as envisioned here echoes themes from the story of Noah; and there is perhaps a sense that land degraded by human misuse needs to “go wild” and be devoid of human habitation before it is ready to be inhabited once again in the expectation of good fruit.

Does Jesus see the significance of the metaphor of the vineyard similarly? Brueggemann calls attention to the fact that in Matthew 21:33-41, the image is again “potentially positive toward Israel and a witness to Yahweh’s attentive generosity” but is “utilized as an assertion of judgment:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matt 21:41). But there are interesting and perhaps significant differences in the details, as well. First of all, the gardener has become an absentee landowner, who lets out his vineyard to tenants. This social and economic distance opens up the possibility for people to have an impersonal financial interest in the vineyard; and the actions of the tenants seem to confirm this as part of Jesus’ understanding. They do not have the investment in the vineyard that the gardener does; they are not concerned about producing good fruits as much as they are concerned to gain control over the property, even though they acknowledge that it is another’s “heritage” they covet. Indeed, they both dishonor the owner and ignore whatever purposes he might have for the vineyard.

Warren Carter argues that the parable “utilizes a struggle over land and resources to raise questions about ownership and just use” as part of salvation history. Thus the parable:

“evokes a dominant economic practice of the Greco-Roman world where high rents, civic and religious taxes, acquiring seed and feed for the next crop and for livestock, and the need to trade or barter for other goods not produced on a farm, made subsistence existence difficult for many. The religious elite as tenants experience not only the desperation many experienced, but the desperation they helped to cause” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 427).

 Especially telling is their treatment of the son and heir; in killing him they destroy any possibility of the son taking charge of the vineyard and restoring it in accordance with the landowner’s purposes. The linkage between owner, people, and land implicit in the metaphor of the vineyard but weakened in the commercial transaction of renting, is thus willfully broken. The consequence again seems quite astonishing, if at the outset we assume that the landowner represents God. In Carter’s view, the “vineyard remains intact, owned by its owner. It is the tenants who are punished by losing their position as its caretakers,” a punishment which, Carter suggests, is “understood to happen in Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome in 70 C.E.” (Ibid., p. 429). 

We learn the fate of the land owners, but what about the fate of the vineyard?

This conclusion seems strange in the mouth of Jesus. And Bernard Brandon Scott is less certain about the fate of the vineyard. The threat of displacement is, after all, first voiced by the authorities, for whom this is an entirely ordinary way of thinking. With allusions to the patriarchal stories of Joseph, however, and to the conflict over inheritance classically represented by the story of Esau and Jacob, the fact that the parable “provides no ready identification models, no clear metaphorical referencing, an audience is left in a precarious position: In the plot, the kingdom fails and the inheritance is in doubt.”  Even worse, the parable seems to recall Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven is breaking out by violence and violent men are raping it.” The kingdom is an object of violence. The owner is a fool, the tenants are bandits, and the messengers are beaten or murdered. . . [The]  parable challenges the predictability of the kingdom’s heirs as good and the apocalyptic assumption that the kingdom’s true heirs will in the end triumph.  In the parable, the final fate of the vineyard is unresolved because the owner is still alive, but no evidence is given for its eventual liberation.  The owner’s fate may be that of his son.” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 252-53.)

Following this line of interpretation leads inevitably to the question whether Jesus (or Matthew) intends to prefigure Jesus’ death in the telling of the parable in the face of his opponents, who are in fact the party that will be responsible for his death. For reading of the parable in Christian worship, this identification seems inescapable. The one who first enters our company at worship appears in the narrative of the Psalm as “one at your right hand,” on whom the hand of God will rest, “the one whom you made strong for yourself” and then reappears here as the son sent by the father from a far country. And so the fate of the vineyard is made to lie in the same grave as the son, awaiting some great reversal at the end of the story.

 The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

Again we can ask, what does all this mean for care of creation? Carter comes close to what we think it means when he writes that this parable of the vineyard “repeats the condemnation of the religious leaders by depicting the fateful consequences of their persistent rejection of God’s purposes, especially in Jesus the son. They are rejected as caretakers of the vineyard. It identifies another group to take over the role of the displaced leaders as God’s agents to ensure the fruitfulness of the vineyard Israel” (Carter, p. 426).

Finding good caretakers for the vineyard is what this is about. However, as we have seen above, people and vineyard are not that easily separated. Or to put it differently, they are only separated so easily in the covetous minds of the thieving tenants and in the coveting minds of those incensed authorities who proclaim that the tenants should be replaced! But the ambiguity of the parable suggests another reason to resist Carter’s conclusion and to close the gap of the imagination with this:

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

If the landowner is God the creator and Jesus his beloved son, then the Vineyard is not simply the limited space of Israel but extends to the whole creation that God loves. And the new tenants are those who will care for that vineyard as the passionate gardener would care for it, or indeed as his son will, when he returns from the wildness beyond the broken walls to reclaim his heritage and restore both the vine and all others, with their vineyard, their proper places in the Earth. Isn’t this very likely what Jesus’ anticipated in saying, The Kingdom of God will be . . . given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? (Matthew 21:44).

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Ormseth)

Acceptance in an Economy of Grace Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost invite our participation in God’s gracious care for all creation. In the words of the Psalmist, we “celebrate the fame of [God’s] abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of [God’s] righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:7-8). An additional verse makes it clear that this love is all-inclusive: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). So we hear that out of concern for the “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals,” God relents of a threat to punish all Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). And we are encouraged by the Apostle Paul to engage in the “fruitful labor” of a life lived “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” the one whom we know as the Lord, the Servant of all creation. And the Gospel provides more specific encouragement for engaging in this care.

Interpretations of the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard” typically emphasize the landowner’s generosity and “the free gift of grace associated with the kingdom’s coming.” The problem with this reading, suggests Bernard Brandon Scott, is that the supposed target of this teaching, the Pharisees, “would not have seen themselves as rejecting God’s generosity to sinners,” nor is it suggested anywhere that “those who have worked in the vineyard all day have not earned their wages,” which on close analysis turn out to be not generous, but only what an average a peasant could expect to earn (”the usual daily wage,” NRSV) (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 282-83).

What about these workers living on the margins?

The point of the parable lies elsewhere, Scott urges. Matthew reads the parable “as an example of the theme that the first shall be last and of the moral contrast between good and evil” (Ibid., p. 287). He leads his readers into the parable, we note, with a sketch of the end of time (“at the renewal of all things” . . . “and when everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life”) and a portrayal of the great reversal it brings about (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”). The parable also speaks of those who have left home. As Warren Carter notes in his illuminating commentary, day laborers like those invited by the landowner to work in the vineyard,

“. . . were a common sight in the agora, or marketplace (20:3) as they waited to be hired for work. They were a readily available pool of cheap labor for wealthier landowners and urban dwellers. Commonly uprooted from peasant farms taken over by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household, they looked for agricultural or urban work, usually day by day and at minimal rates. During planting and harvest, work was readily available, ‘for vintage and haying’ (Varro, On agric 1.17.2), but in between times it often was not. For these ‘expendables’ or involuntary marginals . . . life was unpredictable, marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them” (Matthew and the Margins, p.397).

We have seen their modern-day counterparts crowding the entrances to Home Depot parking lots. They are persons for whom the passage of the time of day could easily descend into hunger and a state of despair. Those not hired will end the day without resources to restore themselves for another day of anxious waiting to be hired; they will know themselves as persons without place or means to live. The question that has to be answered in the hearing of this parable is: “What is right?”—because those who are jobless at the day’s end have the same needs as those who are hired early in the morning. And what possibly could the hope for the renewal of all things mean for them?

Determining what is “right” is not so easy.

The narrative of the parable is structured according to the passage of time: from morning, to noon, then through the afternoon and into the evening. The landowner has promised that he will pay each of them “‘whatever is right.” And as each new cohort arrives to work in the vineyard, the question “what is right?” has to resonate more stridently with those who came earlier—and, of course, with the parable’s audience. The surprise at the end of the day is that all are paid the same, what those hired first agreed to, namely, a day’s living wage. Just so, those who came first want to know, what is right about equal pay for very unequal work? And hearers who identify “with the complaint of the first-hired,” opt “for a world in which justice is defined by a hierarchical relation between individuals (i.e., for a world in which the accounting should set matters aright.). To treat all the same is not just, because all are not alike, all have not earned the same.”

The issue is not justice but acceptance

But we have seen earlier what can happen when an accounting is expected to set matters aright. For example, in the parable of the king’s accounting we read last Sunday, an expectation of different treatment on the part of the servant elicited a demand from his fellow servants for an equally harsh punishment! It appears that it is indeed more difficult to say “what is right” than one at first thinks. But is it really a fair resolution that the landowner claims for himself: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Again the ground has shifted under the feet of the audience: there will be no resolution to the question “what is right.” As Scott explains, “The lack in the parable of any absolute standard of justice undermines any human standard for the kingdom.” What then is the standard? For the parable, value or worth (i.e., a place in the kingdom), Scott argues, is determined not by what is right but by acceptance. The householder’s urgent though unexplained need for laborers is the parable’s metaphor for grace. It is not wages or hierarchy that counts but the call to go into the vineyard. The householder’s generosity lies not in the wage but in the need (Scott, p. 297). And because nothing is said about it being either planting or harvest time, the need is not so much the landowner’s own need, but rather that of the laborers themselves. Those who hear the parable as a story of injustice (“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”) are sent away from the vineyard; they do not belong here with “the last.”

The vineyard is God’s vineyard—the world!

How then is this parable concerned with care of creation? Early, midday, afternoon, evening, the landowner persists through the cycle of the day. The workers are called, Scott notes, to service at “not simply any farm work but labor in a vineyard,” which has the strong metaphorical potential of the Song of the Vineyard (Is 5:1-7) and Jeremiah 12:10, the vineyard which “many shepherds have destroyed.” It is a richly significant place. And who is the householder? In Matthew’s casting, it is Jesus (Scott, p. 287). In our reading, it is Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And he calls these persons at the margins to participate in the “alternative economy of unlimited grace” which we envisioned in our comment on last Sunday’s readings, in which the gift of creation always creates the value to be enjoyed by those who participate in it. Here, too, is that “alternative economy” in which an “alternative egalitarian lifestyle” with its equal opportunity for meaningful work is regarded as the “right” thing, the good, Godlike thing, to do (Carter, p. 398). The workers were without place to work; but by the end of the day each of them has been restored to work in the creation and invited to enter into the joy of that “good thing.”

Can we offer work that is meaningful for people and that restores creation?

Among the strategies for developing a “culture of creation” (identified by Norman Wirzba in his Paradise of God) is the renewal of the meaning of work in relationship to the creation. Work that is severed from the rhythms of creation in places that are not familiar to us has an anonymous character, he suggests,

“that makes it impossible for workers to see practically how what they are doing might benefit or harm others, and vice versa. What we do, our productivity, serves a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to us, and so the affection and care that are the hallmarks of quality work, as well as the inspiration for a fulfilling and enjoyable work experience, are untapped. In a global economy, for the most part, we do not see the effects of what we do because they take place, oftentimes, thousands of miles away. Compensation serves as the substitute for the felt kindness and experienced blessing that otherwise would come from the close, affirming interaction among friends. . . More fundamental to work than its compensatory or its obligatory aspects is its ability to express gratitude and respect for innumerable benefits received. . . .Put positively, authentic or proper work and leisure reflect an attitude of attention to the orders and the needs of creation and a disposition to care for and preserve the rhythms and flow of life” (Wirzba, pp. 153-54).

The workers hired at the beginning of the day protested the seeming injustice of the landowner; they obviously thought mainly of their value in terms of the compensation they should earn, it seems. Those called later had the opportunity to learn about mercy, respect and gratitude from one who wanted to be not just an employer, but also one who would be a friend.

Can we root our work in the grace of creation?

Can members of a congregation learn to think differently about their work, and perhaps even to experience it differently? Possibly, if they can see themselves as people who have at least in spirit “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields,” for Jesus’ name’s sake. As Wirzba suggests, drawing on the mystical insight of Meister Eckhart, in “returning to our ‘ground ‘. . . we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head. It is to join with God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen 2:8-9).  It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality.” For those who came last to the vineyard, all this opens up as possibility for them—for them, and for those who hear, whenever the invitation of Jesus to work in God’s vineyard is presented.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 11-17 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Reconfigured Parable Dennis Ormseth reflects on a parable’s proposal of the unlimited economy of grace.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 11-17, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

With a compelling primary theme of forgiveness, the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost seemingly offer little of direct relevance to our concern with care of creation. To be sure, the attention given to the church community’s ethos in the Gospel and the second lesson can prove salutary for any effort that requires corporate discipline and generosity of spirit. The emphasis on forgiveness might be particularly helpful, specifically, in strengthening the interpersonal relationships of a congregation that seeks to model the kind of face-to-face web of neighborhood relationships we proposed in our comment on last Sunday’s readings.

Can forgiveness be extended to the relationship between congregation and neighborhood?

F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage illustrate the point nicely in The Faces of Forgiveness:  Searching for Wholeness and Salvation. They interpret Matthew 18:23-35 in terms of a “facial hermeneutics of intersubjectivity” that reveals a community “struggling with problems of power in their way of ordering their life together and needed instruction and exhortation on manifesting grace toward each other.” The offending slave of the parable, they suggest, shows no “positive movement toward forgiveness in the sense of therapeutic transformation.” The horizon of his understanding needs to be extended “both temporally and spatially so that he could imaginatively envision his own place in the broader human community” (Shults and Sandage, pp.237-39). Any such extension of understanding within the community, we can hope, would contribute to a healthier dynamic in the relationship between a congregation and its neighborhood.

See how God’s goodness has cosmic dimensions!

Encouragement for going beyond this modest result to reflect further on these texts in search of specific direction for care of creation might nonetheless be inferred from reading the Psalm appointed for the day. Giving thanks for God’s goodness (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity”), the psalmist measures God’s “steadfast love” with cosmic dimensions: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). The psalmist speaks of the Creator’s love: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (103:14, not included in the appointed verses). Is there, possibly, a cosmic significance, then, to the practice of forgiveness?

Could this tyrant reflect God’s image?

Furthermore, the parable with which Jesus exhorts the undoubtedly astonished Peter to unlimited acts of forgiveness is focused rather less clearly on interpersonal relationships than Shults and Sandage tend to view it. Rather, the frames of reference are the economic, social, and political relationships characteristic of imperial rule. As Warren Carter observes,

“The king and his reign are usually understood as images of God and God’s empire (18:35). But the gospel has established that God’s empire manifested in Jesus is generally not like the death-bringing and oppressive reign of Rome and typical kings (17:25; 20:25). Yet the parable evokes precisely this scenario! The king is a tyrant who, like Rome (see 18:24), collects excessive tribute, and in the end inflicts vicious torture on a servant” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 370-71).

Thus, the scope within which the act of forgiveness is being considered has been expanded to encompass “affairs of state,” in the phrase of Bernard Brandon Scott.

And there is even more. There is a striking contradiction in this parable’s presentation by Matthew: It evokes for the reader that “the familiar image of God as king, but the imperial scenario of exploitative and oppressive reign . . . indicates that this figure cannot be God. The audience can discern that God’s empire is not like this, is not oppressive, does not deal in self-serving ‘mercy’. . , does not forgive just once only to revoke it.” Nevertheless, to the reader’s great surprise, at the conclusion of the parable, Jesus insists that his “heavenly Father” will do exactly what this king does to his servant. The frame of the parable has been enlarged to embrace the huge and even monstrous question of the relationship of God to the great conflicts of human history.

Is this not unjust fiscal policy?

Interpreters struggle to thread their way though the thicket of this text. Scott is helpful in providing a reading that does not require strict narrative consistency to reach its result. “A chaotic situation entraps the audience,” he notes:

“The king’s brutal action forces a hearer to reconsider the consistency building that has held the story together. By identifying with the fellow servants in reporting the servant, a hearer bears with them responsibility for unleashing the king’s wrath. By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy.  The demand for ‘like for like,’ for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp.  278).

“Who, indeed?” we might ask in our times of massive public indebtedness generated by the policies and behavior of a global financial elite. While the fellow servants might have avoided the moral hazard of “bailing out” the king’s lead tax farmer, in the phrase of our day, they have lent legitimacy to the crushing disintegration of the economic order that they themselves depend on for their well being. All of them have become inescapably more vulnerable to the harsh policy of the king who will destroy the servant’s business, his family, and his position of power within the community, in the name of accountability.

But the disturbance goes even deeper, Scott observes. The fellow servants’ reporting is like the first servant’s own activity. In the end, the fellow servants have behaved the same way he did, namely, they failed to forgive and they demanded punishment. And so the audience is drawn ineluctably “into a threatening world whose boundaries and guidelines begin to dissolve,” and the hearers are “swept into a vortex for chaos” in which they fail as the servant fails: they, too, “have failed to forgive.” The narrative thus leads its audience to a “parabolic experience of evil, not intentional evil but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil . . . where the only option left is repentance” (Ibid., p. 279-80).

How might the scenario of this parable have gone differently?

The audience’s conundrum serves to raise the question, beyond the telling of the parable, regarding how things might have gone differently? How might this terrifying result of the king’s need for accountability be avoided? Is it really conceivable that the king might have forgiven his debtor not just once, but a second and third time, or even “seven times seven times,” as Jesus set the standard for Peter? In a less troubled but real world, of course, the situation could have been avoided entirely if the debtor paid his debt, with appropriate interest. Or being unable to do that, on account of whatever combination of factors, perhaps he might have succeeded in winning the king’s assent to a plan that would have allowed him to continue service of his co-servants debt, with which he might, over time, pay what he owes. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s Gospel will recognize a set of problems that confront us daily in a time of extended financial crisis.

Such leniency on the part of king and servant alike would have the advantage, it might be argued, of allowing the others to share in the good king’s generosity. It seems that the servant’s better course might have been not only to encourage his master in this creative course of action, but to demonstrate its value and power by first taking the initiative himself, even risking his own wealth, in order to show the others that such a generous spirit works to the well-being of all. Couldn’t the king then indeed be the good king of God’s empire, on whom one could rely for a properly positive analogy for an infinitely forgiving God? Indeed, might one not quite appropriately imagine that the king of the parable is truly Jesus’ heavenly father, the creator of all things?

How can we give account of our care for the Earth?

If that were taken to be the case, then the servant who was called to give account is clearly the human being tasked with responsible care of the creation, and we have a parable very much concerned with care of creation. Ideally, the servant could report that his care has indeed enhanced the creation, so responsible has he been in exercising his responsibility. But failing that, again for whatever reason, would it not be appropriate for him, relying on his king’s generous mercy, to set forth in a great venture to restore what has been lost, drawing along with him in this great project of restoration of all those who are in turn accountable to him, so that they could know and rejoice with the king that not only his original gift was being honored, but that with each successive allowance of space and time to further amend their destructive ways, the glory of that creation might be enhanced far beyond its original state, now understood to have been good enough for starters, but hardly perfect?

We can be participants in a web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time by an infinitely loving God.

The reader will hopefully understand and appreciate what this new spinning of the parable is meant to accomplish: as an alternative to the “parabolic experience of evil” set out above, we propose a “parabolic experience of good,” as it were—indeed, an intentional, explicit, anticipated, and whole reality of created goodness, in which both king and servants participate with great joy!  This, we would suggest, is what becomes possible when Jesus is seen to be truly the servant of creation, who does the will of his heavenly father, the creator of all things. God is indeed infinitely gracious in giving the creation for the benefit of humanity, but only as participants in the whole web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time. Precisely in responding to this infinite love of the creation by properly caring for the creation his father loves, the servant of creation works out the role that the unforgiving servant refused. Now that he has been introduced in the shadow of his antithesis, this true servant will appear in other parables of Jesus’ telling in Matthew, such as “the Faithful and Wise Servant” (Mt 24:45-51), “A Man Entrusts Property” (Mt 21:33-46), and “A Householder Went Out Early” (Mt 20:1-15), and, of course, in many parables in the other Gospels.

The new parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace.

The parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace as a clue to understanding what forgiveness is about, and why it must be unlimited. Our resetting of the parable proposes a narrative of the relationship between the human servant of God and God’s creation that envisions its restoration as a possible outcome of a radically forgiving spirit. Support for this re-setting can be found in two provocatively different essays. Thomas Friedman has argued in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Release 2.0 Edition), that the 2008 financial crisis and the environmental crisis are derived from one cause. As he puts it, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was a “warning heart attack” that we ignore at our great peril:

“. . . while they might not appear on the surface to have been related, the destabilization of both the Market and Mother Nature had the same root causes. That is why Bear Stearns and the polar bears both faced extinction at the same time. That is why Citibank, Iceland’s banks, and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted down at the same time. The same recklessness undermined all of them. I am talking about a broad breakdown in individual and institutional responsibility by key actors in both the natural world and the financial world—on top of a broad descent into dishonest accounting, which allowed individuals, banks, and investment firms to systematically conceal or underprice risks, privatize gains, and socialize losses without the general public grasping what was going on” (Friedman, pp.6-7).

This insight is strong reason to attend, as this reading does, to the origins of the practice of forgiveness of sin in the practice of forgiveness of debt, as the phrase “forgive us our debts” in what used to be the standard version of the Lord’s Prayer serves to remind us. Its implications for the current “affairs of state,” not just its psychology of the failure to forgive as Jesus would have us forgive, are clear.

Our current financial crisis is a crisis also of the environment

If the financial crisis is also a crisis of the environment, are they not together also a crisis of the creation? If our reading finds surprising resonance with such current “affairs of state,” however, it also remains faithful to the theological concern for forgiveness as a relationship between God and humankind. In his discussion of the doctrine of salvation in The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart observes that Christian theology effects a conversion “of the story of wrath into the story of mercy,” replacing “the myth of sacrifice as economy with the narrative of sacrifice as a ceaseless outpouring of gift and restoration in an infinite motion exceeding every economy.” Without developing his argument in full, we see its relevance to our reading in the following comment:

“The sacrifice that Christian theology upholds is inseparable from the gift: it underwrites not the stabilizing regime of prudential violence, but the destabilizing extravagance of giving and giving again, of declaring love and delight in the exchange of songs of peace, outside of every calculation of debt or power. The gift of the covenant—which in a sense implores Israel to respond—belongs to the Trinity’s eternal “discourse” of love, which eternally “invites” and offers regard and recognition; it precedes and exceeds, then, every economy of power, because all “credit” is already given and exhausted, because the love it declares and invokes is prior to, and the premise of, all that is given” (Hart, pp. 350).

Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness;

God’s balances, he concludes, “are not righted by an act of immolation, the debt is not discharged by the destruction of the victim and his transformation into credit; rather, God simply continues to give, freely, inexhaustible, regardless of rejection. God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again” (Ibid., p. 351). Just so, Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness; those who join in care of creation share in that act, as often as it takes place.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday September 4-10 in Year A (Ormseth)

Love Your Neighbor! Dennis Ormseth reflects on cultivating a sense of place, where love for one another includes all of life.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 4-10, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

With the texts for this Sunday after Pentecost, we continue from the previous two Sundays a search for principles to guide the church’s care for creation. Our requirement is that the principles be consonant with Jesus’ role as Servant of Creation and also conform to the general expectations he set out for his followers. The reading from Matthew reiterates the encouragement from the Gospel reading two Sunday’s ago for engaging in this search: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  As we stated in our comment on that text, we understand this promise to encourage the church in the pursuit of understanding what works for the “care, preservation, and restoration of the Earth,” in view of the global ecological crisis of our times.

The Gospel for this Sunday is clearly focused on interpersonal conflict within the community of faith. The practices proposed here for resolving conflict within the community, while not specifically relevant to care of creation, are nonetheless good counsel for those advancing the cause of creation care within congregations. They envision a close, but not a closed, community that holds its members accountable for the ethical consequences of their beliefs. By careful comparison, Warren Carter shows that while these guidelines are similar to those developed in other religious communities of the period, they clearly incline more toward reconciliation than strict exclusion. Even those who have resisted both private and public admonishment are still to be regarded as “Gentiles and tax collectors,” which would make them “objects of mission, people to be won over to the community of disciples . . . . What is ratified is not the offender’s permanent exclusion.” Like God (Mt 18:10-14), the community pursues the difficult task of restoration.” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading pp. 367-68).

This is wise counsel for environmentalists operating within the church; adamant, self-righteous insistence on environmentally benign practices can quickly alienate offenders beyond the point of recruitment to the cause. Patience in developing an appropriate understanding of the issues at stake is by far the more successful strategy. The “two or three” gathered in the name of Jesus do well to keep the purpose of the healing and restoration of creation ahead of being “right”—it should suffice that they have the promise of the Servant of Creation to be with them.

Love for Neighbor and Self Cannot Ignore Love of the Nature that Undergirds Us.

While the counsel regarding love of neighbor from the second reading in Romans 13 would seem to be similarly limited to the arena of social relationships, it is in fact highly relevant to our concern with care of creation. We noted in our comment on the lesson from Romans for last Sunday that, in the view of David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in their recent book on Greening Paul, the Apostle Paul’s ethical reflections generally constitute “an ethic of universal human concern” that “offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection,” although remaining “a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric.” Paul’s summation of the law under the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” in today’s first lesson demonstrates their point exactly. Paul’s choice of commandments fits well within this limitation of concern to human relationships; and the suggestion that such love is appropriately measured by one’s love of self would appear to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to “deny self and take up one’s cross,” which we encountered in last Sunday’s Gospel. On the other hand, when read in the context of faith in Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this command to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” proves to be profoundly salutary for care of creation as practiced by his church.

Caring for the sheep means tending to the pasture. Loving the neighbor means caring for our shared place in creation.

Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the “ ‘hood” in which the neighbor lives? The problem of Paul’s “anthropocentricism,” in this instance at least, may be more a matter of our tendency to read “neighbors” simply as individuals who either have needs to be met or, as in a common interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, the means and will to meet those needs. But was the man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho to be loved even though, or precisely because, he was not at home with his own neighbors, in the sense of those who live close by (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Might not Jesus have meant to assert the importance of that very natural web of relationships we call a neighborhood across a wider span of reference? As we have noted before, a good shepherd takes care not only for the sheep of his flock but also for the pasture where his sheep feed. In a sense, what the Good Samaritan did for the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was to create a neighborhood that would provide for his very desperate and immediate need.

Love your neighbor! Love your neighborhood!

Furthermore, the idea of taking one’s self-love as the measure of one’s love of neighbor is removed in the instance of the actual neighbor, since the actual neighbor is by definition one who shares that ‘hood’ with one’s self. The practice of love for the neighbor’s neighborhood necessarily entails love for one’s own neighborhood. Since they are the same place, what one does for the ‘hood’ to the benefit of the neighbor necessarily also benefits oneself within that same web of relationships.

Cultivate a sense of your place.

Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor encompasses all aspects of that web, natural no less than social, economic and political. However, the importance of care of the neighborhood, understood as a geographically-limited region, derives also from the fact that it involves a network of personal relationships that, as we have seen above with reference to the Gospel reading, should be present and operative within the life of a congregation. Such relationships are characteristically face-to-face, whether that interface is between humans or between humans and the non-human creation.  They make possible a quality of concern and care all too rare in the normally less personal relationships of modern society. As Norman Wirzba observes,

“The significance of proximity, of face-to-face familiarity, should not be underestimated as we try to recover a sense of responsibility for creation. In large part it is because the moral sense depends on it. Is it an accident that the eclipse of the moral sense of the world goes hand in hand with the practical and the theoretical distance between humanity and the earth that is fully developed in the modern world? So long as we treat others, whether they be human or nonhuman others, in an abstract manner as objects or workers or consumers, we invariable tend to degrade them, to misunderstand and misuse them. We overlook their intrinsic value or at best assign to them a value derived from our economic or utilitarian calculus” (Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, p. 170).

While Wirzba makes this point relative to the growth of economic and social organizations in modern society, we would raise it as an especially important concern for congregations seeking to consistently demonstrate care of creation. In the church, as elsewhere, responsible action requires “that we become knowledgeable about the contexts in which our action takes place.” This happens only as we “forsake our passive ways and become attentive to the world around us” (Ibid., pp. 165-66.)

Measure your ecological imprint on the place you inhabit.

The drive for what usually counts for success on the part of contemporary congregational organizations involves growth that quickly transcends capacity for awareness of the congregation’s ecological footprint. Corporate efficiency “demands uniformity and generalization,” Wirzba notes. This is true also for churches: policy is too often guided by principles of growth that foster disregard, not only for differences between persons, but also for the great variety of life in the ecological setting of the congregation. “There simply isn’t the time to pay attention to, nor is there someone who can master all the specifics of, the needs of particular places. What this simplification amounts to is a distortion of the reality engaged” (Ibid., p. 167). Who takes note if that huge expanse of asphalt deemed necessary to attract young suburban families represents an assault on water quality and animal habitat? Who counts the cost to the health, so that people might come, ironically, to worship God the Creator and proclaim Jesus the Servant of Creation, Lord?

When love of neighbor is taken to include love of the neighbor’s neighborhood, the congregation will necessarily develop concern for the health of the larger community’s ecological situation. Care for the congregation’s neighborhood will indeed be a primary concern for a congregation that cares for creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday August 28 – September 3 in Year A (Ormseth)

Following Jesus as Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on self-centered reasons and altruism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 28 – September 3, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In our comment on the lections for last Sunday, we presented an argument for the appropriateness of our identification of Jesus as “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” Authorization for this new title, we suggested, grows out of Jesus’ promise that he would build his church on the basis of Peter’ confession and that it’s use constitutes a proper use of the powers vested in the church “to bind and loose” such matters as arise in the manifestation of God’s empire. The argument we have presented provides strong encouragement for the work of caring for creation on the part of the church, we believe, with the caution that this Sunday’s Gospel needs to be taken into consideration as one engages in such care.

What might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?

Our concern is this: when ecological awareness and political action on environmental issues become part of the ethos of the Christian church, they should be governed by principles that Jesus laid down for his followers for their ministry. It follows, with respect to the Gospel reading, that just as Peter’s confidence in his confession of Jesus as Messiah is challenged in this Sunday’s Gospel by 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,” so also does the authorization of care of creation entail an expectation that those who draw on Jesus for support and guidance for their care of creation will conform to the counsel set forth in his response to Peter’s rebuke:

“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.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Or what will they give in return for their life? (Mt 16:24-26).

What, then, might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?

“Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’”

Our answer will of course be shaped by what we understand it to have meant for Jesus to take up his cross. Warren Carter explains the necessity of Jesus’ suffering in terms of two broad themes.  First, there is the political imperative: “He must suffer in Jerusalem because the center is always threatened by the margins and the empire strikes back at those who expose its injustice and who promote an alternative empire. His suffering is the inevitable consequence of this collision course with the political, socioeconomic, and religious elite” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 341). To care for creation as Jesus cares for it, accordingly, carries an expectation of coming into conflict with the economic and political structures of our society, with an awareness that this conflict will be costly to one’s status and power in relationship to the community where one lives. As we suggested in our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday, Jesus, who serves God by faithfully serving creation, suffers precisely on account of that service. “Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’” In Jesus’ words from the Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” For, to follow Jesus, as Carter puts it, “is to renounce the practice of telling God and God’s agent how God’s purposes are best accomplished. It is to refuse to place oneself ahead of, or in the place of, the revealer.” It was in holding to this rule that Jesus came into conflict with the religious and political authorities. And so will we.

Will we face the cost?

At the same time, it is precisely this “cost” that can be expected to generate the spiritual power and churchly social capital needed to stand in steadfast opposition to the community’s disregard for creation, and the courage to await vindication. Coinciding with this first necessity is a second, more explicitly theological one:  his suffering is “also inevitable because through Jesus’ suffering and death, God will expose the limits of the elite’s power to punish and control. God will raise him to show that while the political and religious elite trade in death, God’s sovereignty asserts life over death. They do not have the last word” (Ibid.).

The appeal to care for creation is here grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of the consequences for one’s self.

The difference of approach here, in comparison with standard appeals for action on environmental issues, is clear. The latter generally appeal to rationally calculated and/or emotionally awakened self-interest. Utilization of new technologies, it is urged, save a congregation money as well as reduce pollution; or, it is said, we must act so that our grandchildren can enjoy the same quality of life we enjoy, or better. Such appeals have their place, to be sure. But the appeal here is instead grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of consequences for one’s self. Again, in Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

Or, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ scandalous call . . . is a call to martyrdom, to die as Jesus does . . . . Such is the risk of continuing Jesus’ countercultural work of proclaiming and demonstrating God’s empire (Mt 10:7-8).” Because the calculation involved here is a matter of life and death, both one’s own and others, the action provides the occasion for the manifestation of the living God’s creative sovereignty over life and death; only so can one actually hope for defeat of the demonic powers operative in the oppressive systems of the social and political order, which—because they are deeply rooted in self-concern and presuppose the existence of the self in unbroken continuity and undiminished power—cannot otherwise be overcome.

Paul challenges us to oppose evil with goodness.

The second lesson, Romans 12:9-21, provides an illuminating comparison of different ways of developing an ethic of care for creation. The ethical counsels offered by Paul also express a degree of altruistic regard for the other, informed as they are by the quest “to discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” offered in 12:2 as the basic principle of Christian life. Carol Dempsey appropriately characterizes the two main themes of the counsels as follows:

” . . . first, the ways that Christians are to manifest genuine love (vv. 10-13), and second, the obligations that one has towards one’s enemies (vv. 14-20). The final verse summarizes Paul’s comments: Christians are not to succumb to evil and evil’s ways but are to deal with evil according to the ways of goodness” (Dempsey, “Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 188).

However, notably missing from the counsels in this passage is the eschatological life and death thrust of Jesus’ teaching. David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate make the argument that while Paul’s ethical teaching represents (in this and other passages such as Romans 12:14-17; Galatians 6:10; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 5:15):

“an ethic of universal human concern that offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection, since the injunction to love or do good to all (human) neighbors can promote action to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation or change where this influences human health or welfare, for example, in flooding exacerbated by global warming. But this remains a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, pp. 195-95.)

Paul encompasses the whole creation in the story of redemption!

These authors propose to go beyond this exclusively anthropocentric concern by reading such passages in the light of Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, where Paul more “clearly encompasses the whole creation” in his story of redemption. More helpful, as we look to developing a message for Christians gathered in worship, we suggest, is to read it in the light of today’s Gospel. This scripture supplies the missing kenotic and eschatological dimensions of the narrative of Jesus’ life that provide for the inclusion of the whole of creation as a proper object of Christian ethical concern.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday August 21-27 in Year A (Ormseth)

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 Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 21-27, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

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” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, 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)” (Ibid., 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” (Ibid., 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” (Isa 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 (Ibid.)

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 (Ibid., 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” (Mt 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”) (Ibid., 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 (Ibid., 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” (Dempsey, ‘Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time,’ in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, 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)” (Ibid., 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) (Ibid., 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” (Rom 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.

Who do you say I am? The Lord and Servant of Creation.

What is Jesus’ mission? To be shepherd to Israel.

As shepherd to his people, Jesus restores people and land!

Even in land “ruled” by the Roman Empire, the shepherd comes to restore the land.

Christians are a “Community that participates in God’s empire.”

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

 The church has a mandate to care for creation

 Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday August 14-20 in Year A (Ormseth)

If we are to address Earth-care together, no nation can claim privileged exceptionalism. Dennis Ormseth  reflects on a global scope for the vision of well-being.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 14-20, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Constructing political agreements to address on a global scale the degradation of the earth’s ecology is proving to be a nearly insurmountable challenge. As James Gustave Speth writes in an “anatomy of failure” of global environmental governance, environmental deterioration “is driven by powerful underlying forces; it requires far-reaching international responses; and the political base to support these measures tends to be weak and scattered.” These forces are quickly identified: “the steady expansion of human populations, the routine deployment of inappropriate technologies, the near universal aspiration for affluence and high levels of consumption, and the widespread unwillingness to correct the failures of the unaided market.” But the strategies needed to deal with these forces are very difficult to put in place. They need to be far-reaching and complex: new energy policies, new transportation strategies, changes in agriculture and the management of forests around the world. The required actions “demand international cooperation on a scale seldom achieved” (Speth, pp. 98-99).

The politics of such cooperation are exceedingly difficult: the issues are increasingly complex and difficult to understand; the impacts are remote or difficult to perceive; they concern future problems more than current ones, and problems that may be felt more immediately by other people in other places rather than close to home; and the problems tend to be chronic rather than acute. The political institutions needed for sustained and effective action are rarely strong enough. Economic needs regularly trump the needs of the environment. The wealthy global North protects its world dominance over against the poorer South. And particularly problematic is the persistence of the government of the United States in its arrogant attitude of exceptionalism, which undergirds a “pattern of unilateralism and of staying outside the multilateral system unless we need it—a la carte multilateralism” (Speth, pp.98 – 99, 107-11)

Can Christian churches contribute to the effort to meet this immense and daunting set of challenges? Without addressing specific issues identified by Speth, the lectionary lessons for this Sunday nonetheless point to resources within the tradition for helping the world deal with important, perhaps even crucial, aspects of them. The readings evince a powerful determination on the part of God to overcome the divisions that separate peoples from each other and work against their mutual well-being. Psalm 67, for example, reminds us that God’s people are to pray that God’s “way may be known upon earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (67:2; our emphasis). There is global scope to the vision of well-being for which we commonly pray, as in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Furthermore, the challenge of bridging divisions between peoples is clearly addressed in the lesson from Isaiah 56; through the prophet, God promises to gather “the outcasts of Israel” and “others . . . besides those already gathered” (56:8). To the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these,” the prophet promises on behalf of God, “I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Interpreted in terms of the mission of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this promise means that those who minister to God and act as God’s servants will be co-servants with him in serving creation. Together with these strangers the people of God already gathered embrace the restoration of creation adumbrated in Jesus’ ministry: keeping the Sabbath rest, which encompasses all creatures in God’s own shalom, they join his ascent of the “holy mountain,” which is to say that, the representative ecology in which God, the creation, and the servants of creation are brought together in prayers of joyful praise and thanksgiving. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7).

In the Gospel reading for the day we see how such promises might actually begin to be realized. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman offers a vision of how such deep divisions that prohibit the healing of creation might be overcome. Warren Carter describes the situation as follows:

Just as Jesus “came out” or left one place (Mt 15:21), the woman also “came out.” They meet in an unspecified “nowhere” place in the boundary region of Galilee and Tyre-Sidon, the interface of Jewish and Gentile territory. It is a place of tension and prejudice: Josephus declares  “the Tyrians are our bitterest enemies” (Con Ap 1.70), and there were clashes between Tyrians and Jews in the 60s (JW 2.478). Along with ethnic conflict, there are competing religious understandings (Israel is God’s chosen people), economic needs (the urban centers Tyre and Sidon require food from rural areas), and political goals. Tyrian political aspirations for further territory and resentment of Roman rule ran high. Josephus notes that many followers of John of Gischala, who revolted against Rome, came from ‘the region of Tyre” (JW 2.5888; cf. Vita 372). The woman comes not from the cities of Tyre or Sidon but from that region, suggesting perhaps her poverty as a rural peasant (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 321-22).

Thus, in her appeal to Jesus as he enters the conflicted territory that separates her people from Jesus’ people, the woman confronts many of the complex factors that render political accommodation of any kind difficult, today no less than in the first century: rival populations struggle for control of contested territories and the resources they contain; the power and prerogatives of empire trump local concerns; and the resort to military power to guarantee access to material resources adds to the people’s sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. And figuring most prominently in their exchange is the challenge of the imperialistic ideology of Israel that, astonishingly, seems in the first instance to be even Jesus’ own point of deep resistance to her appeal.

Nevertheless, the woman draws on virtues she intuitively knows she can depend on for the response she seeks from Jesus: she cries out persistently, as in prayer, to one she acknowledges as Lord and son of David, challenging, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ very identity and mission.” Her petition squarely confronts the ideology implied by that mission:

“her request has challenged his ideology of chosenness, which restricts his mission and his disciples mission to Israel. In the tradition of Abraham, she demands her share in God’s blessing for all the world (15:29-39; 1:1-2). Her request protests an excluding focus on Israel and reclaims her place as a Canaanite and a Gentile in God’s purposes” (Ibid., p. 323.)

When Jesus persists in his resistance she matches him with both wit and courage. In the crux of their exchange, so offensive to contemporary ears attuned to politically correct standards of speech, he supplies a metaphor that provides an impetus to transcend their conflict.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. “Why does he use a food metaphor when she has not asked for food?” Carter astutely asks, and observes:

“Bread or food has also been an issue in two previous stories (12:7-8; 15:1-20) that have involved conflict between traditions and God’s will. Here the struggle concerns whether Jesus will be bound by cultural and historical conventions in resisting this woman from around Tyre and Sidon (see 15:21-22), or understand that faithfulness to his commission to manifest God’s saving reign does not violate Israel’s priority if he extends the reign to Gentiles. Food, then, is a metaphor for God’s empire or salvation (1:21, 23; 4:17)” (Ibid., p. 324).

So while his comment persists in maintaining “the status quo of ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, and political division, her response lays claim to his metaphor for her own cause: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Thus, she reaches out

“beyond these barriers to possibilities that are faithful to God’s promises to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-13). Without questioning the priority of the children (Israel), and while recognizing the authority of the masters, she reframes the significance of dogs (Gentiles). It is not a matter of food or no food (Jesus’ alternative), but food for both. . . . She demands a place at the table, not under it.”

What Carter calls attention to is the relationship between a master of the household and its domestic animals. Not only the children of the household receive the master’s care; the animals belong to the household as well, and cannot be denied the food that is appropriate to them. And, we note, this wild metaphorical stratagem of the woman triumphs!

Jesus has a name for her persistence: “Woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Indeed, the narrative has made the greatness of her faith very clear; she has overcome every obstacle. But it is important to see precisely what that faith is. It is clearly not faith in Jesus as the one who delivers special privilege and power to Israel among the nations, or, for that matter, to Christian believers. It is rather a faith in the gracious mercy of God that transcends all such “ethnic, gender, religious, political, and economic barriers.” And even more: we would suggest that her metaphor expresses a faith that overcomes the commonly assumed division between humans and their animal companions. Here, we might say, is faith in God as the creator of all who provides food for all. Her appeal is to a God for whom, in the vivid image of the woman’s plea, dogs are as welcome at the family table as are the children!

The implication for people of faith in the context of contemporary care of creation is clear: in the face of this woman’s faith in the God of all creation, whose healing servant she recognized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the exceptionalist ideology of Israel or any other nation falls away. For this God, there is no barrier to restoration of all creation. This truth comes hard to Americans or citizens of any nation who expect from the rest of the world subservience to their unilateralist conceptions of fairness and justice. To embrace such faith can be painfully difficult, and especially so for those who have taken special pride in being recipients of God’s salvation. Indeed, in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see how painful this recognition was for even the great apostle of justifying faith. God, he acknowledges, has given everything to his people, and yet he must relinquish their exclusive claim in favor of God’s transcendent compassion and all-inclusive mercy. Even Jesus would seem to give up his people’s privileged status with great reluctance.

So we should not be surprised that it comes with great difficulty for a nation such as ours, so wonderfully blessed as America has been in this place, to acknowledge other nations’ claims on ecological equity and justice. Nor, for that matter, for the human species in relationship to the needs of the rest of God’s creation.  The woman transformed Jesus’ understanding of his mission in relationship to the purposes of God; who will change ours, so that the creation God so loves can be truly and finally restored?  The Christian community has this transformation of perspective and orientation to offer the nations of the world, in their quest for policies that address the dreadful reality of our degradation of God’s creation, with both compassion and justice for all.

 Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday July 24-30 in Year A (Ormseth)

Feast on These Parables from Nature! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the messy business of God’s kingdom.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Our reflection on the teaching of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, continues to explore themes significant for caring for creation days in a medley of new parables: the Mustard Seed; the Yeast, Treasure Hidden in a Field; A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; and a Net Thrown into the Sea. As with the parables from the previous two Sundays, our reading brings out new treasures along with the old treasures (Matthew 13:51). Similarly, the reading from Romans continues from where we left off last Sunday, in considering life in the Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life. We turn first to the teaching of Jesus the Servant of Creation.

The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.

The Mustard Seed. Again we encounter a sower planting seed, and, again, like the sowers who cast the seed wildly and forgot to protect the field from alien intruders, the action of the sower strikes us as unlikely. A farmer in the ancient world would normally not sow a mustard seed in the midst of his field. As Bernard Brandon Scott point out, “the mustard, a common plant in the eastern world, grew and spread quickly. Consequently, a farmer sought to control its seeds.” The plant, this comment suggests, was regarded somewhat as we would an evasive species. More importantly, in Jewish tradition, the action of sowing depicted here could be seen as a violation of the “rules of diverse kinds.” These rules “had as their purpose to bring order into the disorderly world, and the creation of order in this world replicates the division between the sacred and the profane. Where things could or could not be planted and what could be planted or mixed together were important for the maintenance of purity boundaries.” Following other commentators, Scott notes that “a mustard seed could not be planted in a garden,” where vegetables would be the usual planting. And it could be planted in a field only in carefully proscribed spaces. The parable thus begins with “a metaphor of impurity.” The sower “has risked breaking the law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed. . .” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable:  A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp. 374-76, 381). How is the kingdom of heaven like a sower who proceeds in such a disordered, unholy manner?

The focus of interpretation, of course, is usually more on the seed than the sower, precisely because the seed is very small, and the tree that grows from it, at least in the parable, is “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” The parable is about astonishing growth, this suggests:  the kingdom, though small and hidden, will become very large and impressive, thus confirming its divine character. This perhaps makes good sense for us, for whom growth is culturally taken to be a nearly unmitigated good. However, that would not have been true for the ancient farmer, for whom the growth of an invasive species like the mustard seed had to be seen as an agricultural disaster! Nor is it true for an ecologically aware reader, who would appreciate the possible harm to be done to the field. As Scott notes: “The seed’s planting and its growth create a conflict for a hearer. Is this growth a divine blessing or a violation? Is it clean or unclean? How is one to decide?” (Ibid., p. 383).

To make things worse, in a sense, the parable’s shrub outgrows the normal limits of its “kind,” to become a tree. No anticipation of Darwinian evolution, this; on the contrary, this transformation is miraculous: the shrub is transformed into a “mixed allusion” familiar to the ancient hearer as the “eschatological tree of Ezekiel and Daniel,” which, like the great cedar of Lebanon, shelters not only birds in its branches, but underneath them, gathers “all the creatures of the earth.” Scott concludes: ‘A hearer is left to make sense, to fit together a mustard plant that has pretensions to the grandeur of a cedar of Lebanon. How that resolution takes place leads from story to kingdom” (Ibid., p. 385-86).

The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.

Scott concludes: the parable “makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.” Although a symbol of both strength and protection, the cedar also represents pride: “A Grain of Mustard Seed extends the logic of Ezekiel [17]. All cedars and trees, even Israel, will be brought low.” It is the lowly mustard bush, scandalously planted in the field of the world that both political and religious authorities seek to keep well-ordered according to a static conception of the creation, that “will ‘bear Israel’s true destiny’” (Ibid., p. 386; Scott cites Robert W Funk, Jesus as Precursor, for this point). Still, significantly, the mustard bush does what the cedar would do: provide shelter for the birds of the air. “The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in the shrub’s shade. Many have preferred the mustard tree, this unnatural malformity of mythical botany, to the recognition that God’s mighty works are among the unclean and insignificant” (Ibid., p. 387).

A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

The sower, we note, might well have his own purposes: to provide a niche for creatures that do not easily fit into the economic calculations of our agricultural, “growth” obsessive, economy. A field on the University of Minnesota agricultural campus in St. Paul had for years several large cages to trap birds that disrupted the research conducted in it. A sower who deliberately seeds a tree to host birds in the midst of his field is of a different mind-set, a servant of all creation, perhaps, who meets the needs all creatures (sometimes by creative adaptation, even!), and not only those of human beings. In good ecological form, whether mighty cedar or lowly mustard, the tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

The Yeast.  The parable of the yeast begins in a way similar to the Mustard Seed, with a highly ambiguous image of growth. Scott calls the parable “one rotten apple.” The yeast, a woman, and her kneading the dough, combine to offer an image of impurity. As Scott notes, yeast (leaven) “is made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold forms. The bread rots and decays, unlike modern yeast, which is domesticated.” Leavened bread was for everyday use; only unleavened bread was appropriate for holy days (Ibid., p. 324). The negative connotations of “leaven” are familiar: “the involvement with even a little evil can corrupt the whole,” and Matthew elsewhere associates leaven with the “teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:12).” How, the hearer must ask, “can the kingdom be like leaven?” (Scott, pp. 324-25) As to the woman, Scott quotes Albrecht Oepke: “Characteristic of the traditional position and estimation of woman is a saying current in different forms among the Persians, Greeks and Jews in which man gives thanks that he is not an unbeliever or uncivilized, that he is not a woman and that he is not a slave.”

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

By way of contrast, the three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess. The large amount is evocative of the story of Abraham’s reception of three visitors, Gideon’s preparation for the visitation of the angel of the lord, and Hannah’s gift for the dedication of the temple. Thus the parable suggests, “not only are three measures much more than normal but that the amount is connected with an epiphany,” an image that coheres with the “kingdom of God.” “Yet how is a hearer to combine three measures with the preceding negative terms?” (Ibid., p. 326-27) Scott refuses to dodge the strikingly messy implications:

The kingdom (the holy and good) is pictured in terms of an epiphany of corruption. How radical is the parable’s intention? Does it mean to state that good is evil in an ethics of absurdity? Or is its function to subvert a hearer’s ready dependency on the rule of the sacred, the predictability of what is good, and warn that instead the expected evil that corrupts may indeed turn out to be the kingdom.

Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

Or again, we would add, would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

 Treasure Hidden in a Field.  Once more we are confronted by a dilemma, the problem, as Scott names it, of “Finders Keepers:”

If the treasure belongs to the finder, buying the land is unnecessary.  But, if the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust.”  If the dayworker has claim to the treasure, he has no need to rehide the treasure and buy the land. He can simply claim the treasure. That he does rehide the treasure and buy the land indicates that he does not believe he can make such a claim. Also, from the point of view of narrative structure, a hearer discovers that the finder is not the landowner only when he buys the field, thus concentrating narrative attention on the buying. The structure of the line involves finding and joy/selling and buying. But because buying signifies that he does not own, does not owning call into question the joy of finding? (Ibid., pp. 399-400; the quotation in italics is from Dominic Crossan, Finding is the First Act, with his emphasis).

Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.

The kingdom of God is like finding the treasure, suggests Scott, in that “treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday. Because it is not something earned or labored for but something found, it is lawless. Its joy is precisely in its lawlessness, its unearned, not worked for character” (Scott, pp. 401-02).

What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?

We can suggest a contemporary analogy: A person walking in the woods discovers a creature, a spotted owl, say, in any case, an individual animal belonging to an endangered species. In his joy, he resolves to buy or otherwise get control of that patch of woods; for only by preserving that habitat does the owl have a chance of survival. But who owns the woods? In order to “save” the owl, he has to sue the owner to limit his control over use of the woods. Is this a proper action driven by great joy? Only by keeping the owl hidden in the woods is there a chance of sustaining that experience of joy in the presence of the beautiful creature. Or is the action an unjust transgression of property rights, sanctioned by environmental laws that the owner has to regard as an unconstitutional deprivation of his property rights? What if the kingdom of God is like a person, who walking in the woods, discovers a spotted owl?

That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!

A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls.  The dilemma of this parable builds on an aspect of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field. As ownership of the field and the treasure within it calls into question the possibility of sustaining the joy of discovery, so does ownership of the pearl of great value complicate the life of the merchant. Scott captures the point succinctly: “If to buy the pearl he has sold off his capital, whether all he owns or his merchandise, he will again have to sell the pearl, or else he will be broke, because the pearl only generates in being sold. Thus the thing of value, the pearl, has no ultimate value.” The kingdom of God is like that, Scott suggests, in that it “cannot be possessed as a value in itself . . . for the merchant will sooner or later have to sell his pearl. And that is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it” (Ibid., p. 319). Might one not say the same for God’s creation?

A Net Thrown into the SeaHas the hearer been caught within the net of these parables, the teaching of Jesus, the Servant of Creation? Are those caught up in his net—members of his church—good fish or rotten fish? Which side of the parable’s various dilemmas do they fall out on? The sorting out into baskets is indeed something to be reserved for the end, when the angels of God will bring final clarity to our relationship with the creation and our relationship with the creation’s creator. Until then, we swim with all the rest of the fish, utterly dependent for our very lives on the environing sea, chaotic as it may sometimes appear to be. For to be taken out of water is for fish or for any species to die.

The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.

An ear for the groaning of creation.  The parable of  “A Net Thrown into the Sea’ thus returns us, we would suggest, to the narrative about creation which David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate construct on the basis of the “ecotheological mantra text,” namely, Romans 8:18-25. As we argued in our comment on that reading a week ago, the parables of Jesus share a narrative of creation that is strikingly similar to the one these scholars identify as key to understanding Paul’s view of the relationship between “the children of God” and the non-human creation (See our comment on the readings for last weekend). As we summarized their argument,

Paul teaches that a creation “enslaved-to-decay has been subjected to futility by God.” But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co- groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.”

In terms of the parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea, for the time being, we swim in the sea while drawn toward the light of the final judgment of God regarding our relationship with God and God’s creation. But as “children of God,” we do not swim aimlessly, or alone. The Spirit of God, the Lord, the Giver of Life, present at creation, sustainer of all of life, accompanies us on this great migration. As Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” In our “co-groaning and “co-travailing,” the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27). It is on this account, and this only, that “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And if we give “all things” a strong reading as intending the fullness of creation, as it does elsewhere in Paul’s writings, rather than simply the particular occasions of trial and suffering for which we usually appropriate it, we are indeed encouraged to look and to live forward in hope for the full realization of the purposes of God and for the complete restoration of creation.

Feast on these Parables from Nature! The Kingdom is Messy Business Indeed!

The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.

The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.

A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.

What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?

That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!

The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday July 17-23 in Year A (Ormseth)

Desist from Ecological Destruction, NOW! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the ecological integrity of all things.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17-23, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 44:6-8 or Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Psalm 88:12-25
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Notice the ecology of these parables!

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat follows immediately on the reading of the Parable of the Sower and its explanation, both in Matthew’s narrative and in the lectionary last Sunday and this Sunday. Comparison of the two parables is instructive. The parables share important elements of interest to the reader concerned with care of creation. Although Jesus’ purpose in telling the story is to instruct the disciples concerning the growth of their community, the story locates that community in relationship to Earth. The parables share a narrative structure that moves from sowing to sprouting to harvest. They both have a very simple, relational, if not explicitly ecological, perspective, namely, seeds need to be matched to soil, and roots hidden beneath the soil are intertwined and cannot be separated without killing the plant. Finally, in both parables, the seed represents the potential growth of the community of Jesus’ followers. The kingdom of heaven on earth, we might conclude, conforms in important ways to the regular processes of creation. Like the parable of the Sower, the parable of weeds among the wheat is a story that the Lord, the Servant of Creation, would have loved to tell.

There are significant contrasts between the parables as well. Here the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat is explicitly introduced as a means to understanding the kingdom of heaven, a point that was only an unspoken assumption in relation to the parable from last Sunday. Warren Carter plausibly suggests that the aim is “to direct the audience to think about the story in relation to God’s empire, but leaves it to the audience to discern connections” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 288). Here the seed is declared good, and the field is the sower’s own property—both factors unmentioned in the first story. The new parable involves more human characters: a lone sower in the first parable, here a landowner with his household slaves, and also the unidentified “enemy” who comes in the night to sow weeds among the wheat and then disappears. The more complex operation of the household economy contrasts significantly with the simple agrarian image of the solitary peasant sower.

 This comparison illumines an important feature of the context implied by this Sunday’s parable.  It is a context in which considerable control over the land is presupposed:  it is land that is owned as part of an estate with slaves. The land is under regular, organized cultivation, where care is taken to see that the seed is good quality, and slaves or servants appropriately share the landowner’s concern about the yield. One suspects that the careless sower of last Sunday’s parable might not last long in this company. And, notably, the slaves expect to be directed into the field to violently uproot the weeds. Carter’s point about empire is well taken: the social location is an organized economy, which is being disrupted by an alien agent, in a conflicted cultural environment.

In contrast to the Roman Empire, the Empire of God is creative and life-giving.

Yet the empire of God is different: evocative of a highly organized economy though the narrative might be, the images remain agrarian. As Carter observes, “The scene of growing wheat suggests that God’s empire is creative and life-giving in providing food to sustain life, in anticipation of the abundance that will mark its full establishment” (Ibid., p.288-9). Furthermore, when the weeds sown by the enemy are discovered, the landowner restrains the slaves, saying “let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (13:30).  The point is clearly to keep the plants in the earth until they are ripe, well beyond the time their true character has been revealed, so that the harvest of the yield of the good seed can be as full and complete as possible.

As before, Jesus is not instructing his followers in agronomy; he makes use of what would be largely common sense for most everyone in an agrarian culture, to set out what would be uncommon sense under an imperial regime.  The powerful typically get rid of those in opposition to them by “rooting them out” without regard to collateral damage, in the phrase of our day. We have the technological means to do this now: well-designed herbicides can do precisely what mechanical row hoes have done clumsily. But political applications of the policy are still very costly of life. For example, some do it with no concern for collateral damage, like the well-intended but unthinking slaves in the parable, do the damage by incurring unintended consequences. Others heedlessly and deliberately “do what is necessary” to eliminate whatever threat the opposition poses, up to and including “scorched earth” warfare and genocide. The destruction of both human communities and their natural environment continues, the opposition seemingly ineffective against the newest juggernaut.

Things are different in the reign of the Son of Man, the parable promises. As Jesus’ subsequent explanation to his disciples makes clear, in what is now revealed to be a cosmic struggle between the powers of good and evil in the world, the good children of the empire are encouraged patiently to wait out the season of growth and the ultimate denouement of the children of the enemy (those who sowed weeds), in confidence that God’s purposes will prevail at the harvest.  The imperial cycle of violence will stop. True, the image of that harvest is itself violent: “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42). As Carter observes, ‘the gospel borrows imperial and violent images to depict the final triumph of God’s purposes,” although we might suggest alternatively that as every good gardener or farmer knows, weeds need to be burned to prevent them from regenerating, and ashes help renew the soil. It is nature’s way.

The final judgment marks the end to imperial violence—not replication of it.

What is in view here, in any case, is a final end to imperial violence—not replication of it. As Carter explains, “The evil that is overcome includes all causes of sin, a cognate of the verb ‘cause to stumble/sin.’ These causes include anything that diverts or destroys disciples (5:29-30; 18:6-9) and anything that rejects Jesus rather than recognizing his identity as God’s commissioned agent” (Carter, p. 294).  And whatever the implications of this violent image for the end of the ages beyond the triumph of God’s purposes, the mandate for time forward until God brings the world to fulfillment is to follow the policy of the wise landholder, or Son of Man, namely, to act so as to sustain and to fulfill life as fully as possible, even for those who oppose the purposes of God, and let God bring all things to their appropriate, God-determined end. And as the Son of Man, in our view, is also the Servant of Creation who does what God wills for the entire creation (see our comment in this series on the readings for The Holy Trinity), what God wills for the sake of the “children of the empire,” namely to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” (13:43) is more likely to be the final purpose of God’s creative activity on behalf of the rest of creation as well, and not its utter destruction, as a literalistic application of the parable’s conclusion might be taken to suggest.

This reading of the parable is strongly supported by the lessons that accompany it. Indeed, the lessons provide a basis for sketching out a theology of creation that fully grounds the reading we have given. The reading from Isaiah is an example of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Old Testament’s “rhetoric of incomparability:”  “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god; Who is like me?” (Is. 44:7). This kind of statement, he notes, comes early in the tradition “and yet is a most sweeping generalization,” so that “we may regard it as the most poignant spine and leitmotif of all of Israel’s testimony concerning Yahweh” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 139). The point is not so much that there is no other god like Yahweh (“Israel did not know or care that other peoples made similar claims for their gods.”),  “but that Yahweh really is as said—in extreme form a God of astonishing power and reassuring solidarity” (Ibid., p. 143). Specifically, in this instance. the incomparability concerns God’s ability to know the future he has promised: “Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.” This future, strikingly, is the renewal of the land and people together upon their return from exile: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendents, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams” (44:3-4; not included in the assigned verses). Yahweh is, according to this first lesson, the one to bring about the renewal and restoration of creation envisioned as the culmination of the narrative of the parable. God knows the future, because God creates it (Cf. Isaiah 40:28-31; 45:12-13.)

It is the second lesson, however, that draws our greatest interest here. The second half of the reading, Romans 8:18-25, is what David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate regard as an “ecotheological mantra text.” The text has come to be cited widely by writers on ecotheology, as they make their appeals for creation care and Christian environmental concern. But the text has received new attention from Pauline scholars without special environmental agendas as well. Horrell, Hunt and Southgate locate a significant change in the weight the passage is given in the interpretation of Romans and in the Pauline literature more generally. “The changing readings of this passage . . . give a clear indication of the way in which the issues and challenges of the contemporary context shape the questions brought to the text and in turn shape the interpretation on the meaning of the text.” The development is similar to what happened to the interpretation of Romans 9-11 when Jewish-Christian relations became a significant aspect of the interpretive context. “Under the influence of a context in which the magnitude of the ecological challenge is increasingly a point of public and political consensus,” these authors write, Romans 8:19-23 “may come to be seen as a (even the) theological climax of the letter.” In their recent book, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, they devote an entire chapter to the interpretation of this passage, and they carefully weigh the question of whether or not the text can sustain the importance that is being placed on it by ecotheologians (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, pp. 69-70).

See the excellent book, The Greening of Paul, by Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate.

In this reader’s estimation, this book is absolutely essential for anyone engaged in our quest for biblical underpinnings for the care of creation, and we therefore present the argument of this chapter is some detail. The key steps in their argument are as follows:

  1. The narrative approach to the interpretation of Paul’s theology, for which the authors present a strong argument in the opening chapters of the book, is particularly appropriate to interpretation of this passage. “While itself brief and frustratingly allusive,” the passage “depends on a certain story about the past, present , and future of creation in God’s saving purposes. Creation ‘is waiting with eager longing’. . , ‘was subjected to futility’. . , in hope that it ‘will be set free’ . . .” (Ibid., p.71; the elided words are the corresponding Greek terms, which we are not able to reproduce here.) The account has “a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it also entails a transformation,” which allows the authors “to construct the outlines of a narrative trajectory, while the employment of [gar] and [hoti] indicates causal links between the elements, thus constituting a plot.” Furthermore, they note, Paul introduced the comment about creation groaning, saying “we know that . . ,” thus apparently “appealing to knowledge that he can reasonably presume his readers share” (Ibid.).
  2. The narrative’s “past” includes some event of “making/founding/creating” the object of which is in a condition of  “current, and presumably prior . . . bondage to decay.” This “creation” has, additionally, “been subjected to futility, of an unspecified nature, not of its own choice, though the subjector is not named.” Bondage and subjection represent “the negative dimensions of its past and present experience, which are transformed with the resolution of the story” (Ibid., p. 72). The “present” is the co-groaning in co-travail of creation and Paul’s community. The “future” anticipated in the longing of creation for the revealing of the “sons of God,” the hearers “who have the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ and “wait for adoption as God’s sons”, and the hope of creation to be “liberated from bondage to decay” and to “obtain the freedom of the children of God.” Thus, as the authors see it, “the plot looks forward to a final transformation which resolves and surpasses the negative state of decay and futility” (Ibid.).
  3. Turning to a more detailed analysis of key phrases, Horrell, Hunt and Southgate argue that “creation” refers here to “nonhuman creation, whatever precisely is or is not included in Paul’s implicit definition” (Ibid., p. 73).  “Bondage to decay” refers, they think, not to death as the consequence of the Adamic fall, but more comprehensively to the ‘unfolding story of Genesis 1-11, in which corruption affects all flesh. “Subjection to futility” refers, similarly, not to any specific act or cause, but to the fact that “the existence of creation (and of humanity) is futile and frustrated, since it is unable to achieve its purpose, or to emerge from the constant cycle of toil, suffering, and death” (Ibid., p. 77.)
  4. With respect to the present, the creation’s groaning is “a co-groaning with Paul and other Christians and the Spirit, a shared travail that also represents a shared hope, though some aspects of that hope are distinctive to the ‘sons of God,’ who are described here as those who have ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’” (Ibid., p. 79.) The creation, specifically, is “awaiting the revelation of the Christian believers,” and this “unveiling is related to their adoption as sons spoken of in verse 23” (Ibid, pp. 79-80). The “adoption as sons” probably includes “redemption of their bodies” in a resurrection from the dead which in Pauline eschatology is “the initial event in a series that will eventually encompass all creation. . .” The adoption is “important not simply in itself, but insofar as it heralds a wider process of eschatological transformation. The hope that always accompanied the creation’s subjection to futility was and is the hope that the creation itself will be liberated” (Ibid., p. 80-81).

In summary, Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate hold that Paul teaches that an “enslave-too-decay creation has been subjected to futility by God.”  But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co-groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning, and, similarly, a shared hope” (Ibid., p. 82).

The highlight in Romans is the moment when the groaning creation will welcome the revelation of the “children of God” who will care for creation.

Focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons of God,” the passage presents “the sons/children of God” as “leading characters, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused.” But of course the character of the story whose presence is “most crucial to the progress of the plot” is actually God, whose actions are “hidden within the force of the so-called divine passives” of the “creation was subjected . . .  will be liberated” (Ibid, p. 82-83.)  Romans 8, the authors conclude, “is a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17), a narrative in which verses 19-23 so enigmatically include the whole of creation as co-groaning” (Ibid., p. 83).

What strikes us so forcefully relative to the interpretation of the assigned texts for this Sunday is the parallel structure and themes between the narrative of the parable of the weeds among the wheat and this Pauline creation narrative. The unexpected and unexplained seeding of the weeds, the command of the landowner to the servants of the household to desist from destructive separation of the weeds from the wheat, the promised future rescue of the wheat at a future time when the Son of Man will act to end the competition for land by removing all causes of sin and evil; here in a “down to earth version is the narrative of bondage to decay, subjection in hope, and future redemption” in which “children of God” play an important if not a decisive role of bearing hope and assisting the (non-human) creation to its ultimate restoration in Christ. To be sure, the narratives differ in language and accents, appropriate to their narrative settings and social context. But it seems reasonable to suggest that when Paul wrote that this narrative is something that “we know,” it is not difficult to imagine that they knew because Jesus himself had told the story, in different words, at an earlier time.

At minimum, the texts urge us to desist from ecological destruction—now!

What this correspondence might mean for the practice of the Christian church in its care for creation is, of course, another whole discussion. While Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate caution their readers that “there are reasons to be more cautious and careful than much ecological appeal to this favorite text has been,” they find that there are “significant ethical implications” to be inferred from the passage “when its narrative genre is taken into account. . .and when it is related to the wider contours of Pauline theology and ethics,” as they do in the concluding chapters of their book (Ibid, p. 85). We would suggest, for starters, that following the command of the land-owning Son of Man, the ethic of the parable is to desist from the ecologically destructive action of “rooting out” our enemies. Or, expressed positively, we should maintain respect for the ecological integrity of all things. Expressed in positive terms, this conforms well to the ethics of “other-regard and corporate solidarity” as the authors envision it emerging from the Pauline literature (See their chapter 8, “Pauline Ethics through an Ecotheological Lens” pp. 189-220). But for the Apostle, it is more simply a matter of “by the Spirit” putting “to death the deeds of the body” so that one may live. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God—the Lord, the giver of Life”—are children of God . . and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (8:13-17).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday June 26 – July 2 in Year A (Ormseth)

Righteousness and Justice for All Creation! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on true prophets.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

We disciples make present the Lord, the Servant of Creation.

Welcome is a warm word of hospitality, a word that offers place in which to dwell. Mindful of Jesus’ Easter promise in his Farewell Address to his disciples to “go and prepare a place for you (John 14:3),” we hear this anticipation of the disciples’ outreach with the joyful awareness that we, too, have been prepared to be able to be “home” for these witnesses to the Servant of Creation, in our place, and with them Jesus himself and his Father. That is indeed what Jesus promised them:  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). With those who have been sent out in the power of the Spirit of Life, comes the Servant of Creation and the God of Creation.

 Acclaiming Jesus as King may compromise his role as Servant.

Thus we find ourselves this Sunday gathered for our worship of the God of creation whose steadfast love, according to Psalm 89: 1-2, sustains all generations. What was promised in covenant with David, we are given to understand, is now being extended, through Christ, to all nations. Care must be taken, however, to note the ambiguity inherent in this use of the psalm, lest we welcome a view of God that is subversive for care of creation. In verses excluded from the assigned reading of the psalm, the Hebrew monarch is presented as mediator of God’s gracious presence in and through all creation.

As Walter Brueggemann observes, the psalm reiterates an affirmation of the monarch expressed in 2 Sam 7:12-16, which may “be regarded as the beginning point for graciousness without qualification as a datum of Israel’s life and for the assertion of messianism wherein this particular human agent (and his family) is made constitutive for Yahweh’s way with Israel” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 605). But while efforts to qualify the absoluteness of this claim are made in the Old Testament by making the monarch subject to the Torah, Brueggemann suggests that the tension between these commitments is not easily maintained. If “the purposes of Yahweh have now been entrusted to a human agent . . . what is from Yahweh’s side a singular intention becomes complicated both by high aggrandizing ideology and by uncurbed self-service.” For the church, he notes, there is a temptation to “take the high lyrical claims of oracle and royal psalm and ‘supersede’ the narratives of sordidness, so that kingship takes on a somewhat docetic flavor.” Christians appropriate “for Christology the highest claims of kingship and assign to Judaism the demands of the Torah,” which both distorts “the way in which Jewish interpretation kept Torah and messiah in fruitful tension,” and “overlooks the way in which this same tension continues to swirl around Jesus” (Ibid., pp. 609-10).

 The Warrior God (Psalm 89) is opposite to the God who sustains creation (Psalm 104).

The selection of verses from Psalm 89 for this reading nicely illustrates this temptation. The implications of this ambiguity of the psalm’s images of God for our relationship to the creation are significant. The God who “rule[s] the raging of the sea” (89:8), the psalm proclaims, “set[s] the hand” of his servant David “on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” (89:25). As Arthur Walker-Jones points out in his book on The Green Psalter, the images here reflect the continuing influence in Israel of the ancient mythology of the warrior god, who creates by destroying Leviathan, the symbol of chaos, which will compete in the tradition with the more ecologically oriented images of God’s relationship with creation exemplified by Psalm 104 (Walker Jones, pp. 155-57). The relationship of the warrior god to creation is clearly one of domination and control, which is inconsistent with the Trinitarian view of God as relational (cf. Terry Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 43-48). The selection of only versus 1-4 and 15-18, serves to conceal this concern from the congregation, but it does not manage to remove from the reading the triumphalist spirit of the monarchical ideology. It also hides the fact that the psalm, taken as a whole, is a lament for the failure of the monarchy to keep the covenant of David, the failure that itself manifests the brokenness of that ideology.

 We welcome visitors who bring gifts—and “baggage”

The presence of Christ as the Servant of Creation, in any case, brings about a decisively different reality. The gospel lesson for this Sunday, we have suggested, is concerned with the extension of the Christian community out into the world, as gatherings of those drawn to Jesus welcome his disciples. We find ourselves amongst those so gathered, and are delighted by the company we share with them around the word of their testimony and we are delighted by the meal that they have taught us to share as a sign of our communion with Jesus in the presence of God. As a congregation, we are of course pleased to welcome newcomers of almost any kind. The growth of a congregation is naturally seen as a sign of success in meeting people’s needs, whether spiritual or social, and perhaps even material. The growth is likely to be credited to the spiritual gifts of the congregation’s leaders and those with whom they amply share these gifts, the local disciples, as it were. Such growth is typically rewarded by heightened confidence in the future of the congregation, greater pride of the members in their choice, and their collective prestige in the larger community, not to forget higher salaries for the staff.

So, at least in a general way, we have some sense for what Jesus is talking about when he suggests that those who welcome a variety of newcomers into their gatherings receive the rewards associated with the arrival and welcome of assorted outsiders. Strangers bring gifts; the disciples bring gifts of word and sacrament, and the blessings that go with them. But sometimes strangers also bring “baggage,” in the metaphor of our times. They bring baggage of different kinds; and the congregation has to deal with that, as well. So we might often find ourselves asking, “what are we letting ourselves in for, as we welcome these newcomers? What, specifically, are we letting ourselves in for, in welcoming these disciples of Jesus?”

 If we welcome prophets, what is the reward?

Jesus suggests a few instructive analogies. First, of special interest to us in view of our discussion about of the character of the monarchy, he says “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matthew 10:41a). The trick here is that, as our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah conveniently reminds us, prophets come in different kinds, with different agendas relating to the reigning powers in the land. There are prophets of a rosy future, like Hananiah; and there are prophets of doom, like Jeremiah, who wears the wooden yoke of obedience to Torah. As Diane Jacobsen puts it, it’s a “Case of the Dueling Prophets.”

 Who are the true prophets and who are the false prophets?

At issue is: How can one distinguish true prophesy from false prophecy, a subject taken up in Deut. 18:9-22? Which of us, given a choice, would not choose good news over bad? We will want to believe the bearer of good tidings; and we will tend to dismiss the harbinger of woe. So it was throughout biblical history. The people were wont to choose Hananiah and to dismiss or even to kill Jeremiah.  Jeremiah responds to Hananiah’s smug assurance with the same clear and obvious message as Deuteronomy—time will tell (Jacobsen, p. 115).

 The rewards of the prophets vary, depending on the prophet!

The prophet’s rewards: Hananiah’s promise that the exiles in Babylon will return in two years, irrespective of the people’s disobedience, Jeremiah insists, is a lie; instead, he “has broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them;” Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will continue in absolute control (Yahweh has “even given him the wild animals”) until the people turn and repent of their disobedience. The prophecy will end in death, in the first instance, Hananiah’s own. By way of contrast, Jeremiah foresees “days surely coming” when, Yahweh promises, “I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” Before then, however, the nations will be convulsed with “warfare, famine and pestilence,” as the “fierce anger of the Lord” works itself out and “he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind” (Jeremiah 30:24).

 Prophecy always embraces all creation—animals, vegetation, land and people.

The prophet’s mention of “wild animals” reminds us that Jeremiah’s prophecy embraces the wide net of all creation. As Terry Fretheim writes in an illuminating essay on The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12:

“God’s purposes in the world must be conceived in relation to the story of all of God’s creatures, including the land. Using Isaiah’s language (65.17-25; see 11.6-9), God is creating a new earth and it will be populated by animals, vegetation, and people (see Hos. 2.18-23). Comparably, the salvation oracles of Jeremiah are remarkably inclusive in their orientation, including non-Israelites (e.g. 3.17; 12.14-17; cf. 29.7) and the land itself (31.5, 12, 14, 27; 32.42-44; 33.10-13; 50.19).

When the trumpet sounds, and God rides the cloud chariots into a new heaven and a new earth, the children will come singing, leading wolves and leopards and playing among the snakes. They will not hurt or destroy, for God will, finally, ‘give rest to the earth’ (50.34; see Isa. 14.7; 51.3)” (Fretheim, The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12, in Readings from the Perspective of Earth, ed. by Norman C. Habel, p. 110).

The reception of Jeremiah’s vision, in sort, will be rewarded with confidence in the restoration of the whole creation.

 Who are the true and false prophets in climate change? Will we listen?

We find ourselves in something of a similar contention between prophecies these days in the debate regarding climate change. Prophets on the right promise peace, with only modest adaptations needed to adjust to the more or less natural changes in climate they foresee taking place in the next half-century. Prophets on the left see instead a doomsday of sorts, climate changes that will engulf whole cities as well as alter habitat for uncounted species. Which prophets do we prefer? Politically it is clear that the American people are choosing the Hananiahs of our time, in spite of the weight of scientific evidence that the prophets of the left have tied around their necks. It is a choice for economic development, over against the restraints of ecologically disciplined policies of sustainable growth.

Economic growth is the Earth-destroying idolatry of our age. And, each year, that choice makes more likely the results foreseen by the prophets of doom. Setting the reputed uncertainties of scientific prediction aside, the church of Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, will have to decide on which basis the rule of that Servant will be upheld: Will we do what we want? Or will we instead look forward to what God the creator and Jesus the servant of creation will do, and so enlist in their cause? Will we choose a course that follows the imperative of economic growth, or will we turn around and re-vision our future? Those who welcome a prophet, receive a prophet’s reward.

 If we welcome righteous people, what is the reward? Justice for the whole creation!

The second saying, “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous,” broadens the scope of the discussion of rewards, but with the same results. “Righteousness,” in the Gospel of Matthew, we recall, refers to “actions that are faithful to commitments and relationships.” We welcome Jesus as the one chosen by God to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus’ mission embraces righteousness and justice for the whole creation. The reward for those who receive Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is re-direction toward the purposes of God for God’s beloved creation. Our second reading, Romans 6:12-23, is relevant here as well: the “righteous ones” are those who do “not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” They present themselves “to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present [their] members to God as instruments of righteousness.” In Christ, the Servant of Creation, they belong to the dominion of life for all creation. Those who receive a righteous person, receive a righteous person’s reward.

 If we provide (a cup of) “water” to the poor, will it be polluted or pure?

And so, finally, the special relevance of the third saying: “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I tell, you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42).  The phrase “little ones” refers here to the disciples and points, Warren Carter suggests, to their “vulnerability and danger as a minority group. . . . It recalls the context of persecution and exhortation to persevere which is evident throughout the chapter” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 245). It suggests to us also those made vulnerable in society by the struggle with the conditions of poverty, for whom a mere cup of water is a precious gift of life. Jesus, we remember, is more than a little aware of the importance of water as necessary to the flourishing, not only of human beings, but also of all creatures. “Water,” as we put it in our comment in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, (see our comment on Third Sunday in Lent; cf. John 4:5-42) is “the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God.”

It probably should go without saying, (but won’t) that to provide the stranger with a “cup of water’ that is beyond proverbial and therefore truly and completely righteous and life-giving, the water will be pure and safe for all to drink, whatever it takes to bring it to the scene. And with that availability, the congregation does indeed, at a minimum, have its reward. As metaphor for the source of all life, furthermore, the cup of water carries astonishingly greater significance: it represents the whole of the creation in its capacity to fulfill the purposes of God, so that all of creation might be freed to flourish in its time. It is indeed a sign of the presence of the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And those who give that cup in the name of Christ, truly, none of them will lose their reward.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday July 10-16 in Year A (Ormseth)

The Parable of the Sower as Sign of God’s Provision in Nature Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the Servant of Creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 10-16, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Welcome righteous persons, and we welcome Jesus the Servant of Creation!

Welcome and rejection: the lections for the two prior Sundays after Pentecost provided a basis for setting out implications for care of creation of welcoming or rejecting Jesus the Servant of Creation and his disciples. Those who welcome his disciples welcome him: to welcome him is akin to welcoming a prophet like Jeremiah, who rewards the congregation with confidence in the restoration of the whole creation;” it is like welcoming a righteous person, who rewards the gathering with ‘redirection toward the purposes of God for God’s beloved creation;” it is like giving to vulnerable persons a cup of water, which beyond being a precious gift that sustains life, exemplifies the capacity of the creation to fulfill the purposes of God. Those who welcome the Servant of Creation do indeed receive their reward (see our comment on the readings for Time after Pentecost – Lectionary 13).

Exploit creation and we reject Jesus the Servant of Creation!

Those who reject his disciples, on the other hand, also reject Jesus, the Servant of Creation. For what reason might we reject them? Mainly because we are too caught up in the business of the market place to share his concern for the gifts of creation. Or to put it somewhat differently, we are too deeply enthralled by the vision of a ruling power that can effectively dominate and control creation so that we secure and deliver the resources we need to sustain our lives (e.g., our industrial model of agriculture?). In other words, we completely fail to appreciate Jesus’ humble way of exercising dominion as care of creation, and we disregard his offer to provide the divine “rest” that encompasses all of creation.

Sowing seeds yields an abundant harvest.

Today’s readings invite reflection on this dynamic of welcome and rejection at a deeper level; they provide additional perspective on the reasons for and the consequences of these responses. Jesus’ parable of the sower locates the responses in a narrative thick with ecological insight. The sower’s seemingly careless hand distributes seed without regard to the terrain into which it happens to fall: “some seeds fell on the path. . . Other seeds fell on rocky ground…Other seeds fell among thorns. . . Other seeds fell on good soil . . . .” Indeed, one might suspect that this sower is blind, so completely does he appear to abandon his rate of yield to chance. His purpose is accomplished nonetheless! The seeds that fell on good soil “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty,” which, while not overly abundant, is sufficient for the sower’s purposes. Scholars argue whether or not the yield should be regarded as “superabundant.” Bernard Brandon Scott, for example, thinks the results “are well within the bounds of the believable. They are an average-to-good harvest.” See his discussion in Hear Then the Parable, pp. 355-58). In any case, it is an abundant harvest.

What good may come from sowing everywhere!

With respect to the seed that falls on path, rocky ground, or amongst thorns, the interpretive emphasis is commonly on the failed results. But if one reads with ecological perspective, there are possible advantages to the sower’s casual practice: birds are fed that otherwise might have gone hungry; no doubt stretches of good soil are utilized that might otherwise have been missed; and it is difficult to discriminate between good soil and poor, as one walks through the field. Indeed, could one really tell in advance which soil was really good and not just average, before it gave up its yield? And might there not also be some variation between seeds as well? From the same hand came seed that produced in some of the good soil “a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” With a sowing so thoroughly characterized by indeterminacy, perhaps there was more purpose in the action of the sower than first meets the eye.

God’s purposes in the sowing will prevail in the harvest.

That is Jesus’ point, in our perspective.  He knows about seeds and soils, obviously, and he appreciates the complexities of their cooperation in producing the yield the sower wishes so devotedly to achieve. His purpose in telling the story, of course, was not to instruct the disciples in agronomy, but rather to give them insight concerning their outreach to others. Appropriate to their call as disciples of the Servant of Creation, their mission is like a planting. They are as seed cast from the hand of the sower—in some places they will meet welcome and in other places they will meet rejection. Even when they are at first well-received and on occasion drawn into deeply fertile relationships, they will produce responses of wildly differing magnitude. But if the yield is not superabundant, in larger perspective the will of the sower will still be accomplished, because the yield will come in sufficient quantities that the hungry bodies in the sower’s household will be fed. The presence of the Servant of Creation will become known, and the purposes of his Father with the creation will be accomplished, in and through the disciples’ encounters on their journey, however often they meet with rejection.

See how God creates the order of creation.

So we are encouraged by this parable to have confidence in the results of our cooperation in the mission of the Servant of creation. And this encouragement is supported by the psalm and by the first lesson that accompanies it in the readings selected for this Sunday. The selected passage from Psalm 65 is all about the relationships God establishes in the world in the course of creating and sustaining it. The God that creates order out of chaos may seem more the forceful monarch who dominates and controls, rather than the relational creator of the Christian Trinity: “By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (Psalm 65:6-8). But God is also praised because “you visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its [i.e., the Earth’s] furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth” (Psalm 65:9-10).

The creative action of God is continuous!

Here is relevant background, indeed, for the parable of the sower:  the soil is good because the Creator has taken care in preparing it! And anticipating the results of the sower’s action, the creation flourishes, whether aided by human hands or not: “the pastures of the wilderness overflow; the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy” (65:12-13). Thus the creative action of God is continuous; the relational purposes of God are indeed accomplished, with respect to both the creation and its continuing care and development, even to the welcoming of the disciples as followers of the Servant of Creation.

Just look at God’s provision! Earth and people rejoice together!

A similar assertion of divine purpose that is successful over a continuum that includes both creation and salvation comes from Isaiah 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Stunningly, people and nature are in this instance seen to join together in rejoicing at the accomplishment of God’s purposes: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). And equally remarkably, those purposes include not only restoration of the people to the land but also rejuvenation of the land itself, even to the point of the generation of new kinds of vegetation: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:13).

God the Sower will achieve God’s purposes for creation.

Thus far, we note, the parable’s meaning is located entirely within the large frame of the relationship between Creator and creation. If the sower is God, humans are present within the narrative of the parable only as the seed and its yield for the household of God. So also psalmist and prophet rejoice in God’s works for the whole creation. This great frame was perhaps suggested by the author of the Gospel when he noted that Jesus told the parable as he “sat by the sea,” having gone “out of the house” where he had been meeting with his disciples. This is a message for everybody; indeed, it is of relevance for everything, for all creatures. So also, according to the parable, irrespective of the results of individual instances of human interaction, in the end, the seeding of the reign of God will produce yields sufficient to achieve God’s purposes for the creation.

Does the parable of the sower portray the theory of natural selection?

For the contemporary reader, it needs to be acknowledged that another meaning entirely might be drawn from the parable. We have suggested the possibility that the sower is blind and that his sowing is pervaded by indeterminacy. These are hints of an evolutionary reading of the process that would find no basis for attributing purpose in the sowing at all. The parable contains a good share of the elements needed for an argument for the theory of natural selection! The match between seed and soil is largely a matter of chance, and the variation in yields suggests the possibility of superior seed to be selected for the next generation. The yield is in any case readily explained as the result of a complex process governed from the beginning to end by natural process and contingent fact. If the intent was to tell about a ”supernatural” sower and account for the difficulties those who believe in such a being might have in being accepted, the outcome of the story is barely credible.

Especially problematic under such a reading would be the suggestion that so much seed should go to waste, the vexing question of an evolutionary theodicy: if its creator is the benevolent source of all good, worthy of praise by all creation, why is the process of nature so inherently wasteful of possible good? The occasional failure of the entire harvest, under such an indeterminate process, might easily result in famine throughout the land. The question, once raised, quickly escapes the bounds of reflection based on the parable. With respect to our focus on care of creation, we might ask: Why is the possibility of creation’s diminishment in any measure, seemingly built into its very structure?

Rejection of Jesus the Servant of Creation thwarts the harvest.

We cannot pursue this discussion here; see Christopher Southgate’s extended analysis of the problem in his The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. We raise the question primarily to note that the lurking in the background of the telling of the parable is an anxiety about the success of God’s purposes in the ministry of Jesus the Servant of Creation, an anxiety that surfaces in the interpretation of the parable that Matthew presents as follow-up teaching of Jesus to his disciples. At fault in the failure to understand “the word of the kingdom,” is “the evil one” who comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path”; or alternately, weakness in the face of persecution causes the initially eager follower to fall away; and “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” choke the initially avid reception of the word.

God’s empire is an alternative to the Roman Empire.

Rejection of the Servant of Creation has multiple sources, and their collective cultural power is strong. In this reading, it should be noted, a door is opened to introduce a variety of other factors:  unmentioned, notes Warren Carter, but important for his interpretation of the parable as a critique of the imperial domination experienced by the sower who is “trying to eke out a living in generally inhospitable conditions,” are “other obstacles: rent, tithes, taxes and tolls, seed for the next year, a household to support. Crop failure meant borrowed money; indebtedness meant defaulting on the loan, loss of land, and virtual slavery as a laborer.” Carter clearly has in mind the oppressive culture of the Roman Empire, which sought to dominate and control all aspects of society, including, we need to add, its relationship to the creation that sustains it. The parable, Carter rightly suggests, “concerns socialization into an alternative culture constituted by God’s empire and in conflict with the dominant values and structures of the surrounding cultures” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 282, 286).

It is unfortunate, however, that in the context of the parable itself, the birds and the sun have been, retroactively as it were, turned into adversaries of God’s purposes: the bird that snatches away the seed is “the evil one who snatches away what is sown in the heart”; the withering sun is the “trouble or persecution” which “arises on account of the word.” While it may be true that in relatively unknown Hebrew texts there is precedent for viewing birds as ”agents of the devil” (because they are known to eat seeds important for human consumption) the view is heedlessly allegorical and anthropocentric. It leads too easily to the supposition that the creation itself, beyond the human being, has been turned against the will of its creator, an interpretation of the consequences of the “fall”—that is, in the view of recent interpreters of the Genesis text, no longer viable (See Terry Fretheim’s discussion in his God and World in the Old Testament:  A Relational Theology of Creation, pp. 70-89; and Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, pp. 28-34).

Accordingly, we have double reason to rejoice with the “mountains and the hills before us” as they burst into song, and to clap our hands “with all the trees of the field,” when “good soil” turns up to rescue us, creatures of the dirt that we are, along with all the other creatures, including the birds (Genesis 1:7).  If further reflection on the cause of rejection beyond what has been offered here is needed, the reading for the second lesson from Romans provides a basis for exploring the inner struggle that humans experience when humans are alienated from God’s creation and turn it into an enemy of the Spirit, the giver of life (an orientation to the creation referred to as “living according to the flesh”). Because the eighth chapter of Romans is listed for reading on the next two Sundays, however, we defer discussion of that possibility to our comments on those texts.

Our alienation from creation contributes to our rejection of Jesus as Servant of Creation.

In conclusion, we note that this parable of Jesus, drawn as it is from an agrarian experience of life, implies a culture that is deeply counter to our modern, industrialized orientation to nature. It is the tension between these two cultures that we encounter in every aspect of the environmental crisis of our times: do we live and work and have our being within God’s creation? Or do we seek domination and control of nature, in pursuit of entirely anthropocentric purposes? Naturally, this culture of ours is not receptive to the Servant of Creation or his disciples. We cannot expect it to be, nor can we simply be content to adapt to its destructive power; we must hope for a restoration of the creation by the God who knows and loves it, and be willing to be enlisted in that mission.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

The Story of Jesus the Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the triune God of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

As we noted in our commenting on Jesus Farewell Discourse (see the “Sixth Sunday of Easter” in this series), the issues at stake in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Church’s first four centuries are all adumbrated in the readings for the last four Sundays of Easter. Jaroslav Pelican summarizes them well:

“the question of unity of the God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that the church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics. (For the basis of this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172).

The doctrine of the Trinity, in the form of the Nicene Creed, serves to keep the church responsive to these issues. As we have seen, the issues are significant for understanding the Christian concern for care of creation. The bond between redemption and creation was part of our discussion on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Holy Spirit figured importantly, of course, in our comment on the Day of Pentecost. And we explored the relationship of the Father and the Son with respect to its significance for the ongoing life of the church in the post-Ascension period. It remains, then, to take up the issue of the unity of God or monotheism, as it also bears upon our concern for the care of creation.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the tradition’s guarantee that the story of Jesus belongs as part and parcel of the story of Israel’s God, who, as our first reading reminds us, is confessed to be the creator of all things. Thus the Sunday of the Holy Trinity provides occasion for a recapitulation of the narrative of the Gospel of the Servant of Creation, whose life and mission we have followed through the readings for the seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, perhaps even the authority and power of this God of creation? And if so, what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times?

The Gospel of the Servant of Creation which we have constructed on the foundation of lections from the Seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter begins with that “creational moment” of Jesus’ baptism, when the water “falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove.” Rising from gently troubled waters, he hears “the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation.” This is the one God calls “my servant. . . my chosen,” the one who will bring forth justice to the nations. He will see waters far more violently troubled, including those of our time stirred up by the changing of Earth’s climate. If it is the church’s expectation that Jesus will bring justice to all the Earth, will he bring justice also to those troubled waters? (See Matthew 3:13-7; Isaiah 42:1-9).

So, from the outset, the story of Jesus is about this “trinity”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it is about the care for creation of this triune God. Instructed by the Spirit, John the Baptist hails this Son as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” His death, we have noted, will become “an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life, as well as with the victims of social competition” (Second Sunday after the Epiphany). He will call as his first disciples fishermen who are experienced with life at the edge of the wilderness, who are familiar with imperial strategies to dominate the economies of the Earth’s lands and seas and who will be able to envision ‘new ways of living in and with the non-human creation,’ ways that bring ‘the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs, and for the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood’” of the creation (Third Sunday After the Epiphany). Following the way first taken by Moses, he will ascend a mountain to teach these disciples; as representative of the ecology of the earth, the mountain attends to that teaching with an ear for wisdom that “tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community”—i.e. for a “land ethic” that might truly “constitute justice for the whole creation.”

The mountain is not disappointed, for here is teaching that buoys the spirit of people who, in our time, care passionately about an Earth in deep distress and who genuinely mourn its destruction. Jesus blesses those who give place to others, a fundamental principle of ecological awareness; and he also blesses those who live according to the purposes their Creator has installed within their very nature. The mountain rejoices to hear him reject the “bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’ in favor of the sacrifice of love that overcomes the ‘pattern of sin endlessly repeated’ of taking ‘creation not as a gift but as a violence—either the violence of order or the violence of chaos—an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty” (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). As “salt for the earth” and “light of the world,” his followers will “carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time” (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany). With an ear for Moses’ admonition to “choose life,” Jesus prepares to descend the mountain of wisdom and walk the plains of Galilee with his disciples, whom he gathers as he goes; he will lead them in a “demonstration project of the power of God’s love” lived out in a community of relationships that include all that God loves, the whole creation (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). He steels them for what lies ahead by envisioning for them the possibility that they might not only love what God loves, but love as God loves: “without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions . . . without qualifying distinctions”  (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany).

With a full complement of eight Sundays, the extended season of Epiphany provided the occasion for an excursus at this last point, namely, on the real difficulties humans face in realizing such unconditioned, self-giving love for others, especially given our existential anxiety concerning the availability of the material resources we feel we need to sustain our lives. Noting that the texts implied a difference in the way God values human and non-human creatures, we asked, “Granted that God desires human flourishing . . . does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation?” Jesus would have us “not worry;” and so he assures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. Yet the creation provides for neither human nor other creatures’ flourishing consistently; our anxiety responds to a “deep insufficiency” that is “built into nature’s creative process.” Nevertheless, Jesus would have us refuse the master of wealth in favor of obedience to God—and for good reason from the perspective of the care of creation. For in its multiple aspects, the pursuit of wealth is easily the chief “driver of environmental deterioration,” in James Gustave Speth’s apt characterization.

This conversation about serving wealth, we noted, again took place in the presence of mountains, our ecological representative of the creation. Obviously, much is at stake in that conversation, for them and for their co-creatures. And indeed, it is fascinating to see how the struggle between these rival loyalties plays out in the culmination of Jesus’ story, to the benefit or to the adversity of the creation. The story from this point moves, as it were, from mountain to mountain: first to Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration; then, by way of the observance of Ash Wednesday, to the ecologically provocative plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains,” which attends the people’s abandonment of the covenant; to the mountain of temptation in the wilderness; and so eventually to the conflict with the religious and political leaders on Mount Zion. These earthly witnesses to Jesus’ passage through the land provide consistent testimony regarding the importance of this story for the creation.  What happened to Jesus on Tabor, we noted, is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the “sign of things to come for the whole creation.” As the concerns of the disciples about status and power in the kingdom of God fall away, the Transfiguration draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world” to which the mountain’s “landscape of accessible and gentle beauty” invites them (Transfiguration of our Lord). The “blackness upon the mountains” of the text from the prophet Joel read on Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, prompts a call for repentance in our contemporary situation for the environmental crisis of our time, in response to God’s promise to restore the people to “the life and well-being that God intended for the creation” (Ash Wednesday).

The issues at stake here are focused most sharply, however, when the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We summed up the significance of their confrontation this way: considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit: one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the Earth.  These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to Earth. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for the non-human creation; the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and regard for “otherkind.”

These eco-friendly decisions are not merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God, we argued. When read in the context of the story of human temptation from Genesis 2 and 3, the account of the temptation shows that what Jesus does for God in his temptations is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. “To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God.” In the struggle that is here joined between the dominion of life and the dominion of death, Jesus clearly chooses the dominion of life (First Sunday of Lent).

He will be faithful to that choice on his way to Mount Zion. As we saw in the readings for the Sundays of Lent, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem fill out his role as Servant of Creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus “brought ‘living water,’ i.e. water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet.” And with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation, while exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. And even in the face of the death of his dear friend Lazarus, his actions were governed by what we have come to call the rule of the servant of God’s creation: “What he does is always shaped and determined. . , not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, what God wants for the world God so loves” (Fifth Sunday in Lent). This is true to the end of Jesus’ life. Even in his confrontation with the powers of temple and empire, his actions are not about what he wants, but about “what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation” (Passion Sunday).

As we proclaimed on reading the lections for the Resurrection of Our Lord, this service to creation is vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The power of death’s dominion has been broken, even though not driven from Earth. So the meaning of the resurrection has to be about more than vindication. That is to say that the resurrection is also a first demonstration of the restoration of creation, of the “new creation.” A bulwark against all later attempts to “spiritualize” the meaning of the Resurrection, the readings for the Sundays of Easter consistently exhibit the conviction that Jesus’ service to the creation is for its restoration and perfection, not its abandonment. The new creation is already begun, and “is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread” (Fourth Sunday of Easter). As Risen Lord, Jesus provides sustenance in a meal that models human flourishing in the context of a restored creation, for which he will both locate place and provide way, truth and life in the company of his Father, the Creator of all things. As we wrote in summary comment on the readings for the post-ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on Earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found, from time to time, more desirable and “wise,” from a human point of view (Seventh Sunday of Easter).

It is the reality of this New Creation that the church experiences and continues to foster, as we enter more deeply into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the weeks of the season of Pentecost to come, we will explore the fruits, both early and late, of this New Creation.

Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, and even the authority and power of this God of creation? On the basis of this narrative, we have to answer “yes”—decidedly so! And it is consistent with this judgment that in the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday that the disciples went “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to receive the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’” (Matthew 28:18). Again, the mountain is the ecologically responsible witness. And Jesus is the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” meaning thereby that he is responsible for all thing contained within the cosmos. His is “the dominion,” which, in Greek, is the same word as “authority,” Warren Carter notes (in Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 551) that both the reading from Genesis and the reading from Psalm 8 remind us that what was granted to humankind in the beginning of creation was the responsibility to care for the needs of all the non-human creations, both wild and domestic, both on land and in the sea. Jesus is the human image of God, who, as we suggested in our comment on the readings for Name of Jesus in the Season of Christmas, “does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation” (Name of Jesus).

Then what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times? The text tells us that when the disciples saw him, some worshiped him, but others doubted. There is room in this story for those who have difficulty accepting Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. Certainly, misunderstandings and misapplications of the claim of “dominion” have contributed to a resistance to accept Jesus on the part of advocates for Earth. (For our brief discussion of this issue, as raised by cultural historian Lynn White, see our comment on the Name of Jesus.) Of deeper and more general significance, perhaps, is what Norman Wirzba describes as the “culture as denial of creation.” The problem, he suggests, is that in modern culture, we no longer share what he calls “the experience of creation:”

Though many people still profess a vague belief in a higher power that created the universe, there are almost no signs indicating that people have thought seriously about themselves as created being enmeshed in a common redemptive fate with the rest of the created order and that this belief should have any effect in practical, day-to-day decision-making. For the most part, our assumptions about reality, its ontological status, reflect modern scientific, economic, and technological views that place humanity and its interests over and against the natural world. Nature, rather than being the realm of God’s creative work and plan, the object of God’s good pleasure, is the foil for human technique and desire (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 62).

Thus, it is important that we get “clear about how changing concrete and social conditions mitigate or promote our capacity for attention, care, and responsibility—all virtues central to the divinely mandated vocation that we till and keep the earth,” and seek understanding of “those features of modern life that compromise our experience of the world as creation and thus distort our vocations as servants of it” (Ibid., p. 64).

First on the list of Wirzba’s culprits is the demise in modern culture of the practice of an allegorical method for the interpretation of scripture. “Allegorical interpretation,” he observes, “reflected a mental milieu in which words, the world, and God together formed a whole through which meaning and sense could circulate.” Collapse of this approach was due, not to the influence of an alien force of secularization, as one might think, but rather to the efforts of faithful “Protestant reformers to “establish the authority of scripture in terms of its literal and historical sense.” Nonetheless, the loss to the faith was real. As Wirzba explains, “allegory presupposes that the whole of reality forms an organic unity in which humans, because they participate in the material and spiritual realms, play an important role. As creatures made in the image of God we are exemplars, a microcosm of the universe, and thus form a bridge or conduit that mediates this world and the divine intention.”

The combination of the readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, we might note, provided authorization for this view. Faithful understanding is part of the dominion given, lost, and restored (Ibid., p. 66). When on nominalist epistemological grounds, this linkage no longer made sense, both God and the human being were liberated from its constraints and responsibilities: God becomes an “inscrutable, unpredictable being, massively large and powerful, that exists, if God exists at all, beyond this life and world.” Humanity was left to construct life’s meaning on its own, and the world of things was demoted to the status of objects for human manipulation. “Whereas premodern cultures understood value to be embedded within the world, the modern mind separated fact and value, housing the former in an objective world and the latter in a form-giving subject. The sense of the world as creation, as ordered in terms of a divine plan, is largely gone” (Ibid, p.68-70).

Other factors in this “loss of creation,” according to Wirzba, include the “eclipse of agrarian life,” which comes as a result of the fact that as the practice of farming has been industrialized. Technology more generally transforms our access to the reality of the world from one of participatory engagement to a spectator observer of “bits of data, which means that the context for understanding is limited to the moment of the glance” (Ibid., p. 79). “The modern technological mind, in short, destroys the sacred, divests the world of its sanctity or integrity, since its overriding goal is to transform the world into means for decidedly human ends” (Ibid., p. 81). Our culture has become abstract:  “interdependencies are either forgotten, denied, or scorned, the assumption being that persons float above their life-giving context, dipping in and out as consumption patterns dictate” (Ibid., p. 85). The processes that sustain human life are increasingly severed from the processes of the earth, as money becomes the medium for all interaction between them.

And finally, the meaning of creation is made difficult by “the growing irrelevance of God:” As we have become controllers of our own fate, God has simply become an unnecessary hypothesis. We, rather than God, run the world. Talk of God as a creator who is intimately and concernfully involved in the daily affairs of existence is simply quaint, a reflection of the refusal to deal with the naturalistic assumptions of modern science. How, then, can we think of ourselves and the world as creation, when the idea of a creator has been so severely compromised? (Ibid., p. 91).

If there is still much “God-talk,” the reality to which the talk refers is seriously compromised:

“Whereas the God of former times may have arisen in a context in which the feeling of our dependence was palpable and clear, the God of our consumer society is dependent upon us for its reality and significance” (Ibid., p. 91). . . . “God is not so much dead, as absent: God has been banished by us in the drive to fashion a world according to our own liking or, failing that, the liking of corporate, global, economic forces. In this divine banishment, it is not surprising that the nature of the divine power as being-for-another should be entirely lost on us. We cannot be the caretakers of creation because the divine model for such care has been systematically denied or repressed by the dominant cultural trends of the last several centuries” (Ibid., p. 92).

At best, God becomes our personal friend, and Jesus a ‘soul mate’ who feels our pain and encourages us in our distancing ourselves from engagement in the web of nature. The idea that God is the God of creation and Jesus the servant of creation would appear, in view of this cultural situation, to be excised from the teaching of the church simply because it no longer makes sense within a culture that has no experience of creation, and probably cannot have one, given the way our minds and our society are structured to interpret and interact with the world.

What then are we to do? Or more to the point here, does what we have done in constructing this narrative of Jesus the Servant of Creation address the situation at all effectively? Readers will have to judge this matter for themselves and, in doing so, will profitably draw on the many other interpreters of both scripture and culture that have become engaged in this conversation. But we would hope that we have at least made a good beginning, and we would point to several aspects of our commentary that give us hope in relationship to Wirzba’s analysis. In the first place, Wirzba argues for the difference that ecological science is making in our understanding of the world as fundamentally relational (Ibid., pp. 93-122).  At several points we have been in conversation with ecological science and its foundational theory of evolutionary development and we have drawn on writers who are themselves in such conversations. That conversation with the science of ecology actually shapes our discussion at some depth.

Working back through Wirzba’s list, we may also note that biblical scholars are finding new insights on which to base a “relational theology of creation.” In particular, we have found the work of Terry Fretheim extremely helpful in this regard. For example, his interpretation of Genesis 1, which is of interest for this Sunday, pays attention to the multiple modes of God’s creative activity. God not only originates creation, but also continues creating, which “enables the becoming of the creation;” and God completes creation, by which action “something genuinely new will come to be” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 5-9). God is creator/maker, speaker, evaluator, and consultant of others; in interaction with one another. Fretheim suggests that “these images provide a more relational model of creation than has been traditionally presented.” On the other hand, he disallows imaging God as “victor” over the powers of chaos; while chaos is, to be sure, tamed in the process of creation, it remains an element in the creation that God considers to be “good;” and “a key human responsibility set out in the command of Gen 1:28 is to work creatively with that disorder,” as contrasted with authorization to dominate it and bring it under control. Neither does Fretheim hold in high regard the interpretation of God in this text as “king,” because a decisive argument against it is the “democratization that is inherent in the claim that every human being is created in the image of God. If royal language as been democratized, then royal links that may be present have been subverted and non-hierarchical perspectives prevail.” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 36-47.)  Here is a God with whom people in contemporary culture informed by ecological and evolutionary science can much more easily relate!

Additionally, in the development of our narrative, we have worked to keep our discussion relevant to real world situations, where the interdependencies of “life-giving sources of food, energy, and water” are at stake” (Ibid., p. 85). We have emphasized the need for non-anthropocentric understandings of the human/nature relationship. We find the thought of agrarians such as Waldo Leopold and Wendell Berry helpful for translating the meaning of the story of Jesus into our context.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we think that this commentary’s search for the Servant of Creation amidst the appointed texts for the Sunday’s worship services serves to bring us back into something like that allegorical imagination that allows for a sense of creation to be part of a congregation’s shared experience. It is within the conversation between the texts—in the presence of water that can be the bearer of Spirit, and of bread and wine that are acknowledged as gifts of the Creator, even as they are also nature transformed by human hands—that we find the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who invites the community into the experience of creation and moves it toward assuming responsibility for its care. The story of the Servant of Creation becomes our story, even as our story of the abandonment of creation has become his. And he is with us, to the end of the age.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com