Tag Archives: 2016

Sunday of the Passion in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)
By Dennis Ormseth

Sunday of the Passion in Year C
Luke 19:28-40
Isaiah 50-:4-9a
Psalm31:9-16 (5)
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56
or Luke 23:1-49

Recapitulation of the argument: Jesus refuses the way of domination over neighbor, nations and nature. Our comments on the readings for the Sundays of Lent have shown that the texts consistently address the way of domination in a manner that involves both social justice and care of creation. All four readings from the Gospel of Luke and a fifth from John’s Gospel support this view, often in combination with either or both of the first and second readings. First, Jesus’ refusal in the wilderness to test God in acts of domination in relationship to nature and the nations is coupled with Moses’ expectation that, as they enter the promised land, the people of Israel will experience relief from their wandering and the alienation from the land that accompanies the violence visited primordially by Cain upon Abel. Second, in an encounter with Pharisees who warn, probably falsely, that Herod seeks to kill him, Jesus refuses to be intimidated and persists in his teaching and acts of healing as he proceeds on his way toward Jerusalem, whose people he would shelter as a hen its chicks under its wings. There he can expect to be greeted with cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord;” it is a blessing, that, like God’s promises to Abram in the first reading, looks forward to “the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life.” Third, a second encounter with Jesus’ opponents further develops this theme of resistance to domination: they again attempt to intimidate him with a report of brutal action, this time by Pilate against a party of Galileans on their way to worship, faulting their sinfulness. Jesus exposes the incipient cultural and religious dualism of their view, as to relations between Galileans and Jerusalemites, and counters it with the “horticultural” parable of the fig tree given another chance by its vine dresser, who resists the command of the land’s owner to rip it out, promising to fertilize it; this image of God as patient and generous sustainer of life is doubled by the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God as an extravagant host who offers free water and food to all, in order to overcome all divisions between nations. Each of these sets of texts exhibit aspects of the way of intimidation and domination characteristic of the opposition to Jesus, and counter that way with prophetic teaching and actions.

Our argument is advanced, fourthly, in a third encounter with opponents, in which scribes and Pharisees object now to Jesus’ table fellowship with persons they, too, regard dualistically as sinners; he counters their rejection with the parable of the man with two sons, the younger whose prodigal behavior wastes the family’s wealth, and the elder who accordingly saw him only as a debauched sinner who destroyed the father’s honor. The parable reminds us that in the patriarchal narrative of Israel, the roguish younger son is expected to receive the blessing of the father. But this father loves both sons equally and seeks to overcome the elder’s alienation by assurance of his companionship and grace, thus reconciling both sons as beloved children. Left open is the question of what happens next, particularly concerning their shared participation in the blessings of the family farm. The latter’s significance is an aspect of the story that is underscored by the first reading’s account of Joshua’s crossing the Jordan into the promised land, where the people enjoy release from the shame of Egyptian oppression, and for the first time feast from the land, reminding us of Moses’ instructions to the people from the first Sunday: the people are to gather in remembrance of the Passover and offer the first fruits in thanksgiving for restoration to the land and its sustenance.

Then the texts for the fifth Sunday both recapitulate the narrative of these Lenten encounters and move the action towards a climax. The account from John’s gospel of the meal in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem and just prior to the observance of Passover, re-frames for us the themes of Luke’s narrative. The dualism of the opposition of the “scribes and Pharisees” to the sinners in Jesus’ company is now linked to the decision of the Sanhedrin to seek Jesus’ death; their threats are thrust into Jesus’ fellowship by John’s anticipation of Judas’ act of betrayal. Jesus’ teaching in opposition to the intimidation of his opponents and his steadfast procession to Jerusalem, moreover, culminate here in the confrontation between Jesus and Judas over Mary’s anointing of Jesus feet. While she reveals the future servant role of the community that follows Jesus, Judas will link up with Jesus’ opponents in order to become a player in the power struggle of the nation. Thus we are at the crux of the development which we have plotted along the way, in terms of Jonathan’s Sacks’ description of how social dualism develops into religiously sanctioned, “altruistic violence.” Which way will prevail, the way of domination or the way of service? As the older brother’s resentment prompted an attitude of victimhood in relationship to the father and destroys his relationship with his brother, so the action which Judas intends to join is premised on the idea that Jesus’ death will relieve the dishonor and danger represented by the Jewish leadership’s submission to the Roman occupation. Jesus will be sacrificed as scapegoat in order to save the nation. But as Isaiah’s watery renewal of creation envisions and as Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet foreshadows, something new is happening that will be revealed in and through the events to be unfolded in the narrative of Jesus’ passion. We can hope that Jesus will somehow persist in his resistance to the way of domination, whether of neighbor, nations, or nature, because the God whose rule he advances leads to the restoration of all these relations in the great community of life.

Reading the passion narrative as a rejection of the way of domination for the benefit of community and creation. The readings for Passion Sunday open with the account of Jesus’ triumphal procession through the streets of Jerusalem. He is welcomed as “king,” but as Luke Timothy Johnson observes, the evangelist takes immediate care here at the outset to make clear that this kingship is not about domination of enemies, neither his nor Israel’s. “This emphasis on Jesus as king in Luke’s version must be understood in light of the kingship parable of 19:11-27,” Johnson insists, but not as that parable is commonly interpreted: it is about “the successful establishment of a kingdom” but not an apocalyptic prophecy of the end time. It is rather Luke’s “authorial commentary on the narrative,” and it refers to “events unfolding in Luke’s own story”:

Who is the nobleman who would be king, and who in fact gets basileia so that he cannot only exercise it but also bestow it on followers? It is obviously Jesus himself, who will immediately be hailed as king, dispose of basileia to his followers, grant entrance to the thief, and as risen Lord, continue to exercise authority through his emissaries’ words and deeds. Who are the fellow citizens who do not wish to have this one as their ruler, who protest it, and then defeated, are “cut off”? They are the leaders of the people who will decry the proclamation of Jesus as king, accuse him of royal pretensions in his trial, mock him as king on the cross, reject his mission as prophet, persecute his apostles, and find themselves at last because of all this, “cut off from the people.” Who are the servants whose faithful use of possessions is rewarded by exousia (“authority”) within the realm of this king? The Twelve, whom we shall see in the narrative of Acts, exercising just such authority over the restored people of God (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 294).

This king, in other words, is the agent of the “constitutive blessing”,’ in Terry Fretheim”s terms, who brings about “the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life” (See our comment on the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent for Fretheim’s concept). Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem at 19:41 signals that his “arrival is the visitation of God that offers peace; the rejection of the Prophet will lead to destruction,” yes, but not by forces led by him. Thus Luke has no “waving of branches found in all the other Gospels,” which “might be perceived as the nationalistic implications of Jesus’ kingship,” which is “not simply that of the Jewish nation” but “the rule of God over the people of God” (Johnson, p. 297, 298, 301).

The lectionary’s reading of the passion narrative proper develops these themes of the parable, beginning with the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and his followers. In his account of the meal, Luke is first concerned to establish the character of Jesus’ community. As Johnson points out, he “stresses the special relationship between Jesus and his followers,” almost entirely ignoring Judas’ presence. “Jesus’ blessing and sharing of the cup” signifies “in a truly complex fashion, the role of the disciples after Jesus’ death. They are to “divide among themselves.” At one level, this is an implicit bestowal of authority and fellowship, for such was the status of those who drank from the same cup as the king.” But this shared company’s authority is not about domination. “At another level, sharing equally in the cup signifies as well a sharing in the suffering of the Messiah, for as we shortly learn, this is the cup of suffering in which his blood is being poured out for them. This destiny, as well that of the apostles, will be fulfilled in the narrative of Acts, when they “suffer for the name of the Messiah (5:41).” Jesus’ words over the cup establish a powerful connection to the symbolism of the Passover celebration. As Johnson writes, the primordial experience of liberation that was the Exodus was more than an escape from Egypt. It was God’s formation of a people by the giving of Torah and the establishment of the covenant, sealed by the sacrificial blood sprinkled alike on the book of the covenant and the people. Luke therefore portrays the cup given by Jesus in equally “foundational” terms. The restoration of Israel by the prophet Jesus is equally sealed by sacrificial blood. But now the blood is not of animals, but of the Prophet himself. It is by the giving of his life in sacrifice—donation to God for the sake of others—that a regeneration of the people can take place (Johnson, p. 342).

So also with the thickly layered symbolism of the bread: the actions reveal the true meaning not only of this meal, but of both the feedings Jesus has provided earlier and those to come, following the resurrection. “Jesus is the servant who gives his life for others. And as the bread must be broken to be shared, so is his body to be broken in death so that the life-giving spirit might be given to them.” But “when they in turn ‘do this as a remembrance of him’ in their ‘breaking bread’ together (Acts 2:46; 20:7), he will be present not as a fond memory but as a powerful and commanding presence (24:44)” (Johnson, pp. 342).

There is deep irony in this, of course. The sacrifice of the scapegoat which the Sanhedrin counts on to save themselves from Roman punishment is subverted to become the cornerstone of a rebirth of God’s people on a new and vastly larger scale. As Norman Wirzba puts it,

Christ is no mere scapegoat, nor is his death reducible to lessons people should learn about their implacable thirst for violence. Jesus’ death speaks to God’s way of being with the world and thus also to creation’s inner meaning. On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life.

In this perspective, we begin to see the cosmic significance of the passion narrative. “The movement of sacrifice that characterizes God’s life also characterizes created life. Creation is an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 125). And yet, we cannot fail to observe, the use of bread and wine as the sacramental means of that cosmic presence will for all time bind both the celebration of this meal and the ministry of Jesus’ followers to the earth from which those elements are locally harvested.

So the way of domination is countered by the subversion of the very means by which it is to be effected. When Luke finally mentions the “hand of the betrayer at the table,” it is because “this is how the sacrifice of the prophet will be accomplished”:

Because the covenant is being established anthropologically—in the very fabric of human freedom—the offer of the gift and the rejection of it as well must be carried out in the messy tangle of human decisions, and the decision of Judas is part of the larger process that no human agency controls. The Son of Man moves toward a destiny determined by God.

As Jesus will emphasize in his “farewell discourse” while they are still at table, the authority shared by him is not about domination. That is the way of the Gentiles, he observes, but it is not his way, nor is it to be that of his followers (Johnson, p. 344). The authority they are given, as Johnson summarizes it, “is to be carried out as a practical service to others. Their wrangling over status (philoneikia, 22:24) is entirely inappropriate. They are neither to dominate nor to regard themselves as benefactors (22:26). Like their teacher, they are to serve humbly those they teach” (Johnson, p. 349). And in the action that follows the meal, Luke is equally insistent that Jesus will tolerate no violence: when a disciple strikes a slave of the high priest and cuts off his ear, Jesus not only forbids further such acts, but heals the wound with his touch. This gesture, which only Luke mentions, as Johnson points out, not only shows “the continuation of the ministry of healing that has accompanied Jesus’ proclamation of the good news from the beginning,” but also exemplifies “the attitudes of forgiveness and compassion toward those ‘who hate him’ that he had enjoined on his followers” (Johnson, p. 353).

Is Jesus resistance to domination truly a viable way to follow in the actual give and take of human life? The events following on the meal demonstrate both its strength and its cost. In his denial of Jesus, Peter submits to the intimidation of the crowd when he is identified as a Galilean, recalling for us the social dualism presupposed in the report of Pilate’s brutal action against Galileans. But an exchange of glances between Peter and Jesus will set Peter on the way to repentance (Johnson. p.). So also the report of Jesus’ questioning by Pilate and Herod makes note of Jesus’ Galilean origins (Luke 23:5k) as a factor in the development of friendship between Pilate and Herod (Johnson, pp. 357-358, 364, 366; see our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent). Since Jesus’ “stirring up the people” allows Pilate to act against him because ”anyone encouraging such revolt could be executed simply as a warning to others,” the Galilean connection if significant: “if this is not a local commotion at the feast, but a deliberate program of propagandizing, Pilate must take it more seriously into account” (Johnson, p. 365). But Jesus’ careful answers to Herod and Pilate give them no grounds to punish Jesus beyond the mocking and flogging he has already received. The Sanhedrin’s attempt to draw Jesus into the orbit of officially sanctioned violence thus fails on account of Jesus’ own reticence to claim his kingship in the face of its inevitable exploitation by his opponents. As Johnson points out, their charges “are plainly deceptive. The title of Messiah, which Jesus refused to acknowledge unequivocally before the Sanhedrin (22:67), is not only reported as his own claim but is cast in its most dangerous political form: Messiah, a king (23:2).” The murderous Herod and Pilate are “astonishingly reluctant to murder Jesus when they have the legal opportunity to do so!” They are forced finally to draw on the psychology of the gathered mob to force Pilate’s acquiescence (Johnson, p. 368-69). All of this is in full accord with Luke’s view, widely shared in the early church, that Jesus is to be understood as the suffering servant of Isaiah 50, our first reading for the Sunday, and Isaiah 53: he is innocent of all charges brought against him; he is the “suffering righteous one, whose death is not one of punishment for his own crimes but one of sacrifice for others;” and the violence that is carried out against him is of a piece with the suffering of the people that will take place when their leaders eventually bring down upon them all the wrath of Rome (Johnson 374-75).

The full vindication of Jesus’ refusal of the way of domination awaits the good news of Easter, of course, and the active implementation of practices of resistance, the post-resurrection re-gathering of his community. The exploration of the cosmic significance of this death will await the later writings of the community such as our second reading from Philippians 2. But Luke’s narrative offers along the way meaningful if spare witness to the full creation’s interest in relation to these events: Jesus’ words to the Galilean women following him to the cross invokes the barrenness of wombs that spares them from seeing children suffer, and the falling mountains and hills that might save them from starvation during the siege to come (Johnson, pp. 372-73). Jesus’ promise of paradise to the criminal beside him invokes the image of the “garden of joy and pleasure, mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament only twice (2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelations 2:7), the garden prepared by God for the first humans (Genesis 2:8), the most noteworthy feature of which was the ‘tree of life’ (Genesis 2:9). As Jesus cries out, commending his spirit to God, the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, perhaps to “symbolize the end of the division separating Jew and Gentile, giving all equal access to God” (Johnson, p.378). A pious Jew named Joseph sees to it that Jesus’ body is buried in a newly dug tomb; his reverence for that body will be shared by the Galilean women who come to anoint it with oils and so become first witnesses to the resurrection (Johnson, p. 380). And thus will the resurrected body become a sacred center for the restoration of the creation.

 

 

 

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

The Season of Lent in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

By Dennis Ormseth

The Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

The significance of the encounter at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany in the reading from the Gospel of John appointed for this last Sunday the season of Lent, is illumined by interpreting it against the background of the Lukan parable of the Man Had Two Sons from the previous Sunday. This story incorporates several themes from that parable: a meal is held to celebrate the return of a brother who was dead but lives again, as did the feast in the parable. The fragrant smell of expensive perfume envelops the participants in an experience of love and adoration, similar to the way the sound of music signaled joy over a lost son returned home. But here, too, the mood of celebration is broken by a divisive figure who might have been expected to join in, only in this instance Judas is actually already part of the circle at the table. The father rebuked the elder son in the name of the love he had for both his sons equally, seeking thereby to restore the unity of the family: so also Jesus here rebukes Judas in favor of Mary’s action, which reveals what binds the group together, their great love for Jesus present in their midst. As with the elder brother, we are let in on the reasons for the division by the agent of dissension himself:  the brother revealed his resentment at what he thought was loss of place, while John has Judas indiscreetly disclose his greed and the implied loss of opportunity for theft of the group’s funds. In each case, there is a tie to the opponents of Jesus: the literary device of the parable linked the elder brother to the scribes and Pharisees; so now the mention of Judas’ coming betrayal links him to the chief priests and Pharisees who have just met to plan the death of Jesus. Prompted by the excitement of the crowds over Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, they are determined to put Jesus and Lazarus to death, in order to quiet any civil unrest during the feast of Passover, which could provoke violent action by the Roman garrison (John 11:47-50).

Thus the narrative of this meal recapitulates crucial elements from the readings for Lent which drive the story of Jesus toward his cross: by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus has drawn to himself participants in the new kingdom of God whom his opponents castigate dualistically as “sinners.” His teaching in parables has opened up the hidden anger and resentment that lie beneath the surface of their rejection. What was parabolic fiction suddenly becomes reality: the encounter of Jesus, Mary, and Judas at this meal builds on these motifs to anticipate Judas’ betrayal as part of the conspiracy of the high priest and the Pharisees. Thus the narrative strikingly exemplifies the development of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes as  “altruistic violence,” the product of religiously sanctioned dualism (characterization of Jesus’ companions as “sinners”), linked to a sense of victimhood (Jesus is endangering the peace on which their ruling position is based), which provides the rationale for acting against a scapegoat whose death can forestall open conflict in society (“it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” 11:50).

The exchange between Jesus and Judas accordingly thrusts this plot of “altruistic violence” into the inner circle of Jesus’ company. John suggests that Judas’ motivation for participating in this scheme is the fact that he was a greedy thief. However, the obscurity of his motivation elsewhere in the passion narratives has prompted scholars to suggest that he was led by the desire to provoke Jesus into action that would triumph over his enemies. As Raymond Brown summarizes these views, Judas has “grown impatient with Jesus’ failure to inaugurate the kingdom, an impatience born from zeal (those who think Judas was an ardent nationalist) or from ambition (those who note the sequence in Luke 22:21-24 where the woe against the betrayer is followed by a dispute as to which of the disciples is the greatest). In either case, Judas can be seen to be “the instrument of Satan, the main agent in giving Jesus over” (John 13:2, 13:27, and Luke 22:2). We recall that beginning with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Satan’s interest with Jesus has been to engage him in actions of domination over nature and nations that test God (Raymond E. Brown’s, “What Was Judas’ Motive for Giving Over Jesus?” in his The Death of the Messiah:  From Gethsemane to the Grave:  A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, Volume Two. New York: Doubleday, 1944, pp.1401-1404; see also our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent).

But if the meal in Bethany thus foreshadows the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, it also anticipates Jesus’ action in the narrative of his passion to foster unity among his followers. Again there is precedent in the Lenten narratives: the shepherd and the woman searching for their lost possessions, the mother hen who would shelter her chicks under her wings, the infertile fig tree that responds to gracious feeding, the son who “remembers mama”(or at least the nourishment he enjoyed at home), and the father who comes out to greet not only the younger son but the elder one as well. As this collection of images includes diverse representatives of the creation in the proclamation of God’s will for all creation to be included in the loving embrace of their creator, it is undoubtedly significant, as Gail O’Day argues, that witness to this message is given here to the woman Mary. Her strikingly womanly act of anointing Jesus feet and drying them with her hair, as O’Day points out, foreshadows two important aspects of the coming passion narrative, namely, Jesus washing of his disciples’ feet at the last supper and Jesus’ burial (Gail O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, The Gospel of John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 702).

The latter of these, the anticipation of Jesus’ burial, has captured primary attention from John’s interpreters, as the example of Raymond Brown demonstrates: “The theological import of the anointing in both John and Mark,” Brown notes, “is directed toward the burial of Jesus (John xii 7; Mark xiv 8), and there is no evidence that the story was ever narrated in Christian circles without such a reference.” Like Judas’s anticipated betrayal, her action, too, follows in the wake of the Sanhedrin’s decision to put Jesus to death. As Brown comments, “The session of the Sanhedrin is the supreme expression of refusal to believe; the anointing by Mary is a culminating expression of loving faith. In each there is an unconscious prophecy of Jesus’ death (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII).  New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 454). So the contrast between Judas and Mary is telling: while Judas may have thought his participation in the Sanhedrin’s scheme might only have resulted in Jesus’ arrest and trial before the Jewish authorities, Mary is prescient in her knowledge that the anger and resentment of Jesus’ opponents will necessarily be visited by Roman authorities upon his body. She no doubt sees what Ta-nehisi Coates in his letter to his son laments as truth gained from long experience of racial oppression, that “all empires of humans” are “built on the destruction of the body” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015, p. 143; see our introduction to this series of comments on the Lenten lectionary). As O’Day puts it, “Mary’s actions model the life of love that should characterize Jesus’ sheep.” Judas’ “self-centered disdain,” on the other hand, leads to the destruction of the flock. Judas is caught up in the all-too-human impulse to dominate one’s enemies; Mary exemplifies what it is to be a servant in the beloved community, respondent to God’s love.

So with the narrative for this Sunday, we are brought into a very dark moment. Or at least it would seem that way, if God were not “about to do a new thing,” as the prophet Isaiah reminds us in our first reading. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). What is the new thing God is doing? The death of a prophet is not a new thing. Nor, to update the narrative, is the sacrifice of a scapegoat. The latter is the all too common eventuality that occurs when, as Jonathan Sacks observes, conflicting powers need to ease conflict in society, and a third party is available who can creditably be seen to be powerful enough to cause trouble, but is not actually powerful enough to resist the action against him (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, New York: Schocken Books, 2015,Sacks, p. 76). Jesus clearly fits this requirement for the action of the Jewish and Roman authorities acting together, but not uniquely so. He will die in a crucifixion suffered by many others for the same purposes of imperial intimidation and domination.

The new thing God is doing actually counteracts that way of domination. It is foreshadowed in this Gospel text, of course, first of all by the presence of Lazarus, raised from the dead. But the new thing God is doing is also anticipated in Mary’s action of washing Jesus feet, As O’Day reflects, in the last supper “Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them (13:1-20), as a way of drawing them into his life with God (13:8). He will also ask them to repeat this act of service for one another (13:14-15).”  But what Jesus will do for his disciples and will ask them to do for one another, Mary has already done for him in 12:3. In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life (O’Day, p. 703).

Mary’s action, in O’Day’s view, is an “eschatological announcement of the promise of discipleship” that is companion to Jesus’ “eschatological announcement of the fullness of God available in Jesus and the fullness of life,” represented by Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. Thus the meal reveals the way in which the mission of Jesus leads to refusal of a relationship of domination between people.

It is this new thing, furthermore, that the Apostle Paul celebrates in our second reading for this day, in the wake of what he counts as the “loss” of the “righteousness” he possessed as a Pharisee and persecutor of the church. That loss has been replaced by his knowledge of “Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Paul, so to speak, is as an elder brother in the narrative of Israel’s sibling rivalry, who has put himself in the place of the younger son and so joined now in the Father’s welcome.  “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13), he moves to overcome the dualism of Jewish righteousness and others’ unrighteousness that divides God’s people.

If the overcoming of the way of domination between peoples and nations makes up a good portion of the new thing God is doing, our first reading identifies one thing more: the new thing God is doing, on account of which the people of Israel in exile are also to forget the “former things” when God made a way through the sea and made “the chariot and horse” to fall down, “extinguished, quenched like a wick,” is a new time when God

will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;

for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,

to give drink to my chosen people,

the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise (Isaiah 43:18-21).

The God who “blots out your transgressions” for God’s own sake, the prophet continues, and who “will not remember your sins,” will

pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,

like willows by flowing streams (44:3-4).

The God who overcomes the way of intimidation and domination between persons and peoples, is the same God who will restore the land so that the people may flourish, even as they are on their way home! Like the father who comes out to greet his two sons, this God comes out to renew the creation with a flood in the desert!  Nature, no less than neighbor, is the beneficiary of God’s new action of love! Then it shall be as the psalm for this Sunday suggests it should, that God will restore all earth’s fortunes “like the watercourses in the Negeb” at the end of winter: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (126:4-6).

How can this be?  How can the death and resurrection of Jesus offer so complete a restoration of creation as God would wish to have it become? How is the narrative of the man who was a scapegoat for national and imperial authorities, acting together to silence their opposition, transformed into a narrative of hope for the reconciliation and renewal of all things?  As the light of day lengthens and the Season of Lent opens up to the Festival of Easter, answer to these questions will be provided in the readings for Passion Sunday.

Suggested hymn of the day: 808 Lord Jesus, You Shall Be my Song

Prayer petition: O God, source and goal of all creation, in Jesus’ company we enjoy hope for the restoration of all of life—our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and the life of your world. Help us to follow in Mary’s way of service; strengthen us in courage to stand firm against the powers that make us fearful. Lord in your mercy . . .

Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)

By Dennis Ormseth

The Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year C

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 New creation!
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

With its themes of repentance and compassion, the reading of the beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son this Sunday will easily lift the day to “favorite Sunday of the Season” status. The familial conflict at its heart can be counted on to draw hearers to the message of forgiveness they expect to hear. Looking for the creation care significance of the day’s readings requires us to cast a larger frame of reference, however, which in turn will refocus the message of the parable. A close reading is needed in order to advance our case for care of creation as a concern that belongs to the very heart, not only of the Lenten season, but also more generally of our faith.

As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, the narrative of the parable opens on a scene of division, the scribes and Pharisees over against the “tax agents and sinners” whom they observe eating with Jesus. The division, Johnson notes, comes “in response to the prophet. The tax-agents and sinners represent the outcast and the poor who respond positively. They not only eat with Jesus, they approach to ‘hear’ the prophet. They are becoming part of the people.” The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, represent “those who are powerful and ‘rich’ who reject the prophet’s call” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 239). It is interesting to note that from the latter’s point of view, this division is between themselves and those whom they castigate simply as “sinners” (15:2). So the reading returns to the issue of dualism that we addressed the previous Sunday, on the basis of the parable of the fig tree. Luke reports that this time Jesus tells three more parables, all about “losing/finding/rejoicing.” While the first two are omitted from this Sunday’s reading, they provide important context for our interpretation of the third.

As Johnson points out, the first of the three parables is found elsewhere in the synoptic gospels and its metaphor of the shepherd is found widely throughout Hebrew scripture. The second and third, on the other hand, appear to be Lukan creations, which together with the first one show Luke’s interest in broadening the reach of his narrative. He balances the male shepherd with a woman, for instance, a lost animal with a lost coin, the wilderness scene with the domestic, before turning to the more complex setting of the parable of the two sons, with its three characters and three scenes. As David Tiede points out, in the first two parables the shepherd and the woman are “the central figures of both stories” and “what they do and say conveys the drama” of the action. “They are images of determination, perhaps even obsession with the lost . . . . These are human behaviors of determination which go beyond the rational, and the friends and neighbors will recognize their profound relief and the joy in their extravagance when they find the lost item.” We’ve met a similar portrayal of determination in the portrayal of Jesus himself in the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent. But what the parables are meant to reveal is God’s great joy over the lost sinner who is found (“more joy in heaven,” “joy in the presence of the angels of God” in Luke 15:7, 10). As Tiede explains,

These parables offer glimpses into the heart of God. They are drawn from human experience, but experience in which determination, extravagance, and joy exceed normal practice. A shepherd who is obsessed with finding that one lost sheep may take inordinate risks, and a woman who loses a coin may take her house apart knowing that it “has to be here.” And so it is with God, and God’s Messiah acting in obedience to God’s will. The determination, the risky behavior of eating with sinners and tax collectors, and the extravagant joy of heaven put the moralists and religionists on edge and to shame (David L. Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988, p. 274-75).

The actual object of these searches seems unimportant, in Tiede’s view, only their “lostness” matters.  As a contemporary equivalent to the subject’s passionate determination, Tiede rather lamely suggests the search for lost car keys as one that would call for a party! Perhaps, but we would rather suggest that the value of the objects is not just their immediate utility but the subjects’ long term investment in them: one in a flock of a hundred sheep has become the most precious one; the lost coin of ten becomes the one the woman must have. So following Luke’s purpose of expanding the circle of consideration, and in view of our reader’s interest in creation care, other illustrations suggest themselves: the decades long struggle, for example, to keep an endangered species like the bald eagle from going extinct, or the current research in Minnesota into the reasons for the collapse of its moose population. Applied to our situation of environmental crisis, can we believe that “the heart of God” imaged in this way would be indifferent to the loss of a single species from God’s own creation, fashioned in evolutionary processes lasting aeons, even though there are in the rationally conceived economy of nature a multitude of others to take its place? Or alternately, the century long attempt by Native Americans to recover the treaty rights that would guarantee them not only a measure of subsistence foraging, but preservation of a way of life: could God countenance the denial to one people a rightful portion of natural wealth meant to sustain in life all of a territory’s peoples?

So also that which is lost to the father in the third parable is not just any child, but one of two sons, both of them legal heirs to his property, now at the point of establishing his independent personhood. The father’s attachment is long term, deep and complex. Yet the son requests not only his share of the inheritance, but immediate disposition of it. As Bernard Brandon Scott points out in his careful reading of the parable, what we know of the legal context of this narrative would suggest that the distribution of property to the son while the father is still living is . . .surely not the norm. Nor does the situation reflect well on either the father or the younger son. The father has put his family honor in jeopardy; he has behaved in a foolhardy way. And the son, in requesting the right of disposition, has in effect pronounced his father dead, because disposition of the property assumes his death. This is clearly reflected in the Greek text. The son requests his portion of the substance (ousia), and the narrator remarks that the father “divided his life [bios]  among them” (Bernard Brandon Scott Hear Then the Parable:  A Commentary on the Parable of Jesus. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1989, p. 111).

At one level, the narrative thus far may not surprise the hearer/reader, Scott observes. A dominant mytheme of the Hebrew patriarchal narrative is one in which “the line of Israel’s inheritance is often through a younger brother who leaves the house of their father to find their wealth,” and “there is something slightly scandalous or off-color in their stories; and they are the favorites.” This “mytheme of elder-and-younger-brother stories encourages an audience to expect the younger to be something of a rogue and the favorite.”

At a deeper level, however, the unfolding disaster is cause for anxious concern:

As the story progresses the son’s situation deteriorates. The narrative paints a picture of deep degradation and desperation. A famine, a feared scourge of the ancient world, draws the audience’s sympathy toward the son, for though he is responsible for his fate, he is not responsible for this downward turn. Now he moves to alleviate his situation. By joining a citizen of that country he attempts to reestablish his well-being and at the same time acknowledges that the break with his family is complete. He moves outside his own family, his own tribe, for help (Scott, p. 114).

His destitution is complete when he desires even the food he feeds the pigs and no one will give him anything. Having been reduced to “wanting to eat the pigs’ food”’ makes him “like an animal, so that he abandons even his humanity.” “He is without money and food, in a foreign land, without family, tribe, or even humanity” (Scott, p. 115). The father’s loss is truly great: the family bond is broken, their property has been alienated, it’s honor destroyed, seemingly beyond repair. The father rightly feels that his son is dead (15:24).

Striking here is how closely the narrative attends to the primary relationships of not only family but also of land and the sustenance for which the family depends on it. As noted above, the downward spiral of the narrative into tragedy is driven by famine no less than self-destructive behavior. And as Scott notes, the son’s sin is twofold: “On the one hand, by attaching himself to a foreigner and feeding pigs he has abrogated Judaism—his religion.  On the other hand, the loss of his inheritance is a sin before his father, for he will be unable to carry out his responsibility to take care of the old man, his familial responsibility. That which belongs to the family now belongs to foreigners.” So also the expected restoration of the younger son begins with the memory of food he doesn’t have; as Scott significantly notes, when the son “comes to himself” it is “his stomach” that “induced his return,” and it is the thought of the bread his father’s hired hands enjoy that drives the development of his strategy: “The son will become a hired hand, and therefore one entitled to bread.” This determination actually causes an unexpected shift in the emotional tone of the account thus far, Scott observes, because “nourishment is associated with female, maternal metaphors, and the family-system repertoire has cast the family in the especially male terms of property, inheritance, and the legal code.  The mother, the unspoken binary of the father, is here implied in the son’s starvation,” for which reason Scott renames the parable as “I Remember Mama”.

The importance of the emphasis on land and the sustenance it provides is an aspect of the narrative which is underscored by the first reading for this Sunday, the account of the nation’s arrival under Joshua’s leadership in the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Joshua 5:6). The people have passed through the divided waters of the Jordan River at Gilgal and have been circumcised; they then kept the Passover, and “on the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain . . . they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year (Joshua 5:9-12). Indeed, the plot of the parable follows that of the Gilgal crossing further: when the spiral of the son’s descent is reversed, the son is first rescued from foreign domination, and then, as for the people at Gilgal, from his dishonor. As God says to Joshua: “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt” (5:9). Likewise the father immediately directs his slaves to take action that show that the son is being restored to his place “within his father’s honor.” As Scott argues,

The best robe must surely be that of the father himself, the son and the father are thus placed in the same place. The ring, probably a signet ring, gives the son power and status. For servants to place sandals on the son’s feet indicates his superiority over them. The first set of orders moves in the direction of the father as patriarchal head restoring his son to his proper place of honor in a hierarchical system. The father’s gifts are not simply necessities, do not simply clothe the naked. The father is making his son an object of honor. The son’s place, which has been abrogated by his loss of the property, is now restored (Scott, p. 118).

Sustenance continues to be an important sub-theme, all the same: “The killing of the fatted calf and the feast correlate with the theme of nourishment. The son has been starving, now he will be feasting. The two sets of symbols are not contrasted but woven together into the full theme of restoration” (Scott, p. 118). Thus the reversal here is not just about repentance of the son in relationship to the forgiving father. It is also about restoration to a state of well-being that embraces the entire family and its farm, and looks forward to their future lived in community.

The significance of this full restoration is clear when one recalls the mytheme with which Jesus’ audience and Luke’s early readers might have heard the story. Again Scott’s insights are important. The narrator, he points out, concludes this part of the parable . . .with the remark that “they began to make merry.” The celebration and joy encompass also the hearer. The father’s restoration of the son to honor restores the son in a hearer’s estimation. He is indeed the favorite who has found his way back to his father’s home. The hearer rejoices with the father in the return of the prodigal. The mytheme of the younger son story prepares the audience for his roguish behavior, for his being welcomed back, for his favorite status. In the actual telling, an audience can identify with both the father’s joy and the son’s relief. Father, son, and audience go into the feast together (Scott, pp. 118-19).

What, then, might we surmise concerning Jesus’ audience, the angry scribes and Pharisees? We do well to remember here that the parable is directed at their opposition to Jesus’ eating with sinners. Might they have been moved by this narrative to amend their rejection of Jesus? The text doesn’t tell us anything about their response, of course, but we think not, because we have not actually arrived at the crucial point of the parable.

Into the joyful circle of father, reconciled, younger son and imagined reader steps the angry and alienated older brother. As Scott pictures the scene: “The son is ‘in the field,’ away from the father and yet still home. The metaphor signals objection and given the use of similar metaphors in the first part, failure. The son draws near but does not enter. Music and dancing stand for celebration.” Learning the reason for the celebration, he refuses to go in, rejecting his father’s welcome of his brother. We are once again thrown into a downward spiral of breaking relationships:

The father comes out of the house, just as he did at the approach of the younger son. But this son comes not as a humble prospective hired hand but as an arrogant elder brother whose refusal to eat with his father and brother shames them. Just as the younger son cut himself off from the father in the first act, so now the elder’s anger and refusal violate the Fourth Commandment and so cut him off just as surely from the father (Scott, p. 119-20).

The brother doesn’t see the situation that way, of course. “The younger son ‘ate up your life’” he reminds his father; “that is, the younger is no longer able to carry out his responsibility to provide for the father’ and likewise “the father has failed to live up to the demands of honor.” “This is the great insult” comments Scott, “that, according to the elder, the younger has compounded by consorting with prostitutes, violating the family’s bloodline.”

This now is the moment when Jesus’ opponents can be expected to identify their place in the narrative. Their view matches closely that of the older son, we can expect, over against the father who has vacated his own honor with the embrace of his prodigal son. As we saw in the texts for last Sunday, Jesus again exposes the incipient dualism of their rejection of Jesus and the company he keeps. The views of father and this elder son are completely opposite: while the father sees a son who was lost and now is found, “for the elder son, the younger is a profiteer, who is depraved,” while in the meantime, with the father’s inattention, he himself has become “slave to the father” who has taken advantage of faithful labor, while never giving him so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends. The brother and the scribes and Pharisees, we suggest, share that psychological state so well described by Jonathon Sacks in his book on religious violence, Not in God’s Name: this is “what happens when cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believed it ought to be.” Fully developed, this condition becomes ‘”a form of cognitive breakdown, an inability to face the complexities of the world, the ambivalences of human character, the caprices of history and the ultimate unknowability of God.” Coupled with religious conviction, “it makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim” (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, New York: Schocken Books, 2015, p. 48). We see signs of this in the brother’s speech: he regards himself as a victim of the father’s failure to maintain the family’s honor. He is as a slave in his own home; his brother, on the other hand, is scum, who gave himself over to debauchery and devoured the father’s property with prostitutes (15:30).

What will happen next in the aftermath of this exchange is left for the hearer to ponder: now again we might ask, will the elder brother relent and join the father in compassion? Or will he self-righteously resist? One might also ask, will the scribes and Pharisees who identify with that brother see the point and join the circle gathered around Jesus? Or will they move more deeply into their alienation and the violence it likely portends? Following Sacks’ description of the process, we can project the course of events: the religiously grounded dualism is . . .a virus that attacks the moral sense. Dehumanization destroys empathy and sympathy. It shuts down the emotions that prevent us from doing harm. Victimhood neglects moral responsibility. It leads people to say:  It wasn’t our fault, it was theirs. Altruistic evil recruits good people to a bad cause. It turns ordinary human beings into murderers in the name of high ideals” (Sacks, p. 54).

The narrative of the parable in the setting of Jesus’ confrontation with his opponents leaves this as an open possibility; and we know that the narrative of Jesus entry into Jerusalem will turn this possibility into reality. Before we move on to that grim continuation in the remaining Sundays of Lent, however, we need to pay close attention to how the parable itself actually ends.

To this point, Scott argues, the story still remains within the framework of the mytheme of elder-and-younger-brother stories of the patriarchal tradition mentioned above, which functions to explain why, of all the nations, God has chosen Israel; it “can tell in narrative and myth the fate of Israel” (Scott, p.124). So what happens next in the parable is astonishingly disruptive: the father says to the older son, “Child, you always are with me, and everything that is mine is yours.” The father sees this son not as a slave, but instead as a companion and co-owner of the farm (Scott, p. 121). This response, notes Scott “goes beyond a simple legal affirmation that the elder son is the one true heir. He addresses him as ‘child,’ not son. Teknon in the vocative denotes affection.  The greeting punctures the proper titles that have characterized this parable and moves the discourse to an entirely different level” Scott comments:

The parable’s scandal derives from its subversion of the mytheme’s power to resolve between the chosen and the rejected. The purpose of this mytheme, whether used to identify favoritism within the family or between Israel and the nations, is to decide who is the favorite, the chosen. But in the parable the elder son’s fate is not like Esau’s: he is not hated, nor does the younger receive Jacob’s portion. Actually, the elder is the heir “All that is mine is ours.” Nor is he banished: “I am always with you.” . . . this parable subverts a mytheme by which the kingdom decides between the chosen and rejected. Here the father rejects no one; both are chosen.

So we come to Scott’s emphatic, concluding point:

The father is interested neither in morality nor in inheritance. He is concerned with the unity of his sons . . . . In the parable, the kingdom is not something that decides between but something that unifies. The father does not reject. The metaphor for the kingdom is the father’s coming out, both for the younger son and for the elder. Apart from him is division and failure. In the parable, Jesus rejects any apocalyptic notion of some group’s being rejected at the expense of another. The parable radically rejects Israel’s self-understanding of itself as the favored younger son (Scott, p. 125).

But if Israel’s self-understanding is disrupted, so also is much of later Christian interpretation. As Scott notes, already in the writings of the Apostle Paul, we see that the young church used the mytheme of the two sons “to understand their own chosen status against those who had been previously chosen.” (See Sacks summary of the role of the Apostle Paul in development of the church’s use of the mytheme, pp. 92-98). Subsequently, in their interpretations of the parable, theologians of the church “naturally . . . identified themselves with the younger son, and faithless Israel with the elder.” Their reading, Scott insists, does violence to the parable. The parable’s message is that . . .the kingdom is universal, not particularist. The universalism, however, is not based on the rejection of some. All people are called, regardless of the script the mytheme requires of them. Universalism is not a banner to parade under, but its image is the welcoming of a child. Just as the Samaritan saves the Jew in the ditch, so the elder son inherits all. The audience must come to terms with one who in myth was rejected and in parable inherits all (Scott, p. 125).

It is instructive to note that Jonathan Sacks, our rabbinical guide to the phenomenon of dualism, though offering no interpretation of the parable, actually comes to the same universalist conclusion on the basis of a close reading of texts associated with the mytheme in the Hebrew Bible. We can’t recount his full argument here, but the following summary from his chapter on “The Rejection of Rejection” will indicate its relevance to interpreting the parable:

A tendency to think in terms of sibling rivalry is deeply rooted, genetically encoded, in the human mind. It can exist among good and religious persons. That is why it cannot be refuted, merely subverted, in the form of narratives that only reveal their full meaning to those who have undergone a long process of moral growth. It is not surprising that the interpretations I [Sacks] have given are missed by most readers of the text. But they exist; they have not been artificially read into the text. If so, we have just encountered the Bible’s own theological refutation of the mindset that says that human beings who stand outside our community of faith are somehow less than fully human. This is God’s reply to those who commit violence in his name. God does not prove his love for some by hating others. Neither, if we follow him, may we” (Sacks, p. 173; for Sacks’ helpful discussion of universalism, see his chapter on ‘The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love,” pp.189-206).

Sacks proposes his reading as a way through to reconciliation between the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our reading of the Parable of Two Sons offers the story as a resource in the struggle to combat social dualism in whatever form it might arise: as racism, sexism, in religious or class discrimination. But we think it also supports our concern for care of creation more generally.

 Along the way, we have taken care to note when an element of the material world enters the story: the lost sheep, a lost coin; the father’s property entrusted to a the younger son, but sold and its value traded away in his misadventure in an alien land subject to famine; a “remembering of mama,” the maternal source of nourishment; a homeland cared for by the elder son, for which he perhaps did not get due praise, but was nevertheless kept within the embrace of the father’s companionship. We can easily find correlates of each of these aspects of the narrative in the environmental crisis: as we have already suggested, lost species, squandered wealth that was meant to sustain life; the bad practices that make us so vulnerable to climate change. And then the way nature itself has of calling us to turn around: the younger son’s hunger for food and family causes him to come to himself, then to head home.

The Gospel narrative suggests that such conversion can take place in the company of Jesus. Here is where Pope Francis’ discussion of conversion in his Laudato’ Si seems especially relevant. Francis, writing as something of an alternative elder brother to the Christian community, remarks:

Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom (Pope Francis, On Care for our Common Home, Par. 205).

The elder son’s anger might cause him in resentment to abandon his role as caregiver: we have need of the skills of those who tend the earth closely, whether the organic farmer or his science-learned colleagues, for whom the earth’s fertility is rightly considered sacred gift. But most of all we have need of a God who welcomes us back to our common home, to resume the responsibility for its care that we should never have bargained away. “So what [we] all need”, Francis concludes, “is an ‘ecological conversion,’ whereby the effects of [our] encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in [our] relationship with the world around [us]. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Par. 217). Such conversions entail a rich assemblage of attitudes, he notes, in terms that might well represent learnings from the parable about the father who had two sons:

First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works. . . It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.  As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creatively and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems and in offering ourselves to God ‘as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable’ (Rom 12:1) (Par. 220) Cf. our comment on the texts for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C, 2016.)

Jesus invited tax collectors and sinners into his circle of life, but also the scribes and Pharisees, seeking the unity of the kingdom offered in the parable. That will not occur this side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We can nonetheless note with hope the remarkable consonance between our readings for this Sunday, as we hear from the Apostle Paul a promise of reconciliation in “a new creation:”

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).

This promise comes from the very heart of the God who in love embraces all creation.

Suggested hymns of the day: ELW 651 Oh, Praise the Gracious Power

                                        ELW 606  Our Father, We have Wandered

Prayer petition: Gracious creator, all creation finds its unity in you.  We confess our habit of separating ourselves out from neighbor and nature, and our stubborn refusal to accept your reconciling love.  Spare us from hateful resentments and the harm they bring to our common home. We thank you for coming to meet us in Jesus Christ, and welcoming us to this glad celebration.  Lord in your mercy . . .

Second Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

by Dennis Ormseth

Second Sunday in Lent in Year C

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17- 4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Jesus’ encounter with “some Pharisees” in the Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent serves to draw the reader into the atmosphere of fear that will haunt Luke’s narrative from this point forward. Whether or not the Pharisees genuinely intend to befriend Jesus is doubtful; more likely is that Luke’s report is intended to remind the reader that the mission of Jesus takes place under threat of the royal tyrant who killed John the Baptist. As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, the Pharisees have heretofore rejected Jesus as a prophet, and “after his attack on them, have a ‘deep resentment’ against him which they put into action by seeking to trap him in what he says (11:53)” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 221).

Thus the report of Herod’s intent to kill Jesus illustrates well how the domination system functions to suppress prophetic disruption: laying hold of Herod’s reputation for brutality, the Pharisees seek to get Jesus to cease and desist from his mission. As Johnson describes the exchange,

we discover the malice and hypocrisy of the Pharisaic message. If Jesus “must” (dei) suffer in the city, that means that it is God’s plan and that he is a prophet. But we have already learned about the lawyers and Pharisees that they reject prophets and “reject God’s plan” (7:30). So the message about Herod is in reality a test. If Jesus does seek to save himself, he is exposed as a fraudulent prophet. If he does go on to the city, they will indeed need to confront his claims explicitly and reject them explicitly . . . [T]his message is a helpful ploy. They may yet turn Jesus from his appointed path” (Johnson, p. 221).

As before at the beginning of this chapter, however, when Jesus was similarly informed of Pilate’s  murder of Galileans, (part of next Sunday’s Gospel reading, we note), his reply is a stunning refusal to heed their duplicitous concern: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’” (13:32-33). He thus counters the threat, first by exposing it as a stratagem of a wily fox meant to intimidate him—(Is it perhaps these Pharisees themselves who are the fox?).  And, secondly, by pointing to his works of healing, for which any truly responsible person of authority would in fact be grateful. Indeed, he counters, it is their rejection of him that endangers the people: He would be for Jerusalem as a hen with its brood, sheltering them under her wings—an image of God’s compassion and protection, as at Deuteronomy 32:11 and Psalm 91:4. Their rejection of him, on the other hand, will lead to the abandonment of the people’s house, a prediction of the destruction of the Temple, and so the abandonment of the people by God (Johnson, p. 216, 219, translates v. 35 with an awkward passive sense, “Look, your house is being left,” and interprets it as either a performative pronouncement, meaning the rejection of the people who reject the prophet,” or as “a prophetic prediction of the destruction of the Temple.”)

Jesus’ twofold response to the Pharisees’ attempt to intimidate him thus models his refusal to be deterred in the fulfillment of his mission. As with Satan in the wilderness, he resists that temptation to seek his own well-being, and he continues on his way of healing. And at the heart of that response is clearly something fundamental to his mission. In his commentary on this passage, David Tiede points out that Luke is concerned here to “indicate that Jesus was obedient only to God’s will as he set his face “to go” to Jerusalem. His “word plays on the Greek terms ‘to go’ . . . and ‘to will’ or ‘intend’ hold the passage together” and drive the action forward. The exchange represents a “powerful clash of wills and intentions” between Jesus and his opponents, in which “Jesus’ ‘action’ and ‘being directed’ are a unity of will” (David L.Tiede, Augburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988. p. 256-7). His action in resisting the joint domination project of Herod and the Pharisees is sustained by his obedience to God’s will.

As with the readings for the First Sunday of Lent,  the account of God’s covenant with Abram in our first reading provides textual context which further illuminates the significance of this encounter and Jesus’ obedience to God’s will for our relation to God’s creation.  At stake in this narrative is God’s promise to Abram of progeny and land, for which, as Abram points out, contrary to God’s pledge (“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”) he has at this point no evidence of God’s will to keep. God’s response is again structured in two parts, first the reiteration of the promise regarding progeny, accompanied by a sign, directing Abram to behold the stars. We readily recognize the phenomenon: the multitude of stars in the heavens inspires awe at the beauty and the plenitude of God’s creation. And accordingly, the text tells us in a passage that will echo later in the writings of the Apostle Paul, and subsequently in the reformation led by Martin Luther: Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6).

The implications of fulfilling this promise are nonetheless fraught with conflict. The text next turns to the promise of land, which is complicated by the reality that the land is already filled with the nations that are listed at v.19 (not included in our reading). The land was already as full as Sarah’s womb was empty. The sign in this instance comes in the form of a dream in the darkness of a deep sleep, following on what is for modern readers a mysterious animal sacrifice which God directs Abram to make. The ritual of cutting animal carcasses in two, laying them out over against each other, Frederick Niedner explains, is a covenant ceremony of an ancient type in which parties pledge to keep their word to one another on penalty of death. After Abram cuts in half the animals God has directed him to collect, God in effect declares, “If I fail to keep my word about your having all this land, you may do to me as we have done to these animals here slaughtered (Frederick A Niedner, “First Sunday of Lent,” in New Proclamation, Year 2003-2004, Advent through Holy Week, Harold W. Rant, ed, Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003, p. 156).

The “deep and terrifying darkness” of Abram’s dream evokes the genuine terror attending to the prospect of taking possession of the land as God promises. But the fire of God proceeds through the bloody halves of sacrifice animals, anticipating the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, led by a cloud and a pillar of fire through the two halves of the sea. There will indeed be a “tremendous clash of wills and intentions” before this narrative is played out. But there is a way through the problem of possession of the land to the enjoyment of its blessings by the children of Abraham. Against the fear and doubt with which the episode began, Abram’s faith is strengthened by this image of the absolute will of God to fulfill God’s promises.

So also does Jesus go to Jerusalem, impelled by a confidence in God’s eventual blessing that is like unto Abram’s. Jesus, Luke tells us, goes in confidence that he will be greeted with the hosannas announcing God’s blessing on “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (13:35). Terry Fretheim makes a distinction between blessings that are “constitutive,” as opposed to merely “creational,” that helps us see the significance of this blessing:

The creational blessings are life-enabling and life-enhancing, but they are finally not sufficient for the fullest possible life. The constitutive blessings mediated through the elect are essential if the best life possible is to be experienced for everyone. They bring focus and intensity to the blessings of creation, make them more extensive and abundant, and decisively give new shape to both the human self and the larger community. Through relationships with the chosen family, life for individuals and communities has the potential of becoming even more correspondent to God’s will for goodness and well-being in creation . . . . The larger issue at stake in the divine choice of this family is a universal one: the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life (Terrence E Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament;  A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 107).

The necessity of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is of the order of the Abrahamic, constitutive blessing. He goes to Jerusalem as Abram went down into Egypt and returns, trusting in God’s promises to bring him through the darkness of conflict over possession and control of the land. He thus carries forward the vocation of bearers of God’s covenantal promise. In and through this journey, God is working to address larger issues than simply the bad behavior of Herod and the treachery of the Pharisees. Dwelling in the land is creational blessing; dwelling in it in a way that is beneficial to all of its inhabitants and its neighbors is blessing of another order.

Accordingly, what a church brings to its community “in the name of the Lord” ought to aspire to such higher order blessing. This is an important realization for people of faith dwelling in the United States of America. As is commonly observed, and today much emphasized in relationship to our will and capacity for welcoming refugees and migrants, we are a nation of immigrant peoples. It is a matter of great creational blessing to live here and enjoy the land’s great bounty—at least for those of us who are privileged to live in communities whose wealth and educational level can be counted upon for a high standard of living. But who will provide for us the Abrahamic blessing that expands the circle of well-being to include all? Who does so sustainably in relationship to the land on into our common future? The episode of our Gospel suggests it could be the followers of Jesus, the Christian churches; and in truth, the first reading suggests we could be that in concert with other assemblies of Abrahamic faith. The point is, how do the people of God become a constitutive blessing in the land, rather than just another group in contention for dwelling space and the creational blessings that accrue to that space as we bring it under our control?

Our country’s history is marked by the contentions that are always more about domination of territory for the blessings it provides than about the general well-being that they can be used to create. We all have our battle fields and monuments, our flag poles, and our competing spires rising over the landscape to mark our claims to dominance; what are the strategies we need to engage to order to, in Fretheim’s words, “reclaim the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life”? The readings have at least given us a place to start: attend to the marvelous works of creation to be inspired by the awesome and gracious creativity of our Creator; resist the politics of fear by carrying out acts of healing in creation wherever there is opportunity, whether for humankind or other-kind: resist the threats of the wily fox, be the sheltering wings for frightened and hurting people, whether they be “our own” or “those others;” pray with the psalmist for God to “teach us God’s way and lead us on a level path,” always hoping to see “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And above all, be both patient and persevering: “be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:11-14). “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way,” says Jesus. On the third day his work will be done. We see the pattern: the promises of God are about life after death, about new life in the land because the power of death has been faced in faith, and about the wonderful new possibilities that rise on the other side.

Suggested Hymn of the Day: ELW 327 “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow.”

Prayer Petition: God of all creation, you are the stronghold of our lives. Shield us from the temptation to give into the destructive powers that would intimidate us. By your promises of loving care, draw us out of fearful responses to the crises of racial justice and ecological harm that confront us. Show us your way through them to reconciliation with all those with whom you share our homeland, and to restoration of the earth on whose well-being our common life depends. Lord in your mercy.

First Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

First Sunday in Lent in Year C

by Dennis Ormseth

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:12, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “discloses the inner character of Jesus’ sonship as one of simple obedience.” Following so quickly upon the identification of Jesus as God’s Son in his baptism, Luke’s sequence of temptations and responses reveals the characteristics and quality of that sonship. In “winning this most fundamental battle of the heart,” Jesus shows himself to be “true minister of God’s kingdom, obedient to the one who commissioned him (Luke 1:16), so that in all he does “God is with him” (Acts 10:38)” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 75).

That is not to say that Jesus’ victory over Satan is merely spiritual, without external consequence. Each temptation, Johnson notes, “involves a seizure of palpable power: the theurgic ability to change the elements of creation, the political and military control of humans, the capacity to force God’s protection.” Read “against the backdrop of first-century Palestinian political upheaval and popular messianic expectation”’ we can “recognize that, in Luke’s understanding, Jesus eschewed the option of a violent, military, zealot vision of God’s kingdom in Israel.” Furthermore, of particular interest to our concern for eco-justice, Johnson suggests that Luke’s Christian readers can “learn something of their own path from the conscious decision of the ‘Lord Christ’ to choose other than a violent way to be Messiah, who rejected power over nature to serve his appetite, over humans for the sake of glory, over God for his own survival, in favor of the ‘path of peace’” (Johnson, 76-77). Applied to our racial and environmental crises, we might learn to resist unrestrained technological transformation of nature along with the oppression of those who are “other” than ourselves, by way of acknowledging that our status as children of God calls for trusting acceptance of our place amidst God’s creation and our human neighbors.

This last point is deeply significant. As Johnson points out, the placement of the third temptation on the high pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem leads to the “dizzying suggestion that Jesus test his sonship against the promise of God to protect him.” Noting that the devil quotes from Psalm 91 (appointed for congregational use this Sunday), “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone,” Johnson comments, “How clever, for what is the radical obedience of the servant except something very close to just such a blind leap? But Jesus does not succumb to this spiritual vertigo.” Anticipating the coming development of Luke’s narrative, Johnson observes that Jesus returns to the central text of Deut 6:13,“You will not test the Lord your God” not only to rebuke the tempter but also to state the conviction of authentic faith. Jesus will not force the Father’s hand. He will be the servant who “hears as those who are taught” (Isa 50:4), and who “walks in darkness yet trusts in the name of the Lord” (Isa 50:10), so that from a subsequent high place he can cry out while leaping, this time with his own choice of words from the Psalm, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Ps 30:6 [lxx]) (Johnson,p. 76-77).

Jesus’ refusal of the divine exceptionalism associated with the protection of angels as the meaning of his sonship, in other words, is driven by a central conviction of faith that will sustain him throughout his mission. That mission will not involve the domination of nature and nations that the temptations offer. The prospect of dominating nature, it is interesting to note, is addressed not only in the first temptation, but also at least implicitly here in the third. With his refusal to “test God,” Jesus has also sidestepped a second sign of divine favor mentioned by Psalm 91, although not quoted by Satan. The promised protection is extended in the psalm to his relationship to predators of the animal kingdom: “you will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot” (91:13). So Jesus’ refusal of the temptation avoids as inappropriate to his sonship the domination of these creatures, in spite of their inherent danger to human life.

The location of the temple suggests a fuller development of the significance of this third temptation, in terms of the relationship between the people of Israel and the land. The temple is the sacred site where pilgrims bring their annual offering in the ritual described in our first reading from Deuteronomy 26, part of Moses’ farewell address to Israel as they enter the land. As Frederick Neidner explains,

In the new land, the people must remember to give thanks for all they have as gifts from God, and the ritual prescribed here instructs them how to do that. They will give thanks for having become a mighty and populous nation (v.5); for release from affliction, toil, and oppression (v. 7); for the inheritance of “a land flowing with milk and honey” (vv. 1, 9); and for the fruit of that land and of their own labors upon it (v. 10).

The ritual, that is to say, is recognition of the favor God has shown the people in the exodus from Egypt and settlement in the land. The “wanderers” were literally “’perishing,’ on the verge of being completely lost.” Each participant in the ritual confesses this as a present reality, “and not as one for whom that endangered state now resides in some hazy past.” “From such a threatened place and condition”, comments Neidner, “God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm rescued us from extinction. Surely all we have is purely a gift” (Frederick A Niedner, “First Sunday of Lent,” in New Proclamation, Year 2003 – 2004, Advent through Holy Week, Harold W. Rant, ed, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, pp. 147-48). It is important to note, then, that the feast that follows the ritual in celebration of the people’s well-being is to include those who have no inheritance in the land, namely the Levites and aliens who reside with them. They are to join equally with those who have wandered the wilderness and were “on the verge of being completely lost.” And as Niedner points out, Deuteronomy frequently stipulates that the people of Israel as a whole must look out for these groups who can claim no land of their own (12:18; 14:26-29; 16:11, 14).” The association of this reading with the Gospel suggests, then, that as well as rejecting domination over nature, Jesus’ refusal of the third temptation is clearly in line with this awareness of the land as gift and the inclusion of the landless aliens: one does not need to dominate the Earth or its creatures in order to gain assurance of God’s favor. As Niedner comments with reference to our own situation, “It comes naturally to think we brought ourselves here with our own mighty hand and determined arm. . . We engage in fatal deception when we allow ourselves to become gods and guarantors of life in the land of our own promises” (Neidner, p. 148).

Further consideration of the connection between the temple site of the third temptation and the ritual instructions given by Moses leads to a broader generalization of the point being made here. The site of the temple reminds us that in the creation account of Genesis 1, now commonly attributed to priestly authors, the assignment of kingly dominion in creation was a primary aspect of human responsibility. Jesus’ refusal of domination over nature and over nations would accordingly suggest that he rejects that understanding of dominion as the power to dominate, which Lynn White made a central critique of the Christian tradition’s anthropology. (For a brief and accessible discussion of White’s essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” see Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, lTheology, and the Pulpit, St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2015, pp. 23-26). It is also significant; however, that Moses’ instruction regarding the gift of the first produce of the land involves the farmer, whose anthropological interests are advanced in the creation account in Genesis 2 and 3, counterbalancing the dominion language of Genesis 1 with a vision of the human as servant of the soil. And if there is a princely presence in Moses’ reference to “house” at the end of his instruction, the structure of the ritual suggests that the agrarian relationship to the land, one of “serving and keeping,” would apply to the rule of the king (See Norman Wirzba’s fine argument for the servant motif in his The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 123-145).

Indeed, this counterbalancing of priestly and agrarian perspectives reminds us that seeking favor in the eyes of God is in general fraught with trouble. It belongs to the Genesis narrative of creation that the first offerings given by Cain and Abel became the occasion for the first murder, leading to alienation between humans and the ground they were to care for. As we read in Genesis 4:4-5: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Two consequences follow immediately: first, the episode introduces into the biblical narrative the theme of sibling resentment and rivalry so central to Israel’s story in its entirely. God’s admonition to Cain is good counsel that will apply repeatedly, including in Jesus’ teaching: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). And, secondly, when Cain fails to master sin and murders his brother, the alienation of the people from the land follows immediately: God says to Cain, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:10-12).

The desire to dominate thus leads simultaneously to resentment and violence between humans, on the one hand, and the loss of the land’s ability to sustain the people, on the other. Moses’ instructions indicate that in some measure the entry into the land and the enjoyment of its first fruits meant release from this dual curse: their wandering has come to an end and the land is fruitful, so the ritual of the first fruits can be joyfully celebrated by all who dwell there. So when Jesus refused to test God’s favor, was he also sidestepping this whole area of conflict? Or, in refusing the temptation to dominate nature and nations, was he not actively preparing to restore the relationship between land and people? Might his sonship and his mission seek this restoration for the whole creation? These are questions we shall have occasion to return to later in this Season of Lent.

Suggested Hymn of the Day: “O Christ, What Can It mean for Us” ELW 431

Prayer Petition: Gracious God, you are source and goal of all creation, both humankind and otherkind together. In this season of Lent, strengthen our hearts to resist the dreams and habits of domination that alienate us from each other. Lead us into Jesus’ way of peace so that we might reconcile with our neighbor and seek the restoration of your creation. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

First Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Blessed are those who walk lightly on the Earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013

The First Sunday in Lent in Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Romans 10:5-15
Luke 4:1-13

The most distinctive contribution that Lutherans bring to care for creation is the same distinctive contribution that Lutherans bring to Christian ethics generally, and it is a paradoxical notion: being saved by grace through faith apart from works is a doctrine that, far from discouraging works of justice and mercy in the world, actually FREES Christians for such works.

This was the thesis elaborated by Luther in his celebrated 1520 treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian.” While that treatise’s famous early lines (“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone”) have become famous as a Lutheran slogan, it is worth remembering the logic that stands behind that formulation. According to Luther, when we feel that we must compile a list of praiseworthy works done for God and neighbor – a kind of spiritual CV – in order to merit salvation, then the works that we perform are not REALLY for the sake of God or neighbor; they are for ourselves and our own self-interest. However, when we realize that God does not require such a compendium of works from us, that indeed our salvation is soteriologically prior to our own efforts and thus renders moot any attempt at self-justification, then we are truly free to do works of kindness for the neighbor FOR THE NEIGHBOR’S sake. Freedom from self-justification frees us for service.

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a story of how our Savior eschews finite, unsatisfactory “freedoms” in obedience to higher freedom. Satan offers Jesus a series of highly perishable freedoms, all related to displays of power and ownership. With his refusal to turn bread into stone or to demonstrate his favored status with God by casting himself off of the cliff, Jesus offers a demonstration of the power of humility as favorably compared with “miraculous” displays of magic—a demonstration captured even more poignantly when the one whom the church regards as “Lord” of the very cosmos refuses the ironic offer of a relatively paltry prize (“all the kingdoms of the world”). While the church has often read this story as a paradigmatic instance of spiritual trial and overcoming, the more profound philosophical point is one of freedom—Jesus, by refusing to acquiesce to self-justification, is freed to carry out his ministry of service and mercy.

And we, who are Christ’s body, have a similar chance to participate in this freedom. When Paul in Romans describes the benefits that accrue to those who are justified in their belief in the Lordship of Christ, the undercurrent of freedom is apparent. If Luther is reading Paul correctly (which Lutherans believe he was!), then to believe that justification comes through Christ and not through our works is to unburden ourselves from being self-creators, and to embrace the authentic freedom that comes with being creatures in the graciously humble sense of that term (cf. Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003). Such humility—the humility that frees, the humility that allows for genuine service—is a powerful theme for us to ponder as the church begins its Lenten journey this Sunday.

Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian who was one of the first to turn the attention of Christian ethics to creation care, was fond of recounting a story of his grandmother’s Bible’s translation of Matthew 5:5 (often translated into English as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”). Sittler was stymied as to how it could be said that the “meek” would possess the Earth in an age when oil companies, multinational corporations, and aggressive governments are busy slicing and dicing the Earth into owned turf. He received insight, though, when he realized that his French-speaking grandmother’s Bible translated the verse as “blessed are the debonair.” It is the debonair that shall inherit the Earth. Further word study on Sittler’s part disclosed that, in its original connotation, to be “debonair” is to walk lightly upon the earth; to grasp things lightly, without too much concern about owning them. For Sittler, the lesson of Matthew 5 became a countercultural lesson about gospel freedom: to walk lightly on the earth, to live on earth in such a way as to receive its gifts without grasping them too tightly, is to be free (cf. Sittler’s video “The Debonair Giant,” available at http://www.josephsittler.org).

How powerful, then, to read Deuteronomy 26 in that light! As Gentiles grafted onto the tree of Judaism (“for there is neither Jew nor Greek”), graciously received in baptism as God’s children and God’s people, we are inheritors of “the land”—and as followers of the Lord of the cosmos, we are free to understand “the land” as the entire ecological matrix that sustains us; the web of nature that is, as Sittler would have it, the “placenta” in which all humanity finds its life. When we, following Jesus, refuse the temptation to exert lordly power by relating to the land in terms of “ownership” and instead receive it lightly, as God’s gracious gift—it is then that we are free. And Christian freedom is freedom to serve. Freedom to care. Freedom to be on the side of life and all that sustains it.

To receive the land is gift; to receive, in Christ, the freedom to walk lightly as creatures and not gods upon that land is vocation.

For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Introduction to the Season of Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary for Lent in Year C 2016
by Dennis Ormseth

Introduction to the Season

Towards the end of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter on racism to his son, the author encourages the young man to continue the struggle of his people. “Struggle for your ancestors . . . for wisdom . . . for the warmth of the Mecca [a reference to Coates’ experience of African American community at Howard University] . . . for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name,” he writes. “But do not struggle for the Dreamers,” meaning the white community with its pervasive assumptions of privilege and domination. “Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved,” he allows his son, having disavowed any religious convictions of his own. “But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015, p. 151). In their Dream, he has explained, the white community are “Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers,” “an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans . . . built on the destruction of the body” (Coates, p.143). And, in a statement of potentially great consequence and interest for this series of ecojustice commentaries, Coates further observes that the Dreamers’ technological progress has freed them “to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” In Coates’ view, that is, the crisis of American racism and the crisis of the earth are in reality of a piece: The Dream “is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos” (Coates, p. 151).

Coates’ low expectation that Christian faith might constitute a resource for overcoming racism aside, the texts for the Season of Lent in this year C of the lectionary provide a compelling opportunity to test the validity of this observation. If there is a common root to these crises, as he suggests, it would give the church a common focus to address in its work on creation care and racial justice, concerns that are often in competition with each other for attention and resources. And the texts for the season do speak powerfully to the situation he describes as the white context of his son’s struggle. The mythic narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the Gospel for the First Sunday, constitutes something of a counter-dream, in which Jesus refuses domination over both creation and the nations of the earth. And in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ body is anointed for death at the hands of the Roman Empire. Between these bookends, Jesus encounters the domination of his people by King Herod; he laments the brutality and destruction his people suffer, but he encourages them to hope for new life with the parable of a fig tree rescued by its patient farmer; he teaches them in parables about a shepherd who refuses to accept the loss of a single sheep from his herd, a woman who resists the loss of the smallest coin, a father who welcomes home a lost son and refuses to accept the resentment and alienation of the elder brother. With these images drawn from life on the farm, from the life of the poor in the city, and from life in a troubled family, he resists the view that there is no hope for his way of peace. Applied to our situation, can we believe that a God imaged in this way would accept the loss of whole species from creation, or the waste of wealth meant to sustain in life all a nation’s people? Wouldn’t such a God also act to remove the resentment and violence that plagues all human families, including our own?

The extended narrative of these texts selected by the church for reading on its Lenten journey, this is to suggest, squarely addresses the habit of domination that Coates perceptively identifies as the common cause of the dual crisis we face today, of a world in conflict about racial and religious difference and of a dying habitat that endangers all creation, humankind and otherkind. We will develop this argument in the commentary on the lectionary readings for the six Sundays of Lent and Passion Sunday. As we turn to that task, it is important to note that the lectionary also provides a second narrative track drawn from the Hebrew scriptures, with which we can further develop our proposal and assess the widely shared assumption, expressed by Coates, that the biblical narrative holds little relevance or power for a response to these crises that bridges our cultural divides. We will see Moses giving counsel to the people of Israel on how to live in the land to which he has brought them out of the wilderness; we will revisit the prior promise to Abraham concerning the gift of that land and the deeply conflicted history of its possession; we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s vision of restoration signified by deep, flowing waters in the desert; and we will share in the people’s joy as Joshua celebrates the Passover and, for the first time, eats produce of the land. And finally, as Mary anoints Jesus’ body with precious oils, we will lean in to learn of the “new thing” promised by Isaiah. With the summation of these readings occasioned by the climactic account of Jesus’ passion, we should be able to see whether our thesis “holds water,” so to speak—the water of new life promised along the way in the Psalms appointed for these Sundays. Does the narrative of Jesus’ life and death speak powerfully to the human and environmental crises of our time or not? And if so, what does our observance of this season offer by way of well-grounded hope that the church, as body of Christ, might now be inspired to participate actively in addressing simultaneously both racial injustice and the restoration of God’s creation?

The Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year C

By Tom Mundahl

Exodus 34: 29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4:2

Luke 9: 28-36 [37-43]

As we complete the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany complex, once more we dress the altar, lectern, and ministers in bright white to celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, a festival that crystallizes the meaning of the incarnation and anticipates resurrection. This is a Sunday of mystery which needs to be experienced, not explained. As Karl Rahner wrote a generation ago: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he [sic] will cease to be anything at all” (quoted in Bernard McGinn, “The Future of Past Spiritual Traditions,” Spiritus, Vol. 15, No. 1, p 1). This week’s texts are rich in just this way.

For example, the appointed psalm, a hymn of enthronement, sets our theme by describing the holiness of the LORD, enthroned upon the cherubim of the ark of the covenant, with power to make the earth quake (Psalm 99:1). The triple refrain, “Holy is he” (vv. 3, 5, 9) suggests the depth of response to the mysterium tremendum of God’s holy presence. Mays compares this psalm to Isaiah’s throne vision. (Isaiah 6) Just as Isaiah of Jerusalem would never be the same after this experience, so those performing and appropriating this psalm are now invited to see God and creation in a new way (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 316).

Much the same can be said of this week’s First Lesson, describing Moses’ second return from the heights of Sinai with new tablets engraved with the commandments. This time there was no golden calf (Exodus 32), but Moses’ “face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29). Moses veiled his face so that those looking would not be blinded—except when he shared the word of God with the people. How can we even begin to comprehend the meaning of this brightness?

Perhaps we could say that it marks Moses apart as the one “ordained” to bring God’s word to the people, much like a liturgical minister dressed in white alb, stole, and chasuble for eucharistic service—or even more so, an Orthodox wearing vestments that  shine with the brightness of gold threads! But because Moses cannot “divest” himself of this brightness, might we not say that “in some sense he embodies that word” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 311). That is, Moses’ shining face is the only vision of the “face of God” safely available to the community.

But if Moses embodies that word, what does “embodiment” mean? Perhaps there is also a sense of “bodying forth” in the midst of creation. As Fretheim suggests, “The human response can never simply be to believe or speak; it must also mean to do, to re-embody the word in the world. Moreover, the word is imaged in a shining, a radiance, a brilliance, an incandescence, a fieriness. As such it evokes freshness, vividness, intensity and splendor . . . . As such, it evokes ardor, zeal, vigor and vitality” (Fretheim, p. 312). That is, the beauty and splendor of holiness points beyond wobbly knees to new imaginative ways of living and being together, a quality we draw on each time we use the Aaronic benediction.

While the interpretive schema used by Paul in this week’s Second Reading are clearly not adequate (e.g. “what once had glory has lost its glory because of greater glory;” 2 Corinthians 3:10), perhaps Paul is closer to the mark as he examines his relationship to Corinthian believers. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our (your?) hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). He could almost be echoing the baptismal exhortation, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”

The brightness only increases as Jesus ascends the mountain of transfiguration. Luke begins to differ from the Markan source immediately, writing that Jesus went up the mountain “about eight days after these sayings” (Luke 9: 28). While ecclesiastical tradition has come  to understand “the eighth day” as the beginning of new creation, commentators point out that Luke may be insuring that even though the identity of Jesus as prophet-messiah is clear, he is not simply “a prophet like (equivalent to) Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Moses went up to the mountain “after six days;” Jesus, the greater one, begins his climb “about the eighth day.”

What may be more important for understanding the significance of the transfiguration in Luke is the fact that he brackets the narrative with nearly the same phrase, in those days (v. 28, “it happened after eight days”) that he uses for the Zechariah-Elizabeth (Luke 1:5, 24), Mary’s journey to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39), and the beginning of the birth narrative (Luke 2:1). The same phrase is repeated at the completion of our pericope (v. 36): “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Certainly this “inclusio” highlights the importance of the transfiguration to Luke.

Its significance is found particularly in Luke’s special material. Unique to his account is the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.” They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodus), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 31). This “exodus” carries at least a two-fold meaning: first, the journey that Jesus would embark on with his followers to Jerusalem with all of its teaching and other events (9:51-19:27), and second, the “exodus” of his physical death—resurrection—ascension which are so central to Luke-Acts, and the substance of “these sayings” as the transfiguration narrative begins. (Frederick Danker, Jesus and the New Age–A Commentary of St. Luke’s Gospel, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 199)

This is all missed by the disciples accompanying Jesus who had fallen asleep. As they awakened, they not only saw the extraordinary brightness, but determined that Moses and Elijah were beginning to depart. So Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). After all, Peter and the others had missed “the fireworks” and perhaps, if they built dwellings called for by the Feast of Booths, they might be able to prolong the experience and “capture” the glory of God. Even more revealing in Peter’s suggestion is the equal accommodation all three “prophets” receive. To correct this, suddenly a terrifying nimbus of divine presence overshadows them. From this murkiness a voice emerges, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts –A Literary Interpretation, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, p. 224). The voice seems both to point back to Jesus’ first passion prediction (Luke 9:18-27) and ahead to things that are to come as the “exodus” unfolds.

While Luke does not contain the Markan command to keep silent about all of this, the evangelist tells us, “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” (Luke 9:36). What is the significance of this epiphany? Is it, as Tannehill and other commentators suggest, “an anticipatory vision of Jesus’ glory,” that is, “a vision of Jesus as he will be when, through resurrection and exaltation, he begins the messianic reign”? (Tannehill, p. 223). Or, in fact, is it just the opposite? Because the  disciples sleep through the spectacular events, but do hear the words “listen to him”—another example of Luke’s aversion to apocalyptic demonstrations—is the message to pay close attention to the teacher?

I would suggest that both are the case—Luke surely had a reason to place the conversation concerning the “exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:32) within this numinous setting bracketed by time references, “after about eight days” (9:28) and “in those days told no one” (9:36). This certainly suggests a different kind of time, a time that had taught interpreters to see the “eighth day” as symbol of new creation. For the silent inner circle of disciples—despite failures during Jesus’ arrest—were empowered by the Spirit—wind and flame—to proclaim, in essence, new creation on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21). In this view, the transfiguration demonstrates that “there is a depth to the world’s reality out of which comes the light that will connect, around and in Jesus Christ, all the complex pain and hope of creation” (Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light –Praying with Icons of Christ, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, p.10).

Yet, Luke’s placement of the transfiguration immediately prior to his “travel narrative” is a way of reminding the community that the Risen One is “still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians . . . .” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). That is, the assemblies or worship gatherings are precisely where followers still “listen to him,” baptize, and share in the Eucharist, experiencing the transfiguration necessary to serve all of creation. Following Fretheim’s lead, we might say that just as Moses’ radiance conveyed torah—words to be embodied—so the mostly hidden, but still available, brightness of the Risen One calls forward fresh and vivid approaches to passionate justice for all creatures. It is no accident that the Greek word for beauty (kalos) is also the word for goodness. As the beautiful liturgy of worship is completed with the “sending”—“go in peace, serve all creation,” it now is transfigured into the raw ingredients of justice: making “faith active in love.”

Notice that Lathrop described the Risen One as continuing to journey to the assemblies of Christians. While sometimes these are on cruise ships, or buses stuck in blizzards, most often they are at home. Amy Jill-Levine claims that the horizons of Judaism and Christianity differ markedly: Judaism maintains a goal of “making aliyah,” or, literally going home to Jerusalem, while Christianity moves toward what she calls “the goal of the eschatological end zone” (The Misunderstood Jew, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006, p. 199). But surely she mistaken in this regard. 

Instead of “the eschatological end zone,” we live toward “new creation” by planting trees with leaves, if not for the healing of the nations, at least for the enhancement of beauty and the nourishment of birds and pollinators in our back yards, parks, and boulevards. That is, just as “we listen in our local assemblies,” so we embody the brightness of transfiguration by building and planting at home. Luther is reputed to have advocated just such an action when a student asked, “Doctor Luther, what would you do if you knew the earth was to end tomorrow?” He replied, “I would plant an apple tree today.” This is not to say that we will relinquish travel and investigation of this miraculous planet. As T. S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,”

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

That sounds like truly being at home.

Hymn Suggestions for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Gathering—“Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair”  ELW 316

Hymn of the Day—“Holy God, Holy and Glorious”  ELW 637

Sending—“Alleluia, Song of Gladness” ELW  318

Petition for Intercessory Prayer

God of all-surpassing glory, in the transfiguration you show us the brightness and energy of your new creation. Reflect that brightness through us as we serve and learn from all that you have made. God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN    tmundahl@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

By Tom Mundahl

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Psalm 71: 1-6

1 Corinthians 13: 1-13

Luke 4: 21-30

In a talk entitled “Health is Membership,” occasioned by seeing his brother go through open-heart surgery, Wendell Berry said, “Like divine love, earthly love seeks plenitude; it longs for the full membership to be present and to be joined” (“Conference on Spirituality and Healing,” Louisville, KY, Oct. 17, 1994)). This week’s readings provide insight into the meaning of “membership” in a community of life that always seems to be pressing the boundaries that humankind erects.

While, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), Jeremiah seeks to protect himself by setting limits based on his youth and lack of rhetorical skills, the one who calls will not let him sidle away. Not only does the Word of the LORD make it clear that this calling precedes his birth (Jeremiah 1:5), but the caller assures him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 1:8). To provide assurance to this “outsider” from Anathoth, born to the tribe of Benjamin, that he really is a member of the company of prophets, the LORD touches his mouth saying:

Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10).

At first, the terms of this call seem to come directly from an ambassador’s portfolio, but Jeremiah accomplishes his mission in the earthiest of ways. He uses pots and loincloths as symbols. He earns the contempt of the religious elite by bringing a message of repentance directly to the temple (Jeremiah 26: 1-24) and rumbles with Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) over the nature of prophetic calling. But his call to pluck, pull down, destroy and overthrow aims always to affirm membership in the community of life—to build and to plant. The compost is always used to build new soil.

Like Jeremiah, Paul ‘s prophetic apostleship rests partly on the understanding that his “call” preceded his birth, crucial for establishing legitimacy: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born, and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles . . . .” (Galatians 1: 15-16).

Paul did just that. But now, the Corinthian community which he founded is divided and needs to rediscover the unity that comes from a new understanding of spiritual gifts and a sense of membership in the body of Christ.

Ultimately, claims Paul, it is love that serves as the dynamic antidote to factionalism in the Corinthian community. This is no frothy stream of sentimentality; love (agape)  is “the generic name for specific actions of patient and costly service to others” (Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 222). It is at the heart of Paul’s pastoral strategy bolstering the character formation of the Corinthian membership. Rather than serving as a powerful engine sparking competitive spirituality, love is patient and kind; it is not irritable or resentful. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With Jesus’ self-offering life as template, it should be no surprise that challenges to community solidarity appeared in Corinth. Yet Wirzba is right when he says, “When Christians truly love each other they will bear each other up because they know that the health of the whole body requires a common service to each other.” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 152). It is important to note that the Greek verbs beginning and ending the series in verse 7 both carry rich connotations of “bearing,” “enduring,” “standing one’s ground,” and “holding out.”

Not only does this resonate for those involved in serving creation, this ability to “hold on” reminds anyone who has spent time outdoors of trees growing out of bare rock walls that seem as strong as any in the forest. Recently, the word “resilience” has been used (and overused!) to describe this phenomenon in living communities—memberships of people or other living things. British naturalist Jay Griffiths sees this ability to stand one’s ground in trees, especially the willow. In fact, she notes that the word ‘resilient’ is related to the Latin word for willow, salix (Jay Griffiths, Kith, London: Penguin, 2013, p. 254).

But love does more than hold the community together. Using the example of learning to appreciate the gift of wine which “gladdens the human heart” (Psalm 104:15), Wirzba suggests that those who love extend the character of communal affection to what they know and enjoy. “Those who truly love wine, for instance, are not simply those who become drunk by its consumption. They are rather those who are open to the miracle of sunlight, water, plant, and soil transformed into grapes, open to the gift of fermentation and taste, and open to the conviviality of a shared bottle” (Wirzba, p. 185).

The same love that unifies a community, then, extends affection to the created world, expanding the very notion of membership. This is nothing new to those who live closely connected to the wild. Poet Gary Snyder reminds us that such people rarely seek wilderness thrills. “If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately, all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest” (The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 23). When asked by a young anthropologist, “What can I do for self-respect?” contemporary Haida elder Florence Edenshaw responded “stay home” (Snyder, p. 24). She was not being hostile, but simply expected everyone to pay attention to the “real work” of building their own culture—strengthening the affection among their own memberships—humankind and otherkind.

This sounds much like the proverb “charity begins at home,” often ascribed to William Tyndale. Perhaps this week’s continuation of Jesus “Inaugural Sermon” in Luke can serve as a test case. We recall that after reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus assumes the sitting position of authoritative teaching and begins to say, as all eyes in the synagogue are fixed on him, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 21). James Sanders notes that this phrase—used only here in all the scriptures—must have sent a powerful shock wave through the congregation (God Has a Story Too, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 72).

But the fireworks were only beginning. While some marveled at the gracious words that Jesus spoke, others began to wonder: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4: 22b). Regardless of the reception, Jesus began his midrash—sermon by explaining his low-key approach in his home town with the proverb, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4: 24). Ironically, the one who declares Jubilee—the acceptable year of the Lord, is not accepted in the very place he was nurtured.

Jesus continues his talk by citing examples from the lives of two model prophets—Elijah and Elisha—instances of providing food and healing for those who were clearly foreigners. Suddenly any benefits the local clan might have expected from Jesus are thrown out the window. As Sanders asks, “ . . . what’s the use of being faithful if God does not intend to honor our efforts on his behalf?” (Sanders, p. 74). In their anger at not being able to benefit from the fame of their “hometown hero,” they attempt to throw him off the edge of a nearby hill.

As so many discovered as they encounter Jesus, “God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8). In his midrash, Jesus, in effect, says that God will not embrace holy mother church, or Israel, as the sole possessor of the truth. Does charity begin at home? Yes, of course. But only because “charity,” the English translation of the Latin, caritas (itself the translation of the Greek agape), is most often shaped and learned in one’s community of origin as a basis—with the generativity of the Spirit—for expanding that love beyond the boundaries to new memberships.   

This should be no surprise. because the sabbath tradition—Sabbath day, sabbatical year, and the year of Jubilee—goes far beyond parochial limits set by synagogue worshippers in Nazareth or restrictions proposed by anti-immigration forces in the U.S. Recall that the Sabbath commandment stipulated rest not only for the community of faith, but also for “male and female slaves, livestock, and the alien resident in your towns” (Exodus 20:10). To the list of beneficiaries of Sabbath rest is added the land and economic inequity as we move to sabbatical year and jubilee (Leviticus 25).

The idea that old limits are erased is no surprise to the author of Luke, who, with Simeon, sings of God’s healing salvation for “all peoples” (Luke 2:31-32) and records the Baptist’s word that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3: 6). To some, this new construction of identity beyond a set of agreed-on boundaries provokes anxiety. Yet the freedom announced by Jesus provides the best basis for building new relationships. It is a freedom that is best captured by Luther’s paradox from The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly free servant of all, subject to all” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). Here radical freedom issues in radical servanthood resulting in new and imaginative communities of caritas.

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering — “You Are Holy” — ELW 525

            Hymn of the Day –”Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue” — ELW, 644

            Sending — “Light Dawns on a Weary World — ELW, 726

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Liberating One, you have freed your people so that we may serve one another and all of creation.  Remove the chains of prejudice and the limits of imagination so we may learn from the stunning interdependence of all that you have made. Lord, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

 Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

The Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

By Tom Mundahl

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Luke 4:14-21

As we continue our Epiphany journey celebrating the manifestation of God in the deep incarnation of Jesus, we marvel at the interconnections between creation and the story of God’s people. That relationship is proclaimed in the very first verse in this week’s psalm: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

The creation, then, does precisely what the congregation does when it gathers to worship: it praises God.  This is based on the notion common in biblical thinking that “every created thing has the capacity of a creature to acknowledge its originator” (James Luther Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 97). Time and again in the biblical tradition, that which is visible becomes vocal. “The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (Mays).

Just as the universe is patterned to praise God, so the torah gives life and shape to the human community. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul . . . .” And, “More to be desired are they [the commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7, 10).

By connecting the song of creation with the torah, the psalmist honors what Ellen Davis calls “proper world order.” “Divine order is exemplified in the proper functioning of both nature and human society. The well-being of humans and the enduring fruitfulness of earth are inseparable elements of a harmony sometimes imagined as a ‘covenant’ encompassing all creatures” (Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 12). We have witnessed the violation of this covenant far too often and understand that when it is shattered it is nearly impossible for any creature to be “at home.”

To Ezra and Nehemiah (one “book” in the Hebrew Scriptures), nothing was more important than restoring this sense of proper order. Even though exiles began to leave Babylon in 538 BCE, it was nearly a century before the repopulation and rebuilding of Jerusalem would lead to full restoration of religious life. This week’s reading highlights this milestone with a public reading of the torah by Ezra.

But public reading of the torah should not be seen as an attempt by elites to impose a code of conduct on the people. Quite the contrary. The narrator makes it clear that this marathon reading was demanded by the people. “They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1). To make sure that they could both hear and see Ezra, the people built a bema, or reading platform. Hearing the newly-codified torah marked a new stage in their life together in a dramatic way ( Mark A. Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1992, p. 96).

Although archaeologists disagree as to where “the square before the Water Gate” (Nehemiah 8:1) was located, the very proximity to a community water source reveals, as the author of Psalm 19 made clear, the close relationship between the gift of creation and torah instruction for harmonious order. Although the first reaction of the people hearing this reading was mournful weeping over past failures, Ezra called for a celebration of their renewed life together. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD . . . .” (Nehemiah 8:10) It was a festal homecoming and housewarming for the whole city and its inhabitants.

As the Book of Nehemiah ends, we see that the unity described at the communal reading of the torah was not perfect. Nehemiah discovered that both international traders and residents had begun to violate the Sabbath—key to understanding both creation and the torah—by running an active marketplace at the gates of the city. After shutting the city gates, Nehemiah was able to drive out foreign traders, putting an end to sabbath trading. To guarantee this would not continue, he engaged “purified Levites” to guard the entrance to the city (Nehemiah 13:15-22).

Although the factionalism among the early community in Corinth did not reach this citywide scale, Paul, too, struggled to provide an ordering vision. Not only did he emphasize that there were no spiritual “superstars,” only spiritual gifts given for the common good,  but he now asks the community to envision the recipients of this diversity of gifts as “one body.” “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

There was nothing new about the body metaphor. Plato and Aristotle had made good use of it to describe what we would consider “natural hierarchies,” with those who were labeled “head” and “heart” (monarch and counsellors) ruling those less talented, who served as soldiers and slaves. Stoic thinkers had expanded the notion of the body to comprehend the entire cosmos held together by “sympathy.” But Paul’s notion of the body emphasizes the value of all “members,” but especially the inferior and less respectable, totally undermining the “honor” values of Roman culture.

Because this “body” is created by the Spirit in baptism, this depth of connection will provide the resilience to move beyond factionalism. As Wirzba writes, “The Pauline understanding of membership, much like the Johannine depiction of Jesus as the vine onto which his disciples are grafted, is much more organic and vital. If each person is joined to another like a limb is joined to a torso, then there is nothing voluntary or occasional about the relationship. For a limb to flourish, it must draw its life from the whole body . . . . Joined together, all the members of the body share a common life” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 151). This body metaphor mirrors the ecological interdependence of the whole creation. We have learned that ocean plankton, the snail darter, and intestinal bacteria are just as crucial to the proper working of the body of creation as the mountain lion or the human brain. Each “member” is indispensable.

We see the same Spirit at work in the life and ministry of Jesus begun at baptism. Initially, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to demonstrate obedience (Luke 4:1-13). The power of the Spirit propels him home to Galilee where he teaches in area synagogues to excellent reviews (Luke 4: 15). And things seem to begin this way for Jesus in his home synagogue.

On the sabbath day, Jesus follows his usual custom of worshipping in the local synagogue where he is asked to read the scripture portion from the haftaroth, the prophets. We do not know whether the reading from Isaiah 61 was appointed for the day or chosen by the reader. But we do know that this was “the going passage of the time because it spoke of how the eschaton would take place. It speaks of the coming of a herald to proclaim the acceptable year of God for the poor, captives, blind and oppressed” (James A. Sanders, “What Happened in Nazareth,” God Has a Story Too, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 71).

As Brueggemann suggests, this incident completes the birth narrative. “The birth of a new king, the one Rome did not anticipate and Herod could not stop, begins another history, which carries in it the end of all old royal history. Characteristically, the birth of this new king marks a jubilee from old debts, and amnesty from old crimes, and a beginning again in a movement of freedom (so Luke 4: 18-19)” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).

Not only does this connect Epiphany with the Christmas Season, it reminds us of the importance of the sabbath complex ( Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5: 12-15; Leviticus 25)—surely read to the people by Ezra—as an ordering vision. In declaring Jubilee, Jesus follows the long tradition of prophets who made observance of the sabbath a prerequisite for the restoration of the land and Israel as the people of God. “This view of the sabbath indicates that creation truly becomes itself when it ceases the improper desire of self-gain or self-glorification . . . our use must not turn into abuse. It must be directed to the pleasure and menuha (rest, the final step in creation, Gen. 2: 2-3) of God, which signifies the non-contentious serenity of creatures being who they are meant to be” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God — Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p.39).

To keep the sabbath is the opposite of a desire to be rewarded for holy performance. As Moltmann says, “The peace of the sabbath can be viewed as the Jewish ‘doctrine of justification.’ Anyone who looks at Israel on the sabbath cannot reproach her with a ‘righteousness of works.’ And on the other hand, Christian faith in justification must be understood analogously as ‘the sabbath rest’ of Christians” (God in Creation, The Gifford Lectures, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 286).

Not only is the celebration of Sabbath—weekly, sabbatical year, or jubilee—an elemental experience of God’s creation; it is central to what Jesus proclaims at Nazareth. For the early community understands his preaching as the continuation of the sabbath. “As lord of the sabbath, Jesus takes within himself the aspirations of sabbath life and gives them concrete expression in the ministries of feeding, healing, exorcism, companionship, and service. Jesus’ proclamation of the imminent kingdom makes the whole of life a sabbath feast” (Wirzba, God in Creation, p. 40). The community joins “the heavens” (Psalm 19) in singing praise and doing justice as one interdependent organism among many others.

But can we make any sense of Jesus proclaiming Jubilee aside from being a powerful metaphor crucial in announcing the arrival of the prophetic messiah?  Although there is evidence that the sabbatical year was observed (both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar made provision in tax laws for Israelite exemption during sabbatical years), there is none for implementation of the Jubilee. Yet, the very existence of this pattern stands as a call to deal justly as we make a home in God’s creation and learn to serve it. “The goal of our life is so to take care of ourselves that the care of creation is maintained at the same time” (Wirzba, God in Creation, p. 39). The long-term nature of jubilee –every fiftieth year –is especially important for this care.

Since October, a leaking underground natural gas storage facility near Los Angeles has released vast amounts of methane, more than one hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. While nearly two million pounds of methane spew into the air every day, residents of the affluent suburb of Porter Ranch report a variety of short-term symptoms—headaches, nausea, bloody noses, and increase in childhood illnesses. Even though this methane leak is not as visible as the Macondo Well Disaster in the Gulf in 2010, California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency. 

Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, blames this blowout on a failure in infrastructure, the failure of steel pipe, first laid in the 1950’s that has had to withstand 2,700 pounds of pressure per square inch for sixty years. While SoCal Gas has tried to downplay the severity of the situation and promises to have it fixed in a few months, Ingraffea worries about other aging infrastructure that may also cause problems, infrastructure for which there are no replacement plans (NPR, “Living On Earth,” January 8, 2016).

A similar disaster this time featuring public infrastructure recently has been uncovered in Flint, MI, where high levels of lead in the water have been measured.  These dangerous lead readings, especially dangerous to growing children, result from the City of Flint’s refusal to spend $100 per day on an anti-corrosive agent for pipes. Now even water piped in from Detroit is contaminated.  Flint is a  bankrupt “Rust Belt” city with more than 40% of its citizens below the poverty line, another example of the poorest and racial minorities suffering environmental harm. Yet both affluent Porter Ranch, CA, and Flint, MI, demonstrate what will become an increasing problem in the U.S. — crumbling  infrastructure with insufficient resources for replacement. Only long-term concern such as that inspired by jubilee thinking can begin to reorient a culture in love with the novelty of the latest smart phones and driverless cars.

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering: “We Are Called”       ELW, 720

            Hymn of the Day: “God of the Sparrow” ELW, 740

            Sending Hymn, “Christ, Be Our Light” ELW, 715

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Creator God, you free us to celebrate sabbath in all its forms so that we may be             filled with the beauty and interdependent harmony of all that you have made. Awaken us to the long-term needs of all of your creatures.  God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN                                                               tmundahl@gmail.com

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

The Second Sunday After Epiphany in Year C

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

By Tom Mundahl

Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

As we continue the Season of Epiphany our festivity does not abate. This week’s readings point us toward an even greater focus on celebration. Perhaps an appropriate theme for our worship and preaching is suggested by the antiphonal verse for the appointed psalm: “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8). Despite the power of self-interest and deceit described in 36:1-4, God’s steadfast love (hesed) carries the day (Psalm 36:5-10). And it is clear that this abundance is not limited to those who have mastered temple liturgy: “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7b).

In fact, the scope is even wider: humans and animals “may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36: 6, 7). This abundance of steadfast care has its source “in the fountain of life” so bright that “in your light we see light.” The creator is the one who makes the very notion of epiphany—the manifestation of God’s glory and steadfast love– possible.  Not surprisingly, the language (“the river of delights,” v. 8) points us to Eden and creation itself. (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 157) No wonder feasting is central.

This week’s reading from Isaiah (62:1-5) reminds its audience of festive joy in an oblique way. If Third-Isaiah (chapters 56-66) confronts the problem of a community that has returned from exile and is sagging in its efforts at rebuilding and renewing core religious practices, we are reminded that the prophetic poetry of the earlier Isaiah is still in play. Feasting and celebration are clearly integral to the community’s new beginning. For example, Second Isaiah alerts the freed exiles, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion!  Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, holy city” (Isaiah 52:1). The prophet continues, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! . . . for your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.” (Isaiah 54:1, 3)  “For your maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name . . . .” (Isaiah 54:5). As a result, the prophet calls all to a festive celebration: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, and eat” (Isaiah 55:1) (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, pp. 148-150).

Clearly the message of this week’s reading from Isaiah depends and builds on the power of this earlier tradition to support a community engaged in the tough work of rebuilding. Remember who you are: “My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”  (Isaiah 62:4-5)  No longer, suggests the prophet, will foreigners drink your bread and wine. That is surely reason for the feasting described with such energy in the final chapter of Isaiah. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom” (Isaiah 66:10-11).

As we consider this week’s reading from 1 Corinthians (12:1-11), we hear a cautionary note seemingly unsuitable for festivity. Yet, Paul’s critique of a community infected by competition among spiritual superstars, where adepts boast of their spiritual gifts, is a necessary corrective leading to the restoration of wholeness. This competitive spirituality destroys any possibility of community cohesion.

To counter this dangerous tendency, Paul contrasts charismata (gifts of the Spirit) with pneumatika (alleged manifestations of the Spirit)) that create community tension. In a beautiful example of primitive functional trinitarianism, Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the same God who activates them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

For Paul it is not a matter of achievement and recognition, but service resulting in the common good. This is no simple totalitarian unity; it is based on the amazing diversity of gifts (charismata) distributed by the Spirit. As Hays writes, “Paul is emphasizing the importance of diversity in the church. The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds expression in an explosion of variegated forms” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 210).

As we learn more about the mutual interdependence of the faith community, we cannot help but think of the ecological mutuality of the wider creation. One is reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of the natural community as he develops a “land ethic.” Leopold writes: “ . . . quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.” (A Sand County Almanac, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1966, p. 262)

This suggests that the Pauline notion of community must be extended to the non-human world since . . .humans are undoubtedly and inalienably dependent not only on each other but also on a whole range of other organisms. It has become increasingly evident that these networks of interdependence include not just our intestinal flora, the crops we might grow, and the animals we might keep, but relationships at great distances. To breathe we depend upon photosynthesis for our oxygen, to eat protein we are dependent ultimately  on the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, but far less obviously, for example, we are dependent also on the recycling of atmospheric sulfur  by marine algae.” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 212)

This interdependence based on a life of self-offering that uses the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the commons—human and biotic—frees us for festivity. Ironically, as we look farther ahead to Lent, it is also the basis for fasting. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “People should feast so they do not forget the grace and blessing of the world. People should fast so they do not degrade or hoard the good gifts of God. In short, we feast to glorify God and we fast so we do not glorify ourselves” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 137). This is “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

We see this common good boldly affirmed in John’s narrative of the Wedding at Cana. It may be as Raymond Brown suggests that provision of wine was one of the obligations shared by guests at a Jewish wedding. Since Jesus and his followers had totally failed in this requirement, Jesus’ mother’s chiding may be understandable (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966, p. 102).

While the narrator does not share Jesus’ mother’s reaction when the water for purification becomes the choicest wine in prodigious quantity, we are able to share the joyful surprise of the steward of the marriage feast: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). The celebration of new creation in the Word made flesh (John 1:14) goes beyond calculation and represents a first step (“sign”) in the evangelist’s project to reveal Jesus replacing the Temple as the center of worship and meaning. (Brown, p. 104)

The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, was so taken by this Johannine story that he devoted a chapter to it in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. As the Elder Zossima lies on his bier during the monastery’s period of mourning, the monks are shocked that his body has begun to evidence the stench of decay, something not expected from such a holy man. Novice monk, Alyosha Karamazov, is initially in despair. But as he returns to the funeral vigil he hears Father Paissy reading scripture, this time the story of the Marriage at Cana. Suddenly Alyosha’s heart lifts as he understands, “Ah that miracle, that lovely miracle! Not grief, but human joy Christ visited when he worked that first miracle, he helped bring joy . . . . He loves us, loves our joy . . . .” And how many times had the Elder taught just this? (The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 360).

Young Alyosha now recalls that his mentor had shocked him by revealing that Alyosha’s calling was to bring joy by serving as a monk in the world. Suddenly all became clear. As he embraced his new vocation, he left the monastery and ran into the forest, joyfully falling to his knees to embrace the earth with its fecundity and decay. Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life . . . . Three days later, he left the monastery, which was also in accord with the words of his late elder, who had called him to ‘sojourn in the world’” (Pevear and Volokhonsky, p. 363).

In a sermon given on this text at St. Andrews University, Richard Bauckham claims that this sign reminds us that salvation is more than healing; it is also enlivening. He goes on: “To live life more fully is to love all life, to care for all living beings against the threats to life: against poverty, sickness, enmity, death” (St. Salvator’s Chapel, January 15, 1995). Kierkegaard’s scathing critique of the church allegedly included this aphorism: “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” But Jesus’ enlivening sign remains and points toward the source of all life and celebration.

This theme of joyful festivity is picked up by Pope Frances in Laudato Si’. In the context of reflecting on being at home in creation, he suggests that the integrity of the ecosystem needs to be reflected in home and community. “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us” (Laudato Si’, 225). Perhaps this may move us to a more festive embrace of the Earth!

Hymn suggestions:

            Gathering: “Rise, shine, you people”  ELW 665

            Hymn of the Day: “Jesus, Come! For We Invite You” ELW 312

            Sending: “The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve”  ELW 551

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Creator God, you enlivened the celebration at Cana with the gift of wine. Teach us to love one another and all that you have made so that this shared joy may be of the richest vintage.

God, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN                                       tmundahl@gmail.com

The First Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

Series C (2015-2016)

By Tom Mundahl

INTRODUCTION TO EPIPHANY

If the purpose of the Church Year is to organize community storytelling and worship, what ‘tale’ do we share during the Season of Epiphany? Just as Advent anticipates the light of the Coming One, and Christmas celebrates the brightness of the incarnation, so during Epiphany we marvel at the dynamic brightness of this light bringing peace, healing, and festivity to God’s earth. It is no surprise that this season has provided an opportunity for the church to focus on a mission, which, like light, cannot be contained, but shines across all boundaries.

But surely the theme for this season must be more than “going out.” For is not the purpose of mission to provide assurance that because the Word “dwells among us” (John 1: 14), we can be at home in God’s creation. This surprising view can be seen in two of the readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord.

The First Lesson for the Epiphany of Our Lord (Isaiah 60: 1-6) describes not only the return of exiles to Jerusalem, but a homecoming for all people (vv. 3-4) characterized by great abundance including offerings of “gold and frankincense” (v. 6) to proclaim God’s praise. This theme is echoed in the familiar gospel reading describing the coming of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12).  What is often forgotten is that the Magi have come to the Bethlehem home of Joseph and Mary, in Matthew the birth home of Jesus. Even though Matthew will soon describe their flight to Egypt and resettling in Nazareth, the fact remains that Bethlehem, with all its Davidic resonance, is home.

This contrasts with the homelessness we see around us. For months newscasts have shown the harrowing journey made by refugees from Syria and other conflict zones desperately seeking a stable European home. As winter approaches, officials of American urban centers once more admit there are not nearly enough shelters for the homeless—especially women with children. This has all been complicated by the fear of “the other” that has infected the U.S. political campaign, where candidate Donald Trump proposes to ignore this search for a safe home by building walls and banning new Muslim immigrants.

If this basic form of homelessness is not enough, there is another mode that infects our culture. Wendell Berry suggests that because of the pervasiveness of media and consumer culture, “…your children will be subjected almost from the cradle to an overwhelming insinuation that all worth experiencing is somewhere else and that all worth having must be bought” (“Family Work” in The Gift of Good Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 156). This sense that little good comes from home, family, and neighboring surroundings is examined by Jay Griffiths, who  describes the historical enclosure of lands in the British Isles as metaphorically applying to contemporary children, who because of our “mean world syndrome” are no longer able to “range freely” but are too often “enclosed” in their rooms, entertained by screens, and allowed only the “freedom” of the school, the mall, or adult-supervised activities (Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, London: Penguin, 2013).

It is ironic that the very tools invented to make the world more home-like (technology) now threaten that sense of comfortable dwelling. Philosopher Albert Borgmann suggests that we experience an “inversion”—the very opposite of what humankind intended. “Whereas in the mythic experience the erection of a sanctuary established a cosmos and habitat (home) in the chaos of the wilderness, the wilderness now appears as a sacred place in the disorientation and distraction of the encompassing technology” (Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. 190). Epiphany readings will show us a way through this “inversion” to see the transforming power of “deep incarnation” to make creation new and engender a common home for all living things.

As he introduces the notion of “deep incarnation,” Niels Henrik Gregersen of the University of Copenhagen wrestles with Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518) concluding that while Luther used this document to savage the legalism stemming from scholasticism, he did not deny that God could and should be experienced and enjoyed in nature. Gregersen cites Luther’s comment: “Our house, home, field, garden and everything is full of Bible, because God through his wonderful eyes, touches our senses, and shines right through our hearts.” Drawing on Luther’s embrace of creation, Gregersen concludes: “…the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as a radical or ‘deep’ incarnation, that is an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence, and system of nature” (“The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World,” dialog: A Journal of Theology, 40, 3, Fall 2001, pp. 195, 205).

Our Epiphany texts will affirm this deep incarnation with its embrace of creation. Through stories of Jesus immersed in the waters of baptism, the provision of homemaking hospitality of the best vintage, the pain of realizing that “messiahs can’t go home again,” and rejection of mountaintop glory in favor of descending into the depths of actual life, we see a way of emptying oneself so that all that exists may be filled. One of the lessons from these stories is an affirmation of what Celtic thinkers  called the hospitality of the earth (Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, New York: Doubleday, 1997, p. 6). This reminds us that while Pope Frances calls for “care of our common home,” in Laudato Si’, God’s creation cares for us as well.

The Baptism of Our Lord

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8: 14-17

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

One cannot appreciate the power of “but now” in Isaiah 43:1 until the context in the previous chapter is examined. Just as the new and tenuous Paris Agreement on climate change depends upon an admission of human responsibility for rapid climate change, so the prophet makes it very clear that the exile is the responsibility of faithless Judah. The result is a people utterly homeless: “. . . all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons: they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one who says, ‘Restore!’” (Isaiah 42: 22).

Not quite. For Isaiah announces a new chapter in the story of God’s dealing with creation. And “creation” is the watchword here, serving as an inclusio beginning and ending our passage. As the exiles are promised a “new exodus” and return to their home, the initial promise is that no natural forces will impede them. As Claus Westermann suggests, “Verse 2 promises Israel safe conduct on her journey. No force of nature, no hostile element, is to be able to do her any harm as she travels . . . . Water and fire stand for dangers from any element, as in Ps. 66: 12” (Isaiah 40-66), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 118).

But these images of fire and water may bear additional meaning beyond threatening forces of nature. Paul D. Hanson suggests that fire and water are immediately familiar to ancient peoples as tools of ordeal, “that is, the ancient practice of casting the accused into the river or the fire to determine guilt or innocence.” (Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 63). Now this most common of methods of ferreting out guilt are removed. God’s promise, “I will be with you,” (43:2), the promise of Immanuel, trumps these well-deserved threats. Only the removal of these threats will allow the exiles truly to be at home.

Clearly, the metaphor of ordeal cannot be simply relegated to a “barbaric” past. The suffering of Syrian refugees in flight from gross civil disorder that likely has partial origin in the last decade’s drought may not be unrelated to human carbon pollution. A rapid increase in asthma suffered by urban children in the U.S. is nothing compared with the yet undisclosed health effects of Chinese air pollution. Imagine seeing a family’s only child failing to thrive because of the by-products of so-called progress.

Unfortunately, it is not sufficient to announce “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43: 4) hoping that these pollutants threatening all life will go away. However, the words “Do not fear, I am with you” (Isaiah 43: 5) free us not only to be at home in this creation, but empower and encourage us to take the steps necessary to tend creation. Surprisingly, it is even possible that out of the evil that has been done and “something new can emerge” (Pope Frances, Laudato Si, 81).

Especially important in our shared responsibility to serve and tend creation is to avoid “abstract environmentalism,” the mirror image of the scientific abstraction partially responsible for our predicament. We are called to remember that “the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning.” (Laudato Si, 84)  Only when we learn to know the trees, soil types, the birds, pollinators, and the culture of our locale can we fall in love with God’s creation. Perhaps this is why the one we call Immanuel said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” To be at home is to pay loving and affectionate attention to the gifts of creation.

This week’s gospel reading sends us into the crowds gathered by the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Not only does John put the damper on a messianic title for himself, at the time of Jesus baptism—narrated almost incidentally in participial form—his arrest (Luke 3: 20) frees the narrator to allow the Baptist virtually to disappear. Before this happens, he makes it clear that while he baptizes with water, “He (Jesus) will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16b). This promise will not be fulfilled until the Day of Pentecost so powerfully described in Acts 2.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is ignited by the descent of the Spirit “in bodily form like a dove” (v. 22) as Jesus is baptized. This “incarnation” of the Spirit is crucial in moving the narrative forward in Luke’s Gospel. (The importance of the Spirit for baptism is, of course, the issue in the Second Lesson, Acts 8: 14-17). The power of the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted (Luke 4:1). As he addresses the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announces that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” In fact, the descent of the Spirit is precisely the event in which God “anointed” Jesus (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”) and empowered him. (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991, p. 58)

That this descent of the Spirit amounts to something like a new creation is underscored by Luke Timothy Johnson when he suggests, “Rather than seeking the meaning of the dove in biblical precedents, the reader may do better by observing the structural similarity between this scene and that of the annunciation (1: 35) and the angelic song (2:14) in the infancy account” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 71) All this “hovering” with the “opening of the heavens” cannot help but put one in mind of the Spirit hovering over the waters in the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:2).

This newness is attested to by the genealogy and early chapters following our text which answer the questions: Who is Jesus?  He is God’s son (3: 21-28). What sort of son is he? An obedient son (Luke 4: 1-13).  Finally, what kind of messiah might he be? A prophetic messiah (4: 14-30). Johnson argues that the baptism and genealogy should be read together because they make an integrated statement about Jesus’ identity, an identity traceable to Adam. (Johnson, p. 70)

By identifying with creation in the waters of baptism, Jesus’ incarnation is deepened. As Celia Deane-Drummond suggests, “Theologically, therefore, deep incarnation can be understood to act at the boundary of creation and new creation, where Christ enters into human, evolutionary, and ecological history in a profound way so that through the living presence of the Holy Spirit that history is changed in the direction of God’s purposes for the universe after the pattern of Christ.”(“The Wisdom of Fools? A Theo-Dramatic Interpretation of Deep Incarnation,” in Gregersen, ed., Incarnation–On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015, p. 198)  She goes on to describe “sacramental presence” as one way for creatures to participate in this path toward transformation.

Baptismal practice must be in view as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. As we gather around the font to initiate and welcome into the community through water and word, the presiding minister invites candidates and sponsors to affirm the new responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006, p. 228). It is the presence of the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” (ELW, 104) which frees the baptized to move beyond one’s self-concern and care for the whole creation.

Just as baptism is celebrated in our home congregation, so we begin care of the earth there. Earlier educational media about transforming the congregation into a “creation awareness community” is just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago when first introduced. In fact, the concept of subsidiarity, used extensively in Laudato Si’ suggests that the home and home parish are the primary teachers of eco-justice. Subsidiarity—meeting issues at the lowest level appropriate—does not end there. Whether it is a neighborhood “transition movement,” a city council resolution, a county, state, or national action, this transforming energy makes itself felt where necessary. Even in the international sphere, the power of the Spirit works through word and water to initiate actions preserving and caring for our “common home.”

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering –”We Know That Christ is Raised”–ELW 449

            Hymn of the Day — “Crashing Waters at Creation” — ELW 455

            Sending — “Let All Things Now Living” — ELW 881

Prayer Petition for Prayers of Intercession (Please use the appointed Prayer of the Day)

Gracious Trinity, by the fire of your Spirit you transform your people into earth servants.  Free us from the confining boundaries of unlimited growth and waste of the gifts of creation so that we may experience the joy of the whole earth community.  Creator, in your mercy; hear our prayer.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN  tmundahl@gmail.com.