Tag Archives: Carol J. Dempsey

Sunday November 13-19 in Year A (Ormseth)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the covenant results in social injustice and ecological injustice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Or what will they give in return for their life? (Mt 16:24-26).

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

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

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

Will we face the cost?

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

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

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

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

Paul challenges us to oppose evil with goodness.

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

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

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

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

Paul encompasses the whole creation in the story of redemption!

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

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

Sunday August 21-27 in Year A (Ormseth)

The Best Title for Jesus?  He is the Lord and Servant of Creation! Dennis Ormseth reflects on who the Gospel of Matthew tells us Jesus is.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus of his disciples in the Gospel for this Sunday after Pentecost. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” his disciple Simon Peter answers. Our own response to Jesus’ question, based on the readings we have given to the lections thus far in Year A, is this: “Jesus is the Lord, the Servant of creation.” We have argued for the validity of this new title for Jesus through a now rather extended commentary on those lections. In our comment on the readings for The Holy Trinity we summarized our reflections towards that conclusion, and we would refer our readers to that comment for the substance of our argument.

Peter’s answer raises the question of the validity of our answer anew, however. Because the title of “Messiah” tends to evoke for the Christian reader a rather high Christology, our answer may seem to have less than a clear claim to be revealed by Jesus’ “Father in heaven.” It is, perhaps, more like those answers the disciples reported “people” were giving, answers derived no doubt from “flesh and blood,” which Warren Carter suggests, “denotes the human situation before God, . . . as the inability to know God and God’s ways. It underlines the limitations of ‘human intellectual, religious and mystical capacities’ before God” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 56).

 We acknowledge such limitations! It can be noted, however, that contrary to conventional views, there was in fact “no standard expectation of a messiah, nor did every Jew look for a special anointed figure.” Use of the term, Carter insists, rather “raises a question. For what special task or role has God anointed or designated Jesus?” An answer is given early in the Gospel: “He will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). But it takes the entire gospel to develop fully what this disarmingly simple answer actually entails. The account of Peter’s confession can accordingly be seen as a “summary scene” that “restates the central issue” as it relates to the narrative of Jesus’ story at the end of the third block of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 11:2-16:20): “Have people been able to discern from Jesus’ ministry that he is God’s Christ, the one anointed to manifest God’s salvation and empire (cf. Mt 11:2-6)” (Ibid., p. 332).

It seems clear that while “the people” do not see in Jesus “the Christ,” the disciples do. On the other hand, it is not clear that the disciples know what the actual role of this Messiah is. At the conclusion of his commentary on this section of Matthew, Carter cautions that “as the unfolding narrative will show, the disciples do not yet fully understand what Jesus is commissioned to do” (Ibid., p. 337). Carter has reference, of course, to Jesus’ announcement that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Mt 16:21), part of the Gospel reading for next Sunday. But without anticipating what that will mean for our answer, how can we presume to know more than the disciples do at this point? How legitimate is it for us to make the claim we do? What really could we know about what it means to “manifest God’s salvation and empire,” in Carter’s phrase?

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

For Carter, an answer to this question begins to emerge from careful analysis of the context of Jesus’ mission. The setting of this Sunday’s gospel narrative, we are immediately informed in v. 13, is “the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Carter comments on this information as follows: “The scene is set . . . some twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee south of Mt. Hermon.  G. W. Nickelsburg notes it as a place of revelation and commission. . . , important elements of this scene. The site had been a shrine for the god Pan, god of flocks and shepherds (Josephus, Ant 15.363-64).” In Carter’s view, this information should remind us that Matthew has already told us that Jesus is also to be known as a shepherd of his people.

The one who shepherds/governs my people Israel (see Mt 2:6), who has compassion for the crowds as sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Ezek 34), who is sent to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 15:24), and who sends his disciples on a similar mission (Mt 10:6), the son of the shepherd David who manifests God’s reign among the marginal (Mt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22) is again recognized as God’s commissioned agent (Carter, p.332).

In this perspective, therefore, Jesus would be an alternative shepherd for the people. Thus is introduced a metaphor for the interpretation of Jesus’ role that we have seen to have considerable significance for our understanding of him within the community of his followers as “The Lord, the Servant of creation.” If Jesus is “the Messiah;” he is also “the good shepherd.”  Do the “people” see this? No, and neither, strictly speaking, do the disciples. This is not necessarily what the title “Messiah” would have meant to them. But for the reader of the Gospel of Matthew who knows the territory and its culture, Jesus’ presence there nonetheless sets up the possibility for “discovery” of this meaning.

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

This proposal regarding Jesus as shepherd gives rise to further difficulty for our answer to Jesus’ question, however. In our comment on the lections for Good Shepherd Sunday, we suggested “the complex of relations brought to mind by [Jesus’] metaphor [of the shepherd] is incomplete without the lived-in context of the creation that shepherd and sheep share. A people or a community, centered on and founded by Jesus, the servant of creation, will flourish in the context of a creation that, especially in view of the resurrection, is being restored.”  The first reading assigned for this Sunday actually amplifies this expectation: “For the Lord will comfort Zion,” the prophet writes; “he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isa 51:3). As the Servant of God, Jesus would do what God would do; God, this lesson insists, restores not only the people but also the land to which they are returned. And the Messiah, the commissioned agent of God, will work to effect this restoration.  God’s salvation includes the restoration, we might say, of the shepherd’s pasture.

But is such restoration a real possibility within the territory that Jesus now enters? How can it happen, in view of the fact that there is also another claimant to lordship over this very same territory? And this is something that both the people and the disciples had to know, since it obviously was a matter of ‘flesh and blood.” The location of Caesarea Philippi, Carter notes, “also underlines the issue of sovereignty.” The name of the city reflects its involvement with imperial power. King Herod built a marble temple there in honor of Augustus . . . Philip enlarged the city and named it Caesarea . . . Agrippa enlarged it further and renamed it Neronias in honor of the emperor Nero . . . After Jerusalem fell (70 C.E.), Titus visited the city, and “many” Jewish captives were thrown to wild beasts or forced to fight each other. . . Its names, buildings (typically using local wealth [taxes and levies], labor, and materials), activities, and history attest Rome’s claims and power (Carter, p. 332).

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

Is it not then quite astonishing that it is in precisely this place that a disciple of Jesus first names him “Messiah”? On the contrary, as it is precisely in the face of this difficulty that, as Carter observes, God’s purposes for Jesus and his followers are affirmed, purposes which contest Rome’s claims that Jupiter determines human affairs, that history is under Rome’s control, and that the emperor is the channel for the god’s blessing and presence . . . Jesus, not Rome, is the agent of God’s purposes, which will ultimately be triumphant (Ibid.)

The pasture over which this shepherd watches, to follow through the implications of our metaphor, is the very territory that the Roman army has violated and laid waste in its imperial conquest. Even into such a place the one who is Christ comes to restore the creation.

But again, how could it ever actually be accomplished? The confession made by Peter does actually suggest how this will happen, perhaps beyond his own understanding. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah, the agent of God. And more precisely, he is “the Son of the living God.” This is perhaps the more decisive claim, in our view, as it begins to fill out the role of the Messiah by suggesting the source and purposes of his work. Carter helpfully explains the meaning of this second part of Peter’s confession:

As the living God, or God of life (Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; 1 Sam 17:26, 36, @ Kgs 19:4, 16; Pss 42:2; 84:2; Hos 1:10; Dan 6:20), God is creative, active, faithful, and just.  As God’s son/child or agent, Jesus expresses this life in his words and healings, feedings, exorcisms, and so on (cf. 11:2-6), and in creating a community that participates in God’s empire. To recognize Jesus as God’s agent confirms that he, not the emperor, manifests God’s purposes (Ibid., p.333).

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

Hence, the things that Jesus has been doing in the Gospel readings for the Sundays after Pentecost are precisely the kind of actions we would expect of the Messiah, if we understand his work as the Servant’s service to God’s creation. 

Is such a reading legitimate?  Much of this, to be sure, we are reading into the text. We read it into the text from diverse sources: from the first lesson, from the scholar’s careful reading of the entire Gospel in the light of what he or she knows about the cultural context, and from the creation–interested agenda of Christians concerned with care of creation. We think it appropriate to engage the text in this manner, first of all, because given the nature of these resources, together they constitute an apt proposal regarding his interaction with the historical context provided by Matthew’s narrative. But equally important, especially considering that this reading takes place within the context of the Christian assembly for worship, we think it conforms to what Jesus himself anticipates will happen with Peter’s confession. It builds on that confession, as Carter puts it, to create “a community that participates in God’s empire.”

Peter’s confession is the “rock.”

The exchange between Peter and Jesus takes a surprising turn here: Having acknowledged the divine inspiration of Peter’s confession, Jesus goes on to say, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Jesus shifts their focus from his own identity to that of Peter, and to the role that Peter and the other disciples will have in the future. 

This shift turns on the introduction of a new metaphor, that of “the rock.”  Quickly sorting the alternative interpretations of this much controverted saying, Carter takes Jesus’ reference to be “Peter’s faith or confession in 16:16,” albeit as embodied in the person of Peter as “the representative of every Christian,” (passing over the alternatives of “Christ” and “Peter the model bishop”) (Ibid., p. 334). But in the assembly this Sunday, hearers of the Gospel will catch the allusion to Isaiah 51:1 from the first lesson, for the sake of which, we surmise, the church has brought this lesson into juxtaposition to the Gospel. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug,” says the prophet. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” Here “the rock” is the founding couple of Israel and their faith.  And what does one see by looking to them? As we already noted above, we see the prophet’s promise that the Lord “will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

To be sure, the prophet spoke in a different time and place.  But as we noted above, he spoke about what God does, and this is what the congregation will attend to. In addition, what God does, the Messiah, God’s commissioned agent, would surely also do, when and where the situation demanded it. The good shepherd attends to the needs of his sheep where they are at pasture. Does “the district of Caesarea Philippi” represent such a situation? We can’t say for sure, of course. But we can say with some confidence that Jesus himself would not contradict that possibility. His focus here is more general, but his intention is clear: Through the faith of Peter and his other disciples, Jesus will work to effect all such purposes as are consonant with the will of God for God’s empire wherever they may be called to do so.

As Carter adroitly observes, Jesus’ response quickly moves the conversation to a new levels, first political and then cosmic. On the rock of Peter’s confession of him as Messiah, he says, he will build his ecclesia. The word “ecclesia,” Carter insists, refers to more than we commonly understand as a religious community. “Frequently overlooked,” he notes, “is the observation that the term ekklesia is used in the political sphere. It denotes the ‘duly summoned’ . . .civic and political assembly of citizens in Greek cities which along with a council (the boule’) expressed the will of the assembled people (demos).  . . The assembly is not primarily cultic but political, social, cultural.  It gathers to reinforce and administer the status quo under Roman control. As R. A. Horsley notes in discussing Paul’s use of this term, by claiming the same name, the community centered on Jesus exists in ‘pointed juxtaposition’ and ‘competition’ with the official city assembly. . .(as) an alternative society to the Roman imperial order. . . rooted in the history of Israel, in opposition to Pax Romana. In God’s guidance of human affairs, history, which had been running through Israel and not through Rome,” continues in this counter society with its alternative commitment and practices (Ibid., p. 335).

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

In this light, the significance of the linkage between the gospel and the first lesson for our concern for care of creation grows. The “alternative commitment and practices” could certainly include, with full legitimacy, such activities as will further God’s will to “comfort all (Zion’s) waste places” and to “make her wilderness like Eden her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

Carol J. Dempsey makes note of this possibility in commenting on the first lesson: “Embedded in this text,” she writes, “is a message to the natural world as well. When Israel was redeemed from exile, the people were also restored to their land, which itself was restored to life after the ravages of the battles it endured. God’s words that promise restoration to Jerusalem’s waste places and deserts need to be heard by all environmentalists today working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth.  Indeed God is at work in their activity and their work is a sign of God’s saving grace in our midst” (Dempsey, ‘Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time,’ in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 176).

The church has a mandate to care for creation

While we agree with Dempsey, we would restate her affirmation of care of creation much more broadly to include the whole community of the church. “Working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth” is something not only those who identify themselves as environmentalists do; consequent to our reading is commitment to such work as essential to the mandate of the community built on the rock of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. It is an important aspect of what those disciples are to “bind and loose” on earth, on behalf of the Father who is in heaven. As they work to understand and do “what God’s reign requires as declared by the scriptures and interpreted not by the religious leaders . . .but by Jesus, and by Peter and the disciples . . .all disciples are entrusted with the task of proclaiming and manifesting God’s empire (10:7-8)” (Ibid., p. 337). Because of the situation and condition of the Earth today, it is, we believe, part and parcel of what all Jesus’ followers are called out to do together, as Jesus’ ecclesia for our time and place.

The potential consequences of such action are, Jesus promises, cosmic:  “the gates of Hades will not prevail against” the work of the community so constituted and committed. “The phrase the gates of Hades,” Carter points out, “is metonymy in which a part (gates) refers to the whole realm of Hades. . . Hades, associated with the dead, contains the demons and evil spirits of death and destruction . . . Hades attacks Jesus’ community (as the rock is attacked in Mt 7:24-27; cf. 14:24). The gates of Hades open to let the attacking demons out. . . This attack is part of the eschatological woes which disciples experience as they conduct their mission before Jesus’ return.  . . . In Matthew 13:24-30, 38-39 the opposition comes from the devil. It can take all sorts of forms: domestic (Mt 10:21-22), and religious and social (Mt 10:17; 16:21), cultural (Mt 13:21-22), and political, since the devil claims control of the nations (Mt 4:8; cf. 10:17-18). But Jesus promises that this diabolical opposition will not prevail against the community centered on Jesus (Mt 13:36-43) (Ibid., p. 335).

Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

Discouraged and pessimistic environmentalists, take note: Your work is not in vain. Heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the congregation in Rome, living in the shadow of the Empire’s capital: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Working together, thinking “with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” we will see the creation through its crisis in the good company of “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” But there is also this: With Jesus’ promise, comes this cautionary word in next Sunday’s Gospel: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Christian care of creation comes with sacrifice.

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

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

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

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

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

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

 The church has a mandate to care for creation

 Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

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