July 31 – August 6, 2020
Out of Grief Comes Compassion: Amy Carr reflects on Matthew 14:13-21 and Romans 9-11
An Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for July 31 – August 6, Series A (2020, 2023)
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda has always impressed me with her careful attention not only to the demands of justice, but also to the fatigue and hopelessness that can accompany awakening to the enormity of structural injustice—especially the enormity of climate crisis. To put it in terms familiar to Luther, Pascal, and centuries of monastics attentive to the ways we resist contending with sin: if false presumption that all is well is one half of our planetary challenge (or what Moe-Lobeda calls “moral oblivion” in Chapter 5 of Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, Fortress, 2013), then despair is the spiritual danger that emerges once we are woke to the damage we are doing and facing collectively, as global temperatures rise.
Our scriptural texts for today reckon with the temptation to despair. Each is situated in a state of anguish about something that has come to pass, or that refuses to come to pass. Divine creativity appears within a space of openly knowing and naming that anguish.
Matthew 14:13-21: Losing John, Becoming Elisha: Grief and the Power of Multiplication
In The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Matthew 14:13 sets a story of Jesus’ feeding multitudes in the context of the finale of John the Baptist at the hands of Herodias: “When Jesus heard about the beheading, he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone.”
Never before had I noticed that Jesus’ multiplication of a few loaves and fish to feed 5000 families was a gesture born not only of compassion, but amid grief. Jesus performed this act only after first trying to get away from Nazareth to be alone to mourn the execution of his imprisoned mentor, John the Baptist. But the urgent desire of other human beings for what Jesus himself offered led them to follow on foot to where they saw his boat land. When Jesus “saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14, Inclusive Bible).
Like Elisha, who multiples oil for a prophet’s wife in need (2 Kings 4:1-7) only after his mentor Elijah has been taken by God, Jesus’ own power seems to be magnified when John the Baptist has been taken by Herod’s family. Likewise, the crowd that follows Jesus into his grief-space in the wilderness echoes the story of the Hebrew people who leave Egypt for the hopes of a better life; as they were fed with manna at Moses’ command, so too is the crowd that follows Jesus fed by his blessing of a few loaves and fish.
Out of grief from one loss comes compassion for many who are lost; out of the loss of a mentor comes a new identity as one who is as powerful as any of the great prophets in Israel’s history. Such greatness is bred not in self-seeking, but in mourning and in its capacity to deepen sensitivity to the suffering of others. It is as if the wider is Jesus’ heart, the more he is able to give—even as God alone can give.
Like Jesus, many are drawn to wilderness spaces to gain clarity, perspective, a renewed vision. But today we are also aware of deserted places as themselves vulnerable to destruction. And what kinds of healing and acts of multiplication might we find ourselves expressing as baptized members of the body of Christ who move through the grief about the effects of climate change into compassionate responses? Perhaps our responses involve advocacy about public policy, or direct service to those whose lands and livelihoods are destroyed, or a found capacity to survive our own loss of home to flood or extreme weather. Maybe we plant trees and pollinator crops. Perhaps we hold the truths of the world in prayer, so as to strengthen others engaged in response.
Certainly, like Jesus’ disciples, we may wrestle with doubt about whether or not we have the capacity to meet the gravity of the need. We might resist literal or glib readings of the feeding-of-the-5000 story that focus on its miraculous nature and leave us feeling either incredulous, or inadequate to the faith needed to perpetuate such a miracle in Jesus’ name today. But perhaps those worries miss the boat that Jesus was actually taking. Our journey is with the heart of Jesus, and here Jesus’ heart begins with his disorientation about losing a fixture in his sense of the world and of his own vocation: the formative presence of John the Baptist. Within that space of grief—opened to in a deserted place—came an upwelling of compassion for those who seek healing and nourishment.
Can’t we make that journey together as well, from loss of anchor to depth of commitment, as we face the disorienting disruption of our assumption that the earth and its species will continue as we know them?
Romans 9:1-5: Anguish about the Unwoke
The anguish expressed in Romans 9:1-5 reminds us that the richest theological understanding arises only as we claim our emotional truths—including our emotional truths about those who seem to stand against the very projects of redemption and salvation in which we invest.
In Romans 9, Paul tells us that his “conscience confirms . . . by the Holy Spirit” that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart,” to the point that he wishes that he himself “were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] own people,” the Israelites (Romans 9:1-3, NRSV). We are not told why he is so distraught in Romans 9:1-5; here we need to read further to learn that Paul is anxious because only a “remnant” of his fellow Israelites are being “saved” by no longer “seeking to establish their own” righteousness, but believing in God’s righteousness that now comes through faith in Christ (Romans 9:27, 10:2-10).
Yet it is precisely in expressing fully his longing for fellow Israelites to regard Christ as he himself does, and in letting loose multiple exegetical arguments for his view of justification by faith in Christ, that Paul stumbles into a way of affirming a “mystery”: that “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26). He cannot fathom it, really: “How unsearchable are [God’s] judgments and how inscrutable [God’s] ways!” (Romans 11:33). But Paul observes that Israel’s God has had a long pattern of electing some people over others for the purposes of covenant-making (Abraham; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau), and of hardening the hearts of some (like Pharaoh before Moses) to show forth divine power (Romans 9:6-18). So Paul concludes that it is God who had destined most Israelites not to believe in Jesus as Messiah, precisely so that more Gentiles can be grafted into the covenant (Romans 11:7, 11, 17-20). Ultimately, however, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable;” God will not abandon God’s own people, only temporarily imprison them—indeed, all—“in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:29, 32).
Here Paul’s anguish signals his inability to consent to the exclusion of his own people from belonging still to God, even if most of them fail to see salvation shining in the new covenant revealed in the story of the particular Jew who re-sets the world for Christians. In Paul’s exegetical searching, he finds a way of discerning God’s providence at work in the very hardening of hearts—against the new covenant in Christ—that so disturbs him.
Post-Holocaust Christians and Jews have gathered around Romans 9-11 as a fruitful oasis for imagining a non-supersessionist way of connecting Jewish and Christian covenants. Might we learn anything comparably fruitful as we consider Paul’s generative anguish in light of climate crisis?
Having just witnessed two debates among the Democratic candidates for President, I noticed that most of them voiced agony about climate change and pledged to make it a priority. Many also complained about the “climate change deniers” in the Republican Party. They cast a narrative of Democrats who are woke vs. Republicans who are self-blinded—their hearts hardened against seeing and reckoning with the depths of planetary peril.
We can go only so far with analogies between climate change deniers and Paul’s fellow Israelites—those who so distressed him with their refusal to wake up to the salvation that rescued him from being himself a hardened zealot who had persecuted those who followed the Way of Jesus. But Paul did not give up seeing himself and his fellow Israelites as belonging to one another and to God, even though he thought they were wrong in thinking that the Torah rather than Christ should be their basis of identity. Can we likewise ask ourselves, as Christians concerned about climate crisis, how to see God’s hand at work in those who deny the basic facts of climate change, as we see them?
We can be as prone to presumption about our own righteousness when we feel woke to a profound problem as when we delude ourselves into believing all is well, when it is not. Paul warns Gentile believers against thinking too highly of themselves in relationship to Israelites who reject salvation in Christ (Romans 11:17-18). Likewise, we are missing the mark if we focus more on our sense of being in the right about climate change than on finding common cause with all persons to address the actual challenges we face together. Perhaps that is a minimal kind of providence we can discern as we grapple with those who deny the science of climate change: a warning against liberal self-righteousness as an end in itself—as if, like Jonah, we would rather be right as we wait to witness the destruction of Nineveh than to care about Nineveh’s people and animals and reach out from the heart of anguish and compassion to our political enemies, towards whom God’s concern also extends (Jonah 4:9-11).
Romans 9:1-5 sets us solidly in anguish—not self-righteousness—as the starting place for moving toward those who oppose us.
Isaiah 55:1-5: Funeral Feasts and Listening toward Restoration
So much voiced in the psalms and prophets is counter-factual—announcing a state of affairs in which God is ultimately making all things well, even when the current moment is a disaster. And sometimes stirred into the prophet’s vision-pot is anticipation of a wider covenant—a home-going after exile that is not a nostalgic return to what had been, but instead a new kind of homemaking, with foreigners now joining in.
In Isaiah 55:1-5, the prophet calls those exiled from Jerusalem to come join a free feast, anticipating a return from exile. Those who are dead to their old lives are addressed with the same word used to call forth the dead to a ritual meal on their behalf: “Ho!” (Isaiah 55:1). But the richness of the food also evokes a royal banquet, and for Christians, the Lord’s Supper that both memorializes Jesus’ death and provides a foretaste of “the feast to come” in the fullness of the Kingdom or (in Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’ famous words) the Kindom of God.
The prophet knows we need to “listen carefully” from within our current grief, responding to the call to eat “rich food” that we “may live,” as God makes with us “an everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 55:2-3)—one that stretches to include “nations that you do not know” who shall run to the very people in exile “because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 55:5).
As Christians, we hear in these prophetic words an anticipation of how Gentiles—“the nations”—will run to Jesus as the Anointed One of God. And as those inspired by the global movement of young people skipping school to demand that all nations respond to climate crisis, we might also hear the voice of Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden, calling like Isaiah to listen, that we may live.
To find our way to the promised feast, we have to “incline [our] ear” (Isaiah 55:3) and figure out where God is inviting us. That is the hard part, of course: how do we move from exile to restoration, from lifeways that continue to damage our planet to a serious commitment to reverse our course in a way inclusive of all persons and institutions, from every walk of life and business? (For some prophetic-styled depictions of resistant-to-proactive responses among a range of industries, see Schumpeter, “The Seven Ages of Climate Man: A Shakespearean guide to how companies tackle change,” The Economist, 5-25-19, https://www.economist.com/business/2019/05/23/a-shakespearean-guide-to-how-firms-tackle-climate-change.)
We do not lack for prophets today. As in Isaiah’s time, the challenge is to incline our ear to listen to them—and, as Isaiah urges, to trust the promise that our response to God’s invitation to restoration matters.
The Psalm reminds us that the wider creation is included in the streaming-forth to rejoice together before God: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season;” “and all flesh will bless [God’s] holy name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:15, 21).
Amy Carr firstname.lastname@example.org