Tag Archives: John Dominic Crossan

Sunday July 24-30 in Year A (Ormseth)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

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

Christmas (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:  either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

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

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Mundahl)

Offering Life for the World Tom Mundahl reflects on Christ’s suffering and death.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2017)

Readings for the Sunday of Passion, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27: 66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The Sunday of the Passion begins the eight-day holy week, which culminates in the central celebration of the Christian faith: the passage of Jesus from death to life marked by the Three Days. Not only do the readings contain rich support for serving creation, but the gospel readings show the cosmic significance of the events—ranging from the donkey and tree branches of the entry into the city to the cosmic elements of darkness and earthquake in the passion story.

Norman Wirzba summarizes the connection between our readings and ecojustice concerns: “We discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation. Creation, understood as God’s offering of creatures to each other as food and nurture, reflects a sacrificial power in which life continually moves through death to new life” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, p. 126). While the very notion of sacrifice is uncomfortable to death-denying North Americans, it still is the way of the cross that leads to new life.

To grasp Isaiah’s Third Servant Song (Isaiah 50:4-9a), it is important to uncover the world of self-deception many exiles still embraced. In fact, one of the purposes of Second Isaiah is to convince the people that they were responsible for their condition; they had lost their freedom and land because they had convinced themselves that any wealth and status they enjoyed resulted from their own efforts, not as a gift of God. They had clearly forgotten the warning of the Deuteronomist: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Yahweh responds to this arrogance with an indictment and trial immediately preceding our First Reading. Here the very notion that the LORD is responsible for breaking the covenant and selling the people off to the highest bidder is shown to be pathetic and self-serving (Isaiah 50:1-3). Since living in self-deception only leads to greater self-destruction, the verdict is a stiff dose of the truth. As Paul Hanson suggests, “the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not dedicated to avoiding offense at all costs, but to dispelling the delusions that imprison human beings” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 137). As the prophetic word delivered by Isaiah has it, “I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

This reminds us of nothing so much as the delusion of “American exceptionalism” that credits national wealth totally to a genius that forgets what once were seen as limitless natural “resources,” centuries of slave labor, and the genocide of native people. Like the exiles, advocates of eco-justice are called to be prophetic truth-tellers, awakening us to the fact that we, too, because of water depletion, resource waste, and climate change are also living in an illusion of prosperity containing the seeds of destruction.

This Servant Song reminds us that, in spite of human delusion, God does not give up on sending prophets as messengers to help the recovery of our senses. Whereas in Isaiah 42 it is the Spirit that emboldens the servant, in this Sunday’s text it is the power of the word itself: “The LORD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). In fact, this Servant Song comes close to presenting a job description for prophets. The power of calling provides the endurance to confront those who meet the truth with “insults and spitting” (Isaiah 50: 6). The simple fact of persistence—“setting the face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7)—in the face of constant ridicule is the key to prophetic effectiveness (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 229).

It is through the suffering of the servant that power to transform the whole community grows. One of the great mysteries of faith is that those with the greatest ability to encourage the distraught are often those who, far from being exempt from suffering , discover special gifts of empathy and empowerment precisely in their own valleys of personal suffering (Hanson, p. 141). Again. we see life emerging from death.

As we began these comments on Lenten season texts, climate activist and Methodist layperson Bill McKibben’s 2016 lecture to inaugurate the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lectures was referred to. We saw that McKibben took as his task applying the lessons of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 80’s to the climate struggle. The first lesson McKibben mentioned was the power of “unearned suffering” (This lecture is available online at www.fateoftheearth.org). Increasingly, it appears that McKibben’s prescience was uncanny. The courage to endure in seeking eco-justice in the face of opposition from the current presidential regime can only come from a source as strong as that described by Isaiah: in our case, the power of baptismal calling to give us strength “to set our face like flint” in the quest for eco-justice, a quest that seems more likely with each passing day to require civil disobedience. This may be how we offer ourselves to one another “to till (serve) and keep” the creation.

Few texts sing the melody of self-offering for the life of the world as clearly as our Second Lesson, Philippians 2:5-11. “For at the heart of the story of creation, from its origins through problem to resolution is the story of Christ, who enters the world to redeem it, and is raised to glory as the firstborn of the new creation. Paul summarizes this story most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 172).

Named after the father of Alexander the Great, by the middle of the first century CE Philippi had become a retirement center for the Roman military, a city where loyalty to the emperor was highly valued. In the face of the dominant culture, this Christ hymn makes the subversive claim that believers are “citizens of an empire where Christ is Lord” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, p. 499). Of course, the appellation, “Lord,” was a commonplace when referring to the emperor. As Ovid wrote, the emperor is “Lord of the empire, no less mighty than the world he governs” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, p. 108). To send a letter featuring this Christ-hymn naming Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:11) was surely crossing the line.

But the “career trajectory” of this lordship is unlike any sanctioned by Roman culture. Instead of a climb to the top, this lordship participates in the depths of life by obedient self-emptying (kenosis). Influenced by elements of the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53: 12), the Genesis narrative of disobedience (Genesis 3), and the Roman cult of the emperor, this Christ-hymn concisely summarizes the story as one of incarnation (he emptied himself), death (he humbled himself), and glorification (Gorman, p. 506).

Although we are mindful of the final verses of the Christ-hymn, it is crucial to recognize on this day, formerly referred to almost exclusively as Palm Sunday, that it was not “hosannas” all the way. To remind his audience (and all hearers) of this, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ self-emptying is the pattern of faithful life: “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2: 5).

Some years ago, Wayne Meeks suggested that the basic purpose of Philippians “is the shaping of a Christian phronesis (way of thinking) that is ‘conformed to Christ’s death in hope of resurrection’” (“The Man from Heaven in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” in Birger Pearson, ed., The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991, p. 333). As we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, perhaps we could see this “way of thinking” as shaping Luther’s theology, in particular his notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Early in his career as a reformer, Luther made it clear that “everyone who knows he is a Christian should be fully assured that all of us alike are priests” (“The Pagan Servitude of the Church” (1520), in Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther—Selections from His Writings, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961, p. 349). That same year, in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” Luther defines this priesthood, drawing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (12:12f.): “We are all one body, yet each member has his own work serving others” (Ibid., p. 407). Surely this priesthood—offering life for the world in the name of the Christ—includes serving creation and securing eco-justice.

Even on the Sunday of the Passion, we “lean” toward the culmination of this holy week at the Vigil. Therefore, we cannot ignore the glorification in the final part of the Christ-hymn. This, too, reflects the baptismal priesthood we share. We learn that “what a priest does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now . . . . When we ‘lift our hearts’ to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). As priests we begin to see the whole creation as an altar of God’s offering. This altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves” (Wirzba, p. 207).

We cannot neglect our gospel reading(s). The processional reading requires good participation from the congregation—energy is important (as are eco-palms that are widely available). Because it is important to begin this week being immersed in the passion story, my recommendation is reading the longer version. If it is a single reader, it should be done at an appropriate pace, unhurried. If there is a talented storyteller in the congregation willing to take this on, what a gift! Even better is a choral reading using resources that are widely available. However, the key to a good choral reading is recruiting good readers, all standing near the lectern, who have practiced together at least twice. If sound reinforcement is necessary, that should also be “practiced.”

Is a traditional sermon necessary? That is a local decision. While serving as a pastor, when I did preach I usually focused briefly on the Philippians Christ-hymn. In the last fifteen years of ministry, simply hearing the passion gospel read was more than enough. If this is done, it is particularly important to allow silence (more than a minute before and two minutes or more after the Passion Gospel) for reflection and prayer.  While this may seem unusual and even uncomfortable for some, silence is a gift of life for this unique week and always in congregational worship.

Hymn Suggestions:

Processional: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” ELW, 344
Hymn of the Day: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” ELW, 340
Sending: “What Wondrous Love Is This,” ELW, 666

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