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

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

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

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Can These Bones Live?Tom Mundahl reflects on the cost of transitioning to a creation-normed economy.

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

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

As we worked to increase interest in our Easter Vigil, the decision was made to invite children to act out one of the readings each year. Whether it was the creation narrative, the story of Jonah, or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, they did it with gusto. I remember when the reader asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3), seeing children sprawled on a dark floor, unmoving, gave Ezekiel’s words intense contemporary gravity. As the lector continued, “I will lay sinews on you, and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:6), the children began squirming, stood, and started a slow zombie dance, something they were very good at. Finally came the words, “Prophesy to the breath….” (37:9) and the dance of life began. Both the reading and the bones came to life.

But this text is far more than child’s play. It captures the grief of a people in exile, a people who wonder whether the God of promise has forgotten them and consigned them to permanent captivity. This desperation is clear in their communal lament: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has perished, our life thread has been cut” (Ezekiel 37:11). So the question posed by the LORD to the prophet, “Mortal can these bones live?” does more than score points on “trivia night; ”it is even more than a consideration of the possibility of resurrection. To the exiles the question is: Do we as a community have a future?

It is in the language of this dramatic parable that we find a clue. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, “the narrative is held together by the key term ruah. It occurs ten times in all, and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context” (Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 73). All three are gifts of God bringing new life in even the most extreme predicament.

Not only is God’s presence through the gift of ruah celebrated; in this parable the primal act of creation is reenacted, “when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life” (Ibid.). Just as that creation responded to the need of someone to care for land (adamah), so this new beginning marks a return and new relationship with the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11).

Walter Brueggemann makes it very clear that covenant renewal and the land belong together. Once again land becomes a gift “to till (serve) and keep” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 142). The importance of entering the land as if for the first time is the burden of much of the remainder of Ezekiel with its description of Yahweh’s return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5), redistribution of the land (47:13-48: 29), and the associated rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to note that as exiles return (from being “aliens” themselves) even aliens will have a place. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel” (47:22b).

With the increasing ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wild weather swings, and fear of government protections (regulations) disappearing, the question, “can these bones live” is remarkably timely. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a term describing this particular state of longing for past environmental predictability and safety, “solastalgia.” That this impacts a substantial portion of the population finds support in a recent article published in the British medical journal, Lancet, describing health risks coming from discomfort and stress caused by fear of rapid climate change. (Nick Watts, et al,”Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” Lancet, No. 386, pp. 1861-1914)

Those who seek ecojustice long to escape from “solastalgia” and hopelessness. “Out of the depths” we cry to the LORD (Psalm 130:1). But as we wonder about life in the depths and whether our “dry bones” can live, we continue to trust in the God who gives us patience “to wait for the LORD more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Yet, the one we wait for also reveals the vision of a city whose river is pristine, whose vegetation is rich in food, with trees whose leaves bring healing, an urban center that even welcomes aliens (Ezekiel 47:7-12). The pattern and inspiration are God’s gift; the work is ours.

This work is nothing if not countercultural. In this week’s Second Reading, Paul lays out two modes of human orientation—“flesh” and “spirit.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6a), or what Paul Tillich called “self-sufficient finitude” (Francis Ching-Wah Yip, Capitalism as Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010, p. 85). Arthur McGill describes life centered in “the flesh” this way: “What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one’s own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold on to myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself.  I am the Lord of myself” (Death and Life: An American Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, pp. 54-55)

Since living by the flesh is propelled by fear of losing one’s identity in death, it could not contrast more with “setting the mind on the Spirit which is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b). This is living by the gift of faith, beyond self-concern, trusting that daily bread and all that we need from day to day will be provided. This is no individualistic presentism. As Kasemann suggests, “The Spirit is the power of new creation of the end-time and as such links the present of faith to the future” (Commentary on Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 215). We live together from God’s future.

Beyond this time dimension, Paul’s theology drives immediately to praxis: “We are called to be who we are” (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 191). Because the Spirit “dwells in us,” we are also infused with life (Romans 8:10), life which takes form in “specific service, since the Spirit wants to penetrate every corner of the world in all its breadth and depth” (Kasemann, p. 223).

This is true both in action and understanding.  In one of his early essays wondering why, with all the attention to “Christ and culture,” creation seemed neglected, Joseph Sittler made this vow:

“While I cannot at the moment aspire to shape the systematic structure out
of these insights, I know that I shall as a son of the earth know no rest until
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
understanding of my faith. For these earthly protestations of earth’s broken
but insistent meaning have about them the shine of the holy, and a certain
‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them”
(“A Theology for the Earth,” (1954) in Bakken and Bouma-Prediger, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 25-26).        

If we are motivated at all by residual Lenten guilt, it could be put to good use by working to include all of creation in preaching, worship, and outreach — service.

As we conclude with John’s “Book of Signs,” the question “can these bones live” takes on a unique form in the Lazarus narrative. We recall that as he welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (John 9:35). While that title certainly indicates a rank outclassing all historical rulers, it does not mean that Jesus is a remote figure. Brueggemann comments, “He is not the majestic, unmoved Lord but rather the one who knows and shares in the anguish of brother and sister” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p.92). He is also “the human one.”

Jesus is shown as a figure who weeps openly and expresses anger at the separating power of death—emotional transparency that contrasts sharply with norms for leaders of his time. Jesus is unafraid of expressing grief openly because he is engaged “in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the very pain and grief society must deny” (Ibid.). This novel action threatens so intensely that the religious elite reacts by concluding “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Thankfully, the divine commitment to healing the earth is far stronger than the leadership’s trivial use of utilitarian logic.

The issue is a life far more powerful than biological death. The “abundant life” (John 10:10) Jesus brings forges strong connections of care and service among people and otherkind. This life flows in the expenditure of energy, time, and emotion to build strong membership communities—human and ecological. Beyond the threat of biological death is the much more fearful loveless isolation which prevents us from offering ourselves as caregivers to creation or recipients of that care. (see Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 115).

The raising of Lazarus, then, is far more than a simple resuscitation.  It completes the Book of Signs by demonstrating how complete is Jesus’ commitment to healing the cosmos (John 3:16-17). Our narrative fulfills what is promised when Jesus says, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:21). But he takes this even further, saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my voice and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5: 24) Not only is this living from God’s future; it is living God’s future.

To say one participates in what we translate as “eternal life,” “denotes entry into life that partakes of God’s purposes, wherein all God’s creation is transformed from sin and death to live according to God’s purposes . . . . John does not use language of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ but the affirmation of somatic (bodily) resurrection (John 20-21) shows concern for the re-creation of the physical world.” (Warren Carter, John and Empire, London: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 213)

This also suggests the kenotic freedom of servanthood freeing the faith community to lay down life in building ecojustice (John 10:17-18). Recently, a group of residents of Winona County in Minnesota worked for nearly two years to achieve the first countywide ordinance banning the mining of sand for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. Led by members of the Land Stewardship Project with origins at Faith Lutheran, St. Charles, MN, they expended hours of effort to nourish the land, waters, and people of this Mississippi River county by influencing local policy (Johanna Ruprecht, “Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign,” The Land Stewardship Newsletter, No. 1, 2017, pp. 12-15.).

“Can these bones live” in a time of discouragement and frustration?  Not one of the texts for this Sunday in Lent was written by those enjoying great ease and comfort. Anyone who thought that transition to a creation-normed economy would ever be easy—especially in the face of global capitalism—is naive. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s analysis from 1943 fits our situation: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (“After Ten Years,” in Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). And “from below,” where creation is fouled and creatures—including people—suffer, there is no shortage of opportunities for ecojustice effort.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” ELW, 468
Hymn of the Day:   “Out of the Depths, I Cry to You,” ELW, 600
Sending: “Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW, 326
 

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

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

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

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

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Do we see God’s work in all creation?Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced  in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.

When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.

Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.

Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’

The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).

Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).

Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).

Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam.  Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.

So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.

With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?

Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well. 

All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ”  Global warming, Brown notes,

“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it  But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption?  A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation

Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and  the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Real Water, Holy WaterDennis Ormseth reflects on the Samaritan woman finishing a story that began with Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in this Sunday’s Gospel carries forward the concern about God’s presence in relationship to “water and the Spirit” from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last Sunday, with primary focus now on water in contrast to Spirit. Our first reading is, of course, a classic text concerning this relationship: At  Rephidim “there was no water for the people to drink.”  Recalling that there had been plenty of water in Egypt, both  for themselves and for their livestock, the people “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”  So Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah,” “Test and Quarrel” (Exodus 17:1, 7). The Psalm appointed for this Sunday underscores this link: Hardened hearts doubt Yahweh’s presence in the creation, as the people did “on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” The faithful praise God: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (95;3-4, 8). Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman touches on these things and their connections: water, mountains, life in the land, and God’s presence amongst the people. The conversation is accordingly rich in significance for understanding our relationship to God’s creation.

Transversing Samaria, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest of followers from among her fellow Samaritans. The woman’s arrival at the well in the noon of the day suggests alienation from the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later; was she being ostracized on account of her serial marriages? While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food, he offers to give her  “living water,” an expression that is deliciously ambiguous, meaning both “fresh, running water” and ‘life-giving water” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p. 566). It is, as Raymond Brown suggests, simply water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 179). After uncovering the truth about her life, Jesus discloses the truth about himself as well: “I am he,” he says, the one about whom, as she expects, ‘”when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4:25-26). The evangelist has made his point: Not only does Jesus give water as a sign of God’s presence in the land, Jesus is himself that presence (the I AM) (4:26).

On the way to this point, however, their exchange rehearses the more traditional understandings of God’s presence in the land, beliefs that divide Jews and Samaritans. Her people worship God on nearby Mount Gerazim, his on Zion at Jerusalem. The issue is of very obvious importance to her. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan, one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribal ancestor. Indeed, the well was itself undoubtedly a significant part of what made her feel confident in worship of God on Mount Gerazim. What we today understand in hydrological terms, was for them primarily a religious reality. Mountain ecology is of crucial importance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain deposits water on its slopes, which flows downward in streams or alternatively seeps into the ground to the aquifer, from which it can be retrieved by wells such as Jacob’s. Thus the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is seen to be dependent upon “the mountain,” or, as alternatively understood here, the God who is worshiped on that mountain. As our first reading so dramatically reminds us, an adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

Thus Jesus’ offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, quite naturally gives rise to her question about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to Mount Zion.  If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then perhaps that she too should worship God on Zion rather than on Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is also clear that for him, God should be worshiped exclusively neither on Zion nor on Gerizim, but rather “in spirit and truth”—that is, in the presence of one who bears the Spirit and tells the truth, the one, that is, who gives the gift of “living water.”

It is striking how completely talk of water and rival mountains vanishes from the conversation at this point, once Jesus has been identified with the presence of God. The woman returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes—she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. She has received the water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). The disciples return with food, which Jesus declines to eat: He has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples’ astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food),  “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34). And just so, he goes to his work: the woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. Together they invite him home to their village, where he “dwells” with them (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel) for two days, during which they also become convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” A new community that includes both Jews and Samaritans has been created, with Jesus at its center.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) reminds us, however, that what is at stake in his “work” is greater than merely the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. By the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in last Sunday’s lesson, we saw that the power of the Spirit is sufficient to restore all creation (John 3:16)—the cosmos as we understand it today. While the meaning of “cosmos” is probably more circumscribed here, meaning primarily “the human world opposed to God’s will and purposes for the creation” (see our comment on last Sunday’s Gospel), we are nevertheless on the trajectory indicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, of the “promise that rest[s] on grace and [is] guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16-17). The God present in Jesus is God the Creator who “so loved the cosmos” that he sent [Jesus], his only begotten Son.”

An important consideration relative to our concern for care of creation needs to be addressed here. Once Jesus is identified as the locus of God’s presence, the water-bearing mountains fade to background, and one might easily assume that the non-human creation represented by the mountain and its watershed is relegated to the diminished status as mere ‘background” or “stage” for the Christian narrative. This would appear to be the implication, for example, of a statement by Gail O’Day in her commentary on the text: “‘God is spirit’ (v. 24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she writes; indeed, “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day,  p. 568). Jesus’ eschatological arrival, it would seem, negates the significance of any particular facet of the creation that might be used to locate his presence within it. We would argue, on the contrary, that the narrative instead relocates that presence within the creation in such a way as to bind it more fully and irrevocably, and indeed with cosmic scope, to the creation. This is the significance of Jesus gift of “living water.”

As we noted above, the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus.” Thus while it is “of the Spirit,” it is nonetheless also water. Water remains the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And appropriately so: as the universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element on Earth, water is the most powerful carrier of that significance conceivable. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. Astronomical science is currently engaged in what is truly a cosmic search for the presence of water throughout the universe. So a shift from mountains to water as the definitive locus of the manifestation of God’s presence actually constitutes a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation.  As it did for Jesus and the Samaritans, water is a reality that can be counted upon to bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential to life. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue which will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or draw the world into final and all-encompassing tragic confrontation. Hence with this shift there is no diminishment of the status of creation in relationship to God’s presence; none, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to destroy its life-generating and life-sustaining properties.

How is it, then, with water? A host of creation-care issues are inevitably linked here: Protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind, to water; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change, with its associated threats of acidification of the oceans and desertification of the land. Some of these issues, Larry Rasmussen points out in a 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants, urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions, and the integrity of nature’s most complex systems is at stake. And finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its Creator? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; we have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues?  Normally it is not. In our age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. It was the command and control perspective that was operative also in the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions; it was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus pitched the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account, if we are right with respect to the comprehensive meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates that the presence of water is essential for all life on Planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all other-kind with whom we share the earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face, accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations. It remains so for us. We should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. Meanwhile, every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for the inestimable grace of water.

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Come and SeeTom Mundahl reflects on God’s gift of water.

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

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

On the day of my ordination at First Lutheran Church, Little Falls, MN, in late September of 1979, I did not expect much more than ritual approval of my new job in parish ministry. I was wrong. As promises were made before the congregation that had nurtured me, my high school teachers, and friends, I was overwhelmed. When, at the close of the service, I was invited to respond, after saying “thank you” all that came to mind was the closing line from Franklin Brainard’s poem, “Raingatherer:” “In a world of earthenware, I come with a paper cup.” (Brainard, Raingatherer, Morris, MN: Minnesota Poet’s Press, 1973)

While that line fits our discussion of the creation of “groundlings” to “till (serve) and keep” (Genesis 2:15) the garden, this week the image is a bit too solid. As we know, planet earth is more than two-thirds water, a fraction closely matched by all living things.  How appropriate, then, that this week’s readings highlight water as both necessary for life and as an image for the flow of “living water”—”a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) The centrality of water is found in the psalmist’s affirmation, “The sea is his for he made it, and the dry land which his hands have formed” (Psalm 95:5). But, in spite of recent concern over the Earth’s water “resources,” unfortunately, the most appropriate line of verse for Americans in 2017 would be, “In a world of water, we come holding a plastic bottle.”

This jarring contrast suits our First Reading from Exodus in which we meet the pilgrim people complaining loudly about their lack of water.  Too often we see Genesis 12-50 and the remaining books of the Pentateuch as focused on “redemption,” assuming the scriptures are done with “creation.” But, especially when our focus is on water, it is clear that it is the very same Creator God who frees Israel from Egypt. For “what God does in redemption is in the service of endangered divine goals in and for the creation.” (Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 13)

As the people repeat their well-rehearsed litany about being dragged into the wilderness to die (in this case) of thirst, it is surprising that the divine response contains nothing about “attitude adjustment,” only directions for finding water.  Moses is instructed to use “the staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 7:19-21) and “strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” (Exodus 17:6)

This time fresh water appears, not the bloody river of the First Plague. This occurs as the LORD stands before Moses “on the rock of Horeb.”(Exodus 17:6) Already the gift of torah is anticipated. Just as water enables human bodily life to continue, so also does the life-giving torah hold the community together.  As Fretheim writes, “…social order is a matter of creation.  The gift of the water of life comes from the same source as the gift of the law, a source of life for the community of faith.” (ibid., p. 190)

We are all too aware that many around the world—predominantly women—still lug water long distances daily to ensure survival for their families. Two years after one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the United States, tap water in Flint, MI is still unsafe to drink.  Will the Dakota Access Pipeline routed under the Missouri River on disputed treaty land be safe, or will another pipeline leak contaminate drinking water for hundreds of thousands?  What about the one hundred million plastic water bottles used every day around the world?  Those that are not recycled (the vast majority) are thrown into landfills where they do not begin to decompose for seven hundred years; the rest are thrown into rivers where too many end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Certainly, a legal framework both guaranteeing safe water and protecting the planet from plastic waste would be a step toward ecojustice.

That this struggle is far from easy is evident from our Second Reading. While at the center of Paul’s theology “stands the transforming act of God that provides the solution to the problems afflicting both humanity and the wider nonhuman creation,” all is not yet complete.  (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 170) At the same time the community of faith “boasts in hope” (Romans 5:2) trusting in the ultimate success of God’s justice, another regime works actively to thwart hope and convince humankind that the only safe route to security and peace is self-interest, often based on national or ideological “tribalisms,” the most fertile contemporary sources of idolatry. 

Even in the face of this demonic opposition, confident hope is maintained.  As Paul puts it, “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:2-5)  Because we live in sure and certain hope of resurrection, even as we experience cruciform reality in our struggles for ecojustice, we continue in confidence.

If this description of struggle seems unfamiliar to those who serve creation, it soon will be apparent. The forces defending what is billed as “free-market capitalism” in the United States have thrown down the gauntlet and seem ready to marginalize all who see the creation as God’s gift and threaten to all but eliminate the federal government’s role in protecting the natural world, which they see it as a “resource dump” to be mined in every possible way, enriching a wealthy elite. The January 2020 revised definition of “Waters of the US,” which curbed protection of rivers, streams, and the likes, is a case in point.

Because this week’s reading from Romans drives to Romans 8 with its “vision of cosmic reconciliation that includes and incorporates all things,” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, ibid.), living out of God’s future suggests that faithful ecojustice advocates keep faith and counter those who would “privatize” everything in order to build the “commons,” even if only on a local level. The gifts of water, air, and atmosphere must be part of the shared inheritance to be nurtured as we “till (serve) and keep” God’s garden earth. The odds seem against us, but now “much more surely” (Romans 5:9-10) can we participate hopefully in assuming responsibility for the future and health of creation.

At first glance, our Gospel Reading seem to reveal a woman short on courage, furtively going to draw water in the middle of the day when everyone else has finished this tedious chore. What is immediately apparent is the contrast between this woman and Nicodemus.  He is a male Jewish insider with well-regarded credentials; she is a female Samaritan outsider with what can only be seen as a checkered past. Even though through a slow development we see Nicodemus being transformed in the narrative of John’s Gospel, it is not long before this  Samaritan woman can be found among the townspeople she had been avoiding with a bold invitation: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29)

The turning point for this ill-used woman seems to be Jesus’ offer of “living water.” Not surprisingly, in John’s rich world of double meanings, she assumes that Jesus is offering “flowing water,” water from a stream or artesian well. What’s more, when Jesus goes on to define this water as “a well of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:12), she is even more excited about the possibility of water that will never run out, sparing her the embarrassment of a daily appearance at the well.

As the conversation continues with a probing of the woman’s past and a discussion of authentic worship, things begin to change. Finally, she senses an unimagined presence and blurts out, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” (John 4:25) Jesus replies simply, “I am.” (John 4:26) And the next time we see the woman she is inviting townspeople to “come and see” Jesus.  She leaves her water jar leaning against the well, for now she contains “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

This should be no surprise, for John’s Gospel begins with a flowing movement of creation and new creation.  In the Prologue, the one who reveals himself to the well woman as “I am” is the Word who “was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:2-3a)  It continues with the efflorescence of light and life and the “Word becoming flesh” to “pitch his tent” as a human. (John 1: 4, 14) This powerful current carries Jesus as the Risen One to be seen as “the gardener,” (John 20:15) bringing renewal to the garden of life.

“Deep incarnation” is one apt description of this flow.  Coined by Danish theologian, Niels Gergerson, it has found a ready reception, recently reported in the proceedings of a 2011 Copenhagen conference exploring its possible meanings. (Niels Gregerson, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015)

In one of the most helpful essays, Celia Deane-Drummond of Notre Dame writes: “Theologically, deep incarnation can be understood to act at the boundary of creation and new creation, where Christ enters into the human, evolutionary, and ecological history in a profound way so that through the living presence of the Holy Spirit that history is changed in the direction of God’s purposes for the universe in the pattern of Christ.” (Gregerson, 198)  This current, according to Deane-Drummond, “is also a call to act out in proper respect for the natural world and all its creatures.  It is, in other words, unavoidably an ecotheology marked out by a call to build a community of justice.” (ibid., p. 199)

We see the power of this new pattern as our pericope ends,  After hearing the invitation of the well-woman to “Come and see,” people from Sychar do just that. As Craig Koester suggests, “By going out of Sychar to meet Jesus, inviting him into their town, and calling him “Savior,” the Samaritans give Jesus a welcome similar to those granted to visiting rulers.” (quoted in Warren Carter, John and Empire: Initial Explorations, New York: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 189)  As the giver of “living water” Jesus’ authority exceeds that of the emperor.

This authority surely is enough to encourage us to continue as “water protectors” even in the face of a culture that sees life as only instrumental to economic growth.  This encouragement can be amplified in our worship. Lisa Dahill has recently suggested that most baptisms as well as affirmations of baptism take place in local waters. “Baptizing outdoors recasts the meaning of baptism. Here Jesus Christ is not a mark of separation—Christians here, non-Christians there—but is the one who brings Christians and our best wisdom, faith, and practice into restored unity in our shared waters with all people and all creatures.” (Lisa E. Dahill, “Into Local Waters: Rewilding the Study of Christian Spirituality,” Spiritus, Vol 16, No. 2, Fall, 2016, p. 159)

This flowing faith might also be nurtured in our houses of worship with the installation dramatic art. Kristen Gilje has painted a permanent altar fresco for Faith Lutheran Church, Bellingham, WA, that features vivid, flowing water cascading from the roots of the tree of life. While this theme has nurtured worshippers since the mosaics of San Giovanni Laterana were installed in the fourth century, CE, today this strategic beauty is even more crucial in empowering us to endure threats to creation and to live from a hope that does not disappoint.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,” ELW, 807
Hymn of the Day:  “As the Deer Runs to the River,” ELW, 331
Sending: “Lord, Dismiss Us with Your Blessing,” ELW, 545

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

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Living in Promises and HopeTom Mundahl reflects on land and the struggle to “till (serve) and keep” it to this day.

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

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-1, 13-17
John 3:1-17

As we move from the Genesis pre-history (ch. 1-11) to God’s calling into being a new community, the centrality of creation and the vocation to “till (serve) and keep” (Genesis 2:15) remains.  The “events” of the proto-history — expulsion from the garden, the first murder, the flood, and the human effort to “make a name” at Babel–all lead to the situation of Abraham and Sarah—landless and without progeny.

Even though it is tempting to move away from creation issues into history, Brueggemann makes it very clear: “In its present form, the governing promise concerns the land.” (Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, p, 109) This is confirmed by the final promise in Genesis 12:3, “and in you shall all the families of the earth (adamah) be blessed.” We might translate this: “all the families belonging to the earth,” to remind ourselves that the Yahwist begins with the land as the key partner in creation’s dance. (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 127)

But it is the promise of the land which makes the lack of an heir even more poignant. Without a next generation the vocation to “till (serve) and keep” becomes meaningless.  Agriculture is a multi-generational commitment; without children “there can be no fulfillment in the land of promise.” (Brueggemann, ibid.)

God’s promises are both generous and outrageous.  Not only does their weight rest on Abraham and Sarah, but it requires that they uproot themselves from the security of a settled way of life– landless and childless as it may be– to travel on the basis of nothing more than this promise into an uncertain future. Perhaps it is like the choice between embracing a new economy based on clean and sustainable energy sources or looking backward to repristinate the past by “making America great again.”  Why give up the safe illusion of comfort in favor of an unknown future in a so-called “promised land”?

Perhaps the key to understanding Abraham and Sarah’s response is as simple as the identity of the One who promises, whose words fuel the Priestly creation account (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a): “Now the LORD said to Abram.” (Genesis 12:1) That speech creates the faithful response that follows.  Many have heard it as an echo of baptismal calling. And the LORD said, “Go and support water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Or, others have heard a call to teach or be part of an adult class struggling with ecojustice. Others have been lured to serve as counselors at church camps, our precious creation care workshops, where for nearly a week they live mostly disconnected from communications technology in order to help participants reconnect with creation.  The effectiveness of this calling is affirmed by Isaiah in vivid natural terms, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return  there until they have watered the earth…, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The lively speech of God is the source of hope for Abraham and Sarah. “To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.” (Brueggemann, p. 117)  As so many million refugees in the world today know, a word of hope propels and encourages. To refuse to listen to this calling is often to acquiesce in seeing the “Genesis story run backwards.” (Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: the Education of an Unlikely Activist, New York: Times Books, 2013, p. 156)

And, to move forward in response to this hopeful word is to experience blessing. As the generous currency that drives us forward with its vitality, blessing consists of the “ordinary” processes of life which come to be seen as indispensable gifts.  Far from being “mighty acts of God,” blessings are what sustain us on the way– good bread and soup, a warm sweater, a loving hug, a good friend.  And blessing is enough. (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life if the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, pp. 18, 41, 85)

Yet, blessing is framed by unexpected eruptions within the “ordinary” which cannot be predicted.  Brueggemann suggests that scriptures provide three primary ways of speaking such radical newness: creation, resurrection, and justification by grace through faith. (Brueggemann, p. 111)  And it is the latter which land Abraham and Sarah squarely in the middle of Paul’s argument in Romans.

In his effort to reconcile exiled Romans of Jewish background who affirm the Christ with Gentile believers, Paul can find no better model than Abraham.  Abraham certainly had no religious resume to boast about; he and Sarah only trusted promises of land and heirs. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but when the content of the blessings  (Genesis 12:1-3) is taken into account, Paul extravagantly suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world….” (Romans 4:13)

Living by the gift of promise  means embodying the purpose for creation –care and blessing.  And, Paul argues, how much more so in light of the Christ event.  As Kasemann suggests in summarizing Paul’s thinking: “This means that justification, as the restitution of creation and as resurrection anticipated in the stage of trial (anfechtung), is the decisive motif of Paul’s soteriology and theology and these have always to be interpreted in terms of it.  That is, the world and history are always involved in God’s renewing activity.” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1980, p. 123.

Perhaps the struggle of this “renewing activity” is what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind with his poem, “God’s Grandeur:”

            And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell….
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lies the dearest freshness, deep down things….
(Poems and Prose, New York: Everyman’s, 1995, p. 14)

Our gospel reading shows Nicodemus embarking on a “faith journey” of his own. As one of those who “saw the signs that he (Jesus) was doing,” John 2:23), Nicodemus was both intrigued and disturbed. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, what was he to think of Jesus’ statement, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days?” (John 2: 20)  These threatening words and Jesus’ Passover cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-17) may have led Nicodemus to wonder about the meaning of his faith. Perhaps, like Sarah and Abraham, he was beginning to reach a “dead end” where new measures were necessary.

Nicodemus decides to interview Jesus, and, in the interests of protecting his reputation, he comes by night. Whenever I think of this late night meeting I am reminded of Edward Hopper’s arresting painting, “Nighthawks” (1942).  Inside a bright diner surrounded by the dark of night we see four figures, a couple in conversation, the server, and a man sitting with his back to the window. Eerie green shadows convey a sense of loneliness and desperation.  But the most alarming feature of this nighttime refuge is the lack of a door. (Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, New York: Picador, 2016, p. 21)  Perhaps Nicodemus seeks from Jesus a new “door” to his future.

At first, it seems that their conversation is going nowhere.  Even though Nicodemus must be conversant with scripture and tradition, Jesus’ mysterious double entendres referring to being born anothen — “again” and “from above,” and his playing with pneuma as both “wind” and “spirit” confuse him. The fact that this Rabbi prefaces his mysterious speech with “Very truly I say to you,” the “sentence of holy law formula,” only makes matters worse.

No wonder Nicodemus exclaims, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9) His quest to find a new path seems to have failed.  Yet this nocturnal meeting continues with Jesus reminding Nicodemus that here, too, is a kind of “exodus” where, instead of a serpent being lifted up to provide healing, here “ the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

That this will be a healing act of love is made clear by the familiar John 3:16 – 17, where the motive for this is is revealed — the Creator’s love for the creation and all its creatures, including Nicodemus.  Somehow, this mysterious meeting more than satisfies Nicodemus and sends him into the future embracing “the healing of the world.” (John 3:17)

When Jesus is threatened with death by the Sanhedrin, it is Nicodemus who reminds them of protections built into their procedure: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing, to find out what they were doing, does it?” (John 7:51) And, following Jesus being “lifted up,” Nicodemus is there, too.  John writes, “Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19:39)  With Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body with spices in linen.

Adjoining this tomb there was a garden. (John 19:20) May it not be that Nicodemus, this well-connected and transformed teacher, remembering words about love for the world (John 3:16) now saw the garden of creation from Genesis 2-3. (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (xiii- xxi), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 945–one of the possible interpretations mentioned by Brown)  This certainly gives deeper meaning to Mary Magdalene’s “supposing” Jesus to be the “gardener” in John 20:15.  With John’s love of the suggestive richness of language, that may be even a richer messianic title than “my rabbi.” (John 20:16) As Nicodemus found, he is the one who gives growth and nurture to all who, like Abraham and Sarah, experience being “stuck” with no “doors” in sight.

(Refer to Margaret-Daly Denton’s [Trinity College, Dublin] volume in the Earth Bible series, John: An Earth Bible Commentary–Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017.)

Perhaps many ecojustice advocates feel much like Nicodemus today.  Certainly, mutual support is crucial. Reading writings from difficult times can provide sustenance–e.g. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  While re-reading Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian novels may also be helpful, there still is nothing like the psalter.  In this week’s appointed Psalm 121, a Song of Ascents written for pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple, the psalmist affirms that “our help comes from the one who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121: 2) This One will “keep” us as we struggle to “till and keep” creation and build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:
Gathering—“Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW 326
Hymn of the Day—“There in God’s Garden,” ELW 342
Sending—“ Will You Come and Follow Me,”  ELW 798

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

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

The Way of Ecojustice in a Dangerous TimeTom Mundahl reflects on our place in the world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Thomas Mundal in 2017)

Readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have also designated times of renewal centering on prayer and reflection. While Lent is certainly a period for baptismal preparation and rumination about what it means to live as a resurrection community, it also is properly a time of repentance — turning around and renewing the way we think about our identity and vocation.  We sing hymns that honor the Risen One, who “prayed and kept the fast.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, No. 319)  On Ash Wednesday we were starkly reminded of our mortality as we heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives — singly and in community.

This Lent could not be more timely, for those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by a presidential regime that ignores the most elementary climate science, threatens water resources and Native culture by permitting unnecessary pipelines, and strips government agencies of the funds and qualified public servants to protect the web of living things. What we do to nature we do to people, so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

We need this liminal season of Lent to return to the threshold of faith, to retreat briefly to the high desert of quiet and rediscover our center.  For this time of threat requires that we once more discover the character of creation and our status as creatures so that we may be renewed in our baptismal calling to care for each other and “till (serve) and keep” all God has made. (Genesis 2:15)

This is the task laid down by our First Reading.  While the storyline beginning at Genesis 2:4b is often called “the second creation account,” it is much more a series of stories about the character of God’s earth and what it calls for from humankind, perhaps better referred to as “groundlings.” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 80.) Why “groundlings?” Our vocation is totally wrapped up in the name: “In that day that the LORD God made the earth and heavens, when no plant of the field had yet sprung up…there was no one to till (or “serve”) the ground. Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:5-7)

It is no surprise, then, that the central purpose of these “groundlings” is to “till (serve) and keep” the garden. To the gift of this vocation is added the invitation to enjoy all the fruits and delights of the garden with the exception of the “tree of good and evil.” Transgressing that ban leads to a death sentence. (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, pp. 46-48) To be a creature, after all, implies limitation.

It is precisely this limitation that the partners charged with caring for the garden violate. They are persuaded by another creature, the serpent, that the Creator and owner of the garden is holding out on them by maintaining a monopoly on divine power. That this is false takes no more than a bite of the tree’s fruit, as the “groundlings” discover not omniscience but shame at upsetting the gracious harmony of the garden.

While this narrative is hardly an explanation of how evil came into the world, or of the origins of death (assumed to be part of the created order), it does illustrate the human drive for power, autonomy, and escape from responsibility. This is revealed especially during the investigation conducted by the garden’s owner as the “groundlings” defend themselves with “I” language, revealing a breach of this primal relationship.  (Brueggemann, ibid., pp. 41-42)

Because adam has not cared for adamah, the “groundlings” are expelled from the garden. As both the Yahwist author of this section of Genesis and critics of contemporary agricultural practice agree, “The land comes first.” (Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, Meeting the Expectations of the Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1984, p. 80) Not to “till (serve) and keep” the land brings dreadful consequences.

Today, ignoring care of the soil can be seen with a simple aerial view of the Mississippi delta where a “dead zone” the size of state of Connecticut has formed, the results of erosion and a catalog of chemical fertilizers and herbicides poisoning this watershed which drains 41% of the continental U.S. It is no wonder that Iowa’s rich topsoil which was once as much as fifteen feet deep now averages only four to six inches.

American agriculture has been transformed into an abstract set of economic and bio-physical transactions that see the soil as a mere “medium” for production, a “resource” that can be used indefinitely, not  a living organism in creation that must be “served” with all the agricultural arts. When the concern is winning the prize given by the National Corn Growers’ Association for maximum bushels per acre instead of the long term health of the soil, there is trouble brewing. Only care of the humus will make life human.

By falling for the abstract promises of the clever and neglecting their vocation to care for the garden, the “groundlings” lost the farm. That this continues is beautifully described in one of Wendell Berry’s short stories, “It Wasn’t Me.”  Elton Penn has just purchased a farm at auction, a “place” he can call his own.  He makes that clear in conversation with friends: “I want to make it my own. I don’t want a soul to thank.”  Wiser and older Wheeler Catlett responds that now Elton Penn is connected to a particular farm, things are different.  “When you quit living in the price and start living in the place, you’re in a different line of succession.” (in The Wild Birds–Six Stories of the Port William Membership, San Francisco: North Point, 1986, pp. 67-68)

The Genesis pre-history (chapters 1-11) is populated by actors who “want to make it my own” until Noah comes onto the stage.  Noah, “a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” (Genesis 9:20)  This certainly makes him a “new Adam,” one whose faithfulness in preserving creation (“tilling [serving] and keeping”) shows what membership as a fellow creature means and paves the way for making creation a real “place,” wreathed with story.

This, according to Paul, is also the way of Jesus, who not only empties himself on behalf of all, but in resurrection life suffuses creation with the gift of overflowing grace which frees “groundlings” from sin and for “the exercise of just power” throughout the scope of creation. (Romans 5:15, 17)  Because the righteousness of God means “God’s putting things right” (Krister Stendahl, Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, p. 31), believers are called to exercise “dominion in life” (Romans 5: 17) as Noah did in faithful care for the elements of creation he protected during the deluge.  The “deluge” we experience may be political, civilizational, as well as environmental,  but its effect is just as deadly.

It is based on what Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute calls “the uber-lie.” Simply put, “it is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet and never suffer the consequences.” (postcarbon.org/the-uber-lie/) That political candidates seeking votes fear “the limits to growth” is no surprise. In response to this central dishonesty, those who have received overflowing grace are called to join with all who recognize that curbing consumption so that all may have enough, population control, and public policy supporting these by curbing carbon emissions are elements of “exercising servant-dominion” and “putting things right” in God’s creation. This may have to begin at the local level where “soil” becomes “place” through stories of care and where “groundlings” affirm their “membership” in the whole creation which Paul promises will “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:23)

Just as the community of faith is freed by the overflowing grace of the Christ to care justly (“to exercise dominion”) and serve creation (Romans 5:17), so Matthew’s temptation narrative reminds us where the authority to carry this out rests.  In the course of this three-fold testing, the curtain is removed so that Matthew’s audience cannot help but recognize the awful truth: the Roman Empire and its colonial collaborators are in thrall to the evil one, the destroyer. (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 106)

That Jesus intends to move beyond the sump of Roman rule is signaled by the location and details of our reading. As the temptations intensify, so does the elevation — from the high desert (4:1), to the temple “wing”(4:5), to the top of “an exceedingly high” mountain (4:8). Not only do these locations reflect Matthew’s fascination with mountain settings, they put Jesus in what early modern philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) called “the state of nature” where what is basic about the human behavior can be discovered.

While these “wild states” may seem to indicate “advantage devil,” Belden Lane, drawing on Terence Donaldson’s study of the function of mountain imagery in Matthew, suggests something entirely different:

“An eschatological community takes shape on the boundaries, at the liminal place on the mountain’s slope. The established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.” (Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998, p. 45)

Even though this appears to be a one-on-one conflict, in fact it is the Spirit who has “led Jesus up to the wilderness” (4:1) where Jesus “affirms his baptism.” And, it is the Spirit who gathers the “new community.” (Luther, Small Catechism, Third Article, “What Does This Mean?”)

In his preparation for writing The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky had come to see atheist revolutionary terrorism as the greatest temptation to those seeking to bring change to Russia’s czarist autocracy. It is no surprise, then, that at the center of this vast novel we find “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, an imaginative retelling of Matthew’s text. Jesus suddenly appears in Seville, Spain, where after healing a child he is promptly arrested.  During the interrogation the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus for refusing the three temptations which would have lifted the burden of freedom from the masses, those who would say, “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky tr., San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 253)

Ralph Wood suggests that the temptations of “miracle, mystery, and authority”—Dostoevsky’s shorthand for our narrative’s three challenges—sound only too familiar in a culture in love with the miracles of gadgetry, the thrill of amazing athletic feats, and willing to hand over freedom to authoritarian leaders.  He writes, “Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification, constitutes a yet worse kind of herd existence than the one …(Dostoevsky) describes—a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.” (Ralph Wood, “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake,” First Things, December, 2002, p. 34)

Rather than defining freedom as individual autonomy, Jesus gathers a new community where “our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network and shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises.” (Wood, p. 33)  In other words, as Wendell Berry would say: we discover our vocation largely through our “memberships.” The integrity of this vocation too often requires resisting temptation at heavy cost.

This is authentic freedom whose pathway is led by the one who resists temptation, who refuses the easy road to accomplish the will of the one who sent him. This is self-emptying love that we will recognize most fully on Passion Sunday when we hear the “Christ Hymn” from Philippians 2:5-11 with its blunt portrayal of kenosis. And it may be increasingly the way of ecojustice in an increasingly dangerous time.

In his recent Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture (named after the author of the important volume, The Fate of the Earth (1982), the decade’s most important warning about nuclear weaponry—available online at http://www.fateoftheearth.org), lecturer Bill McKibben compared the nuclear threat with the danger of climate change by describing a nuclear attack as something that “might happen,” while climate change is a process well underway. More importantly, McKibben suggested “learnings” from the anti-nuclear movement.

The first lesson referenced by McKibben is the power of “unearned suffering.” The anti-nuclear movement learned this from the civil rights movement. Now in the face of potential violent repression, “groundlings” of faith who advocate for strong governmental programs seeking ecojustice on the national level may pay a price previously unimagined.  Reflection on what needs to happen and its cost will be part of our Lenten pilgrimage. 

HYMN SUGGESTIONS

Gathering: “O Lord, Throughout These 40 Days” ELW, 319
Hymn of the Day: “Light Shone in Darkness, ELW, 307
Sending: “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord, ELW, 580

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

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

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

Lenten Resource: Carbon Fast Calendar

This year, the Central  States Synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Mission Table encourages you to skip the fasting from chocolate or soda, and instead, give up one thing every day that contributes to unnecessary waste and pollution in our environment. Thanks to the creativity of Pastor Christyn Koschmann*, we have a “Carbon Fast Calendar,” with ideas for each day of Lent.

Download the Calendar (click here) and reproduce to share within your congregations and/or synod!

In addition, creative posts for social media are available on the shared Google Drive (below) to help keep members of your congregation engaged each day:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1BSTpY5qTz6xsb3Ncj0G9nwG-8fCkDszo

As we recall Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert, may this “Carbon Fast” not only strengthen our faith, but also prove that taking little steps toward environmental stewardship can have a big impact. You can get started now by calculating your carbon footprint at https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx and then calculate your energy savings throughout the season of Lent. Share your results with other members of your congregation (and share on a report to Lutherans Restoring Creation!) to see how, together as a community of faith and action, we are caring for God’s Creation in measurable ways.

*

Thanks to Christyn for all her creative and spiritual talents – the Central States Synod office is lucky to have her and we appreciate them sharing her talents with other Lutherans Restoring Creation across the country!

Ways to Integrate Creation Care in your Lenten Practices

As we prepare for the season of Lent, share these resources with your Bible Study group, Worship committee , Church Council or just for your own personal Lenten journey:

Palm/Passion Sunday in Year C (Saler)

The Spirit of Life Pulsates Through Death: Passion and Ecology
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
Palm/Passion Sunday
Luke 19:28-40 or John 12:12-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14 – 23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

One of the biggest dangers that those who preach about ecological matters face is sentimentality. It is tempting to try and evoke love for nature by appealing to serene mountain landscapes, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, or the peacefulness of a hike through the forest. When we appeal to “nature” in sermons, that temptation is particularly palpable.

The temptation to sentimentalize nature, however, should be resisted. The main reason for this has to do with simple credibility. As Annie Dillard, perhaps the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, has chronicled vividly in such classics as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, nature is the site of activity that immediately shreds any “cute and cuddly” sanitized postcard images of nature. Parasitism, “eat and be eaten,” brutal reproductive habits, and seeming chaos are as much the order of nature as are beautiful sunsets and charming animals–in fact, you cannot have the latter without the former. To sentimentalize nature is to miss this fundamental truth: nature is arranged so that death and beauty go hand and hand.

And perhaps Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday in which many churches go from waving verdant green palms to meditating on the barren place of the skull, when the rich wine of the last supper gives way to the gall of the cross—perhaps this is the space in the church year when that message might resonate most strongly. It is of course the case that Christians throughout history have had variegated and conflicting opinions about Jesus’ death: was it necessary? Was it part of God’s plan? Does it atone for sin, and, if so, how? Consensus on the specific nature of the atonement (that is, a specific “atonement theory”) has never been mandated by Christian orthodoxy. But what does run through various theories, images, and meditations on the cross of Christ is this fundamental datum: the life that the God of Jesus Christ chooses to give is a life interwoven with the realities of death. Easter might overcome the passion, but it does not eliminate it.

But the reverse is true. If life is shot through with death, then the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ passion is the church’s testimony to a hurting world that what appear to be spaces of death (Golgotha, a sealed tomb) are shot through with life. The places of human failure are the sites of the Spirit’s triumph.

Sentimentality is the enemy of truly Christian action. If Christians over-sentimentalize Jesus, and thus trivialize the faith, then Christian action in the world will be too airy and fragile to stand up to the hard realities of a time in which Caesars and Pilates still reign, in which individuals and whole peoples are crucified by violence of all sorts, and even the best-intentioned work on behalf of the poor and marginalized is inextricable from the limitations imposed by unjust systems. Similarly, to sentimentalize nature is to miss the fact that the very environment which Joseph Sittler once called “the placenta of human self-consciousness” is a place shot through with that which might terrify us. Whitewashed fiction is no solid ground on which to take a stand for that which we love.

Any Christian action in the world will have to take the world as it is—which means that that action must be grounded in hope that may seem as impossible in our day as hope must have seemed at the foot of the cross. And as the terrors of our natural environment move from the sort of “natural” dangers such as predators and parasites to the more humanly crafted threats of global climate change, pollution, and loss of species, we will need to act with the hope that, just as it did two thousand years ago, God’s spirit of life with pulse through the reality of death—such that death is not the final word.

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 in Year C (Ormseth)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Caring for the Dying Creation is an act of Hope in Resurrection

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

Reading for Series C: 2013

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C

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

This week’s readings present a series of evocative images that reside at the intersection between death (anointing spices) and the hint of new life—thus bringing to a new level of intensity and interplay between the reality of death and Christian hope in resurrection that characterizes Lent as a whole.

As it happens, I recently had occasion to meditate on the intersection of mortality and hope when it comes to how we engage in acts of care for creation. In this article, published in The Cresset, I try and make the case that every act of care—in all aspects of life—is, in fact, care for the dying.

Recognition of this fact, far from causing despair, should invite us into a deeper understanding of how radical the call to fidelity in God’s promises is, and how it is in the very acts of giving up the future into God’s hands that we find ourselves empowered to work for God’s future now.

Such is the blessed paradox of Christian action: the more we hold to promises that are beyond our capacity to bring about through our own works, the more we are invited by God’s Spirit into the gift of engaging in the very works that are foretastes of creation’s redemption.

I invite you to reflect on the article (courtesy of The Cresset) as my commentary on this week’s texts:

http://thecresset.org/2013/Lent/Saler_L2013.html

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

By Dennis Ormseth

The Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to give drink to my chosen people,

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

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

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

I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Our human systems of self-reliance prevent us from using the gift of creation well.

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

Reading for Series C: 2013

The Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-32

One of the most insidious aspects of being caught up in systems of injustice is that we as individuals find ourselves culpable for wrongdoing even if we have not made the conscious decision to perpetuate sin. I might be going about my day engaged in activities that seem perfectly benign, and indeed beneficial: going to work, maintaining my household, engaging in recreation and travel with friends. But each of those activities, in the North American context at least, is implicated in larger webs of real and potential injustice. My salary at my workplace allows me to live, like virtually all North Americans, at a level wherein my basic needs are more than taken care of, even as much of the world’s population goes without adequate food and shelter.  My recreational activities, praiseworthy as they might otherwise be, testify to my complicity in the ongoing consumption of natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

While Martin Luther’s “low” theological anthropology and estimation of natural human capacities, particularly as reflected in the severity of his late-Augustinian doctrine of original sin, is often criticized for being too pessimistic or even irrelevant to contemporary concerns, it is worth noting that the notion of original sin does name a kind of pathos by which we realize that even best aspects of who we are and what we do are inextricable from injustice and its effects. The bare fact that there is virtually no action that we can take—including spending our time working for environmental justice—that does not benefit from/participate in disordered and unsustainable systems evokes the inevitability  of sin in our lives—and perhaps also brings forth the cry for deliverance.

The Joshua reading for this week is ecologically interesting in that it marks the transition of the Israelites from dependence upon the miraculous appearance of manna during their peregrination in the desert to agriculture—once they have successfully brought forth produce from the land, the manna is no longer necessary. This is, in many respects, a praiseworthy achievement, and of a piece with the Israelites taking possession of the land that God has promised them.

However, there is something striking about the fact that the Israelites’ agricultural achievement is marked by a transition away from being fed by the sheer gratuity (not to mention improbability) of God’s manna. Part of what is at play here is a tension that goes back to the stories of humanity transitioning away from the garden in Genesis 2-3. On the one hand, Adam and Eve clearly trespass God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they are expelled from the garden as a result; in the aforementioned Augustinian/Lutheran tradition of “original sin,” this transgression has generally been seen as the root of subsequent human depravity.

On the other hand, within both rabbinical and later Western Enlightenment contexts (as well as in some early Christian church fathers, such as Irenaeus), this move away from the garden was often read as a depiction of the “maturing” of humanity, with all of the promise and peril such maturing holds [cf. Robert Saler, “The Transformation of Reason in Genesis 2-3: Two Options for Theological Interpretation,” Currents in Theology and Mission Vol. 36, No. 4 (August 2009)]. Like a child that is weaned from absolute dependence upon its parents for food, and a young adult who moves from her parents’ home, the Israelites reaching a point of relative self-reliance for providing their own food carries its own sort of potential for both sin and blessedness.

I say “relative,” because—as the rest of Israelite history as recorded in the Old Testament vividly depicts—it is precisely when Israel “forgets” its dependence upon God’s continued mercy and providence that the nation slides into its characteristic evils—idolatry, injustice towards the orphan and the widow, rapacious practices towards the vulnerable. To receive self-sustenance as a right arrogated rather than a gift given is a cornerstone in the construction of sinful systems.

This theme—the perils of self-sustenance—reverberates through the familiar account of the so-called “prodigal son.” In this story, the son’s most significant learning is not his own inability to provide wisely for himself by prematurely spending his inheritance money. Rather, the most significant thing that he discovers is his father’s ongoing willingness to practice sheer gratuity—forgiveness, seemingly excessive celebration, and welcome beyond shame. To the extent that the “father” in the story does indeed signify God, then the message becomes clear—recognizing the ongoing “giftedness” of what we have received is the foundation of right use. Joseph Sittler puts the matter well in his famous sermon “The Care of the Earth:” “Abuse is use without grace . . . . If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment” (Sittler, “The Care of the Earth” in The Care of the Earth, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

We as humans will build systems of self-reliance, and those systems will both bless and harm. There is inevitability to this, and the preacher should not sugar-coat it. However, preaching on these texts also presents an opportunity for the preacher to invite the congregation into delight for the sheer gratuity of the gifts that God gives us—in our lives, in church, and in creation itself. And cultivation of such delight in the minds and hearts of the congregation may become the occasion by which new possibilities for right use of these gifts occur.

Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)

By Dennis Ormseth

The Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                        ELW 606  Our Father, We have Wandered

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