Tag Archives: righteousness

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.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Ormseth)

Meeting  the “Creational Need” of Nature Dennis Ormseth reflects on salt and light in this Sunday’s readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

As the reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues for another eight verses this Sunday, we extend our exploration from last week’s comment, to see whether Jesus’ teaching provides further support for an “Earth-honoring faith” (See that comment for a statement of what such faith requires, following Larry Rasmussen’s description in his book by that title). Although this Sunday’s readings do not offer us an “Earth-honoring” metaphor comparable to last Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Micah’s “trial before the mountains,” there are nonetheless strong echoes here of themes we found significant for such a faith.

In the first reading, for instance, the prophet Isaiah similarly announces Jahweh’s rejection of the pretense of the wealthy who come seeking God’s presence, while they do nothing about removing the “bonds of injustice” and the “yoke” of oppression, poverty, and homelessness they place on the those below them.  The text thus again rejects the master and slave ethic, which, as Rasmussen suggests, in the industrial age has been extended from social and economic relationships to “other-than-human nature” in a “paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 100).  Those who choose to break with this pattern of domination and the false worship to which it is coupled, will be, in the prophet’s image, “light” that “shall break forth like the dawn” (cf. the Psalm, 112:4); they will share in a restoration of both body and habitat (The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  58:8, 11).  Their relationship with Yahweh will be fully restored, and as they “take delight in the Lord,”  Yahweh will make them “ride upon the heights of the earth.”  Thus in the end, here, too, with their abandonment of their rebellion over against God, the mountains receive them on behalf of the Earth. Their city restored, the people will be “called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).  Restoration of the people’s relationship to Yahweh is accompanied by restoration of the relationship with the creation in which they live.

The second reading, in turn, brings back the theme of the power of God.  Paul disavows human wisdom and power in favor of “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [the Corinthian congregation’s] faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).  He speaks “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” he writes, which ‘none of the rulers of this age understood…, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  The wisdom and power of the crucified Christ, revealed by the Spirit, is accordingly contrasted to the wisdom and power wielded by the politically and socially powerful in pursuit of their imperial interests. With respect to our concern for care of creation, this contrast relates to perhaps the greatest imbalance of power in the modern world, that involving control over the development and flow of energy in the global fossil fuel industry, access to which, along a long chain of investor and consumer connections, is a major source of conflict and oppression in the world, much to the destruction of habitat for both humans and other-than-humans.  The development of climate science over the past century has brought about a revelatory disclosure of these great power imbalances and their destructive impacts on the communities of creation.

So how do the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount relate to this situation?  From last Sunday’s beatitudes, this is how:  blessed are the poor in spirit, who despair over their powerlessness to liberate the earth they love, no less themselves, from the domination of the fossil fuel industry; they know themselves enmeshed and even enslaved to it by virtue of their inescapable participation in the global economy. The power of God’s presence restores them. Blessed are those who mourn, and thus do not hide or deny their grief over such terrible losses to habitat and species. God shares their pain. And blessed indeed are the meek, who do what they can in their own place, to secure space for their neighbors, both human and other-than-human, that is free from all such diminishment of their shared well-being. Theirs is the future of the earth.

Turning to this Sunday’s teaching, in so doing, the followers of this way will be regarded as “salt of the earth.”  As Warren Carter points out, the image of salt has considerable polyvalence in scripture: “Sir 39:26 identifies ‘salt’ as one of ‘the basic necessities of human life.’  It seasons food in Job 6:6.  In Lev 2:13 and Ezek 43:24 salt and sacrifice are linked.  Elisha uses salt to purify drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-23).  In Ezra 4:14 sharing salt seems to suggest loyalty (so also ‘salt of the covenant’ in Lev 2:13 and Num 18:19.)”  As “salt of the earth,” Carter suggests, “the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life committed to the world’s well- being and loyal to God’s purposes (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 137). Building on the image’s polyvalence, Robert Smith suggests that it is precisely “the people who hear his words and follow him” that are “‘salt of the earth,’ and that means salt for the earth” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 148.  Emphasis added).  This is the second time the Earth is mentioned in the Sermon, the first being the reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). “Salt for the earth” can then in turn be understood as pointing to those who are loyal to the earth and help to sustain its life in all its rich diversity and beauty.  The Earth, Carter emphasizes, is where the “disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6).”  It is where the community embodies God’s empire as opposed to human empire, in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution, as it lives out its alternative existence (5:7-12; Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).  And as we’ve seen in our second reading, restoration of this “saltiness”, this “Earth-loyal” faith happens by drawing on the wisdom and power of God, as disclosed by the Spirit in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Just so, according to the Sermon’s teaching, with this Earth-loyal, Earth-honoring faith, the followers of Jesus “are the light of the world” (5:14).  For the second time, Jesus unexpectedly applies to the disciples an image that we have seen Matthew and the other evangelists use primarily for Jesus himself.  They are to continue the task first given to Israel, as our first reading reminds us (“light shall break forth like the dawn”; Isaiah 58:8, cf. Isaiah 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness.” The point of these two images of salt and light is clear:  as Robert Smith writes, “Through Jesus, God is laying healing hands on the world to make it ‘all right’ and to summon us to live lives of ‘all rightness” (Smith, p. 150). Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest, for all to see, the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness for all creation.  With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophet, as he claims in the closing verses of our reading (5:17-18):  gracious gift of God, fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character, meeting the needs of all creation, not a matter of abstract rules but rather grounded in the narrative of Israel’s experience with God that itself provides both guidance and encouragement for such action (For a description of these several aspects of Torah, see Terry E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 148 – 150). 

It is also shown, importantly we might add, to be highly consonant with the contemporary ecological understanding of life, which is likewise fundamentally inter-relational in character and meeting “the ‘creational need’ of nature. “

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Mundahl)

We are Epiphany communities, being salt for the Earth and bearing light for the world. Tom Mundahl reflects on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5:13-20.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023) 

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

There are few things more satisfying than baking good bread. But that bread depends not only on quality of flour and the skill of the baker; its quality also is related to the right balance of ingredients. I remember the time I forgot the salt. Not only did the dough rise too quickly, this visually lovely loaf had no taste whatsoever!

This week’s First Lesson from Second Isaiah teaches us a thing or two about religious practice that has the appearance of a fine, fresh loaf, but has no taste. The prophet takes a hard look at what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 204). As the prophet reveals, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God” (Isaiah 58:2a).

Apparently, the most religious had transformed what they considered “religion” into private acts of prayer and ritual “leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the domination of ruthless, self-serving exploitation. . . .” (Hanson, p. 205). But the prophet stands firmly in the traditions of his guild, which reminded the people of their liberation from Egyptian slavery, their dependence on God’s sustenance in the wilderness, and the gift nature of their land. Because they had received these generous gifts, they were to be generous in sharing—especially with those in need.

This is the logic undergirding Isaiah’s definition of authentic religious practice. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The results of practicing honest religion point to a healing that extends to the whole creation. Not only will “your light break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8), but bones—the structure of personhood—will be strengthened and “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). This integrity will result in a marvel of urban planning, repairing a city whose foundations will nurture many generations with the lure of “streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).

In fact, this restoration will be a return to the very intention of creation, celebrated with the creation of Sabbath on the seventh day. Isaiah’s account of the effects of authentic repentance (“fasting”) culminates in a vision of “life’s fecundity and fresh potential. Once the bonds of oppression that maim and destroy life are removed, then life can flower into the diverse and beautiful forms that God planted in the first garden” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 166). As a result of this renewal, all creation enjoys the interdependent harmony of “Sabbath delight” (Isaiah 58:13), where all creatures celebrate the memberships of life as they share their bread (Wirzba, p. 165).

Because this week’s Gospel Reading immediately follows a sobering account of what those who are “blessed” to be joined to the “kingdom of heaven” can expect—being reviled and persecuted as the prophets were (Matthew 5:11)—one wonders if “delight” is even remotely possible.  But recall that the final beatitude concludes with a call to: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

This joy is clearly stronger than any persecution the Roman Empire or the elite religious opponents will provide. But it requires this new community to live in harmony with its gracious identity. The parallel statements “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14) and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) move them in this direction. While salt has many uses, its primary function has been to season food. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “Salt is not salt for itself but seasoning for food. So the disciples are not existing for themselves but for the earth” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 251). The purpose of the light metaphor is much the same, leading to the intended result (both with “seasoning” culture and the earth and “vision”) “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Clearly, Matthew’s Jesus is not advocating a “works righteousness” schema. For him, a person’s actions are integral to identity. Salt becomes effective only by salting. Light becomes valuable only when it shines. To indicate to the new community “you are the light of the world” confers both identity and the sense that it cannot but be realized in action. “Matthew speaks without embarrassment of good works, without meaning self-justification by works” (Luz, p. 253).

More important for us may be that the predicates of these two statements: “you are the salt of the earth” (5: 13) and “you are the light of the world” (5:14). For this new community embraced by a new kind of regime, the earth is the focus of its action. This is crucial, since Matthew’s narrative suggests that the kingdoms of the earth are under control of the devil, a nasty, but justified slap in the face for the Roman Empire (Matthew 4:8). It is this Empire that claimed to be able to provide “bread” for its people, but often gave them little more than “bread and circuses.”

Why these powerful images of salt and light? As Warren Carter suggests: “They emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community, vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture. The two images strengthen that identity and direct its way of life in a hostile context.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 139)

We began this commentary with a consideration of bread baking, where I shared a failed attempt to bake bread without salt. Not only was it tasteless; the dough had risen so much and so quickly, the bread had no “crumb,” no structure. To a faith community called to be “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), this has important implications for care of creation.

Without a limiting factor, humankind seems much like bread dough that is intent on fermenting—rising with no end in sight. Whether it is emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, wasting increasingly precious water, or continuing the collection of often unneeded consumer items that overwhelm disposal capacity of land and sea and are recycled at an unsustainably low rate, especially in the U.S., the absence of limiting discipline is frightening. Not only does this dishonor the “material gifts of creation,” but it forgets, as William Rathje and Robert Lillienfeld have shown in their indispensable book, Use Less Stuff, that recycling has always been a way to maintain consumption and has never historically solved the problem of excess (Rathje and Lillienfeld, Use Less Stuff, New York: Ballantine, 1998, pp. 6-26).

Earth needs “salt” to limit all these dangerous increases. Wirzba suggests that faith directs our focus to being where we are and paying attention to community (including creation community!) needs. “As we dedicate ourselves to understanding our place in the wider world, we can learn something of a habitat’s or community’s limits and possibilities. . . . And we can draw upon the faculty of our imagination to envision possibilities for improvements” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 155).

Yet, Wendell Berry is right about the difficult balancing act that care of creation and sharing good bread involve. “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 desecration” (Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 181). As an Epiphany community bearing necessary light, we must also be “salty” enough to provide a vision of limits that will, at minimum, slow down the destructive forces threatening God’s creation.

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

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Ormseth)

Empowered in God’s love for the creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Micah 6 and the beatitudes of Matthew 5.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A ( 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:2).   The prophet’s evocation of mountains and “enduring foundations of the earth” in the opening verses of our first reading this Sunday invites consideration of the texts for the day as material for the quest for what Larry Rasmussen calls an “Earth-honoring Faith.” (Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). With his metaphor of a trial in which God contends with God’s people, the prophet couples testimony concerning God’s works on behalf of Israel to the judgment of the mountains and the earth’s very foundations.  The significance of this linkage of God’s testimony and the mountains’ judgment lies deeper than mere rhetorical device, however.  The passage is one of three texts that Walter Brueggemann cites in an exposition of Jahweh’s “righteousnesses.” Following Paul Ricoeur, Brueggeman argues that the “matrix of trial-witness-testimony” provides a powerful perspective on the theology of the Hebrew bible.  Memories of past events are “all now regarded as acts of transformation wrought by Yahweh on behalf of Israel, all making it possible for Israel to have a chance of well-being in the world” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp.131-32).  In its worship of Jahweh, Brueggemann writes,

“Israel engaged the great memories of its core testimony in which the God of Israel’s most elemental testimony is taken with definitional seriousness in the present.  That core testimony includes both Yahweh as the One who intrudes into Israel’s public experience in dramatic ways, and Yahweh as the One who sanctions and maintains Israel’s life-giving home of creation” (p. 679).

Here is faith, then, that honors the earth, even as it honors Earth’s Creator.  It is worth noting that according to Micah’s oracle, such well-being is not merely a matter of acquiring great wealth.  The cultic sacrifice of “thousand of rams’ and ten thousands of rivers of oil,”  which would presuppose such wealth, is not what God seeks from God’s people.  What God requires, and not just of Israel, but of all humans (“O mortal,” adam,) is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8).  “It belongs to the character of the human creature, ” Brueggemann concludes with respect to the relationship of humans to the creation, that humanness means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defining, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Jahweh for justice and holiness.

The practice of holiness concerns the disciplined awareness that life is to be ordered with the profound acknowledgment that the core of reality lies outside self and is not given over to human control. . . . The practice of justice, in concrete ways, is the enactment of Yahweh’s sedaqah, whereby the cosmos can be ordered for life, and whereby the human community can be kept viable and generative.

Accordingly, the verbs in Genesis 1 and 2 which authorize humans to “have dominion” over creation “suggest not exploitative, self-aggrandizing use of the earth, but gentle care for and enhancement of the earth and all its creatures” (Brueggemann, p. 460-61).

Thus the prophet’s oracle does indeed adumbrate an “Earth-honoring faith”, a faith, in Rasmussen’s definition, that “is life-centered, justice-committed, and Earth-honoring, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.” And it is the mountains of the prophet’s metaphor that carry this meaning. While the specific mountains which the prophet might have had in mind perhaps include only those from the great narrative of God’s works (the Ark lands on Ararat, God tests Abraham on the mountain in Moriah, God reveals Godself to Elijah on Mt Carmel and Mt. Horeb, and prominently here in Micah, Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, “up from Egypt”) what renders them trustworthy judges of both human and divine affairs is not limited to such associations. It is in their universal nature that mountains transcend the plain where life is normally lived, and they endure through all generations as well. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols”, so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint, as Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008p. 114).

Indeed, when approached from the viewpoint of contemporary ecology, “making space” in nature is an essential aspect of what mountains “do.”  A mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some aspects to the entire globe.  The measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them, for example, contribute to their understanding of the dynamics of global climate change. Thus to those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the possibilities of well being, in Rasmussen’s phrase,  of “the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.”

Does the mountain which Jesus’ ascends to teach his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel bear such significance?  The linkage of these texts in the lectionary suggests this possibility, and in Warren Carter’s view, the Evangelist appears to recognize this significance of the mountains as well. As Carter notes, the mountain is “a location invested with multiple meanings” in the Gospel.  Jesus’ ministry is in fact a mountain oriented affair: after feeding five thousand Jesus retreats “up the mountain by himself to pray” (14:23);  having passed along the Sea of Galilee, he again ascends “the mountain” where he heals “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others’ and again feeds a great crowd, this time four thousand (15:29-39); it is “up a high mountain” that Jesus leads Peter, James and John where he “was transfigured before them” (17:1); he initiates the events of his final confrontation with authorities from “the Mount of Olives” (21:1 and 24:3); and it is from “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, that he commissions their great outreach “to all nations” (28:16-20).

Mountains thus signal dimensions of justice, mercy, holiness and universality in Jesus ministry.  Just previous to this ascent to teach, Carter emphasizes, from the mountain “the devil offered Jesus ‘all the kingdoms/empires of the world’,” and by contrast, “on this mountain, Jesus will manifest God’s reign/empire.”  As Jesus recapitulates Moses’ and Israel’s experience, escaping from Egypt (2:15), passing through water (3:13-17), encountering temptation (4:1-11),”  That Jesus now goes “up the mountain” to teach his disciples thus alerts us to the significance of the event: Jesus is to deliver a new law that will be as important for life in the coming kingdom of God as the law given to Moses was for the people of Israel, as they prepared to enter their promised land. Jesus’ followers will appropriately remember this teaching as “the Sermon on the Mount.”

If “the mountain” which Jesus ascends carries the significance of Micah’s “mountains,” as we have suggested, can we hope that the teaching he offers would also provide support for an “Earth-honoring faith?”  We of course cannot expect the teaching to directly address aspects of the environmental crisis of our day;  we seek rather to “interrogate” this particular “past tradition of spirituality,” as Rasmussen puts it, in a reexamination of the “’normative gaze’ that frames and guides feeling and thought alike” (Rasmussen, p. 45).”  Does the teaching “alert us to past pitfalls?”  Does it “illumine our responsibility, offer wellsprings of hope, and generate renewable moral/spiritiual energy for hard seasons ahead?” (Rasmussen, p. 81).

In order to carry out this “interrogation” with respect to not only this Sunday’s Gospel, but those of the following three Sundays which also belong to the Sermon on the Mount, and then the “summit” of the Sunday of the Transfiguration, it will be helpful first to draw out more broadly what Rasmussen means by “Earth-honoring faith” for our time.In his chapter on “The Faith We Seek,” he draws these several insights from the Christian theological tradition, represented preeminently here by Saints Augustine and Ambrose, and Reinhold Niebuhr: such a faith, he writes, not only savors life, but seeks to save life.  It sees in a “redeemed Earth as paradise” an alternative to the false paradise offered by human empires. It regards as fundamental to “common Earthly good” the “’minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.”  Such faith grants “moral citizenship” to all God’s creatures, as key to addressing our denial of empathy for them.  It acknowledges the “species pride and arrogance” of humans that denies the “profound interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures.” It sees that the great imbalances of power in society correlate strongly with the destruction of nature, as one group seeks to exploit nature for the resources to dominate over others. Often more covert than overt, the exercise of such power “nurtures self-delusion” on the part of those who wield it.  Such faith thus recognizes in democracy both the means of checking on “the ever-present imperial impulses in human nature,” but also a source of the delusion of innocence which fails to recognize that imperialism, as it flows from disproportions of power.  It will see in “our present Earth/human relationship” . . the modern/eco-modern version of perhaps the longest-lived and most oppressive ethic of all:  the ethic of master and slaves,” “applied now to other-than-human nature.  As it grasps the core reality that “the Earth belongs to all and all belongs to Earth, which belongs to God,” it will “rightly name the injuries of nature at our hands ‘sin’ and the abuse of power” Matthew will also report that Jesus “went up the mountain” six times, referring to Mt. Zion (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2000, p. 129-30). (Rasmussen, pp. 80-104). Finally,

Earth-honoring faith lives by grace.  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, an energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life creates 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 (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus we can ask: Does Jesus’ teaching constitute support for such justice for the whole of creation? Does it foster “a loving kindness” for all creatures? Does it promote a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator?

Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2) . . . Beatitudes are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Our question, then, is does that favor reflect an awareness of the implications of those circumstances and behaviors, beyond the human, for all creation? In other words, does God really care about the well being of the mountain and the Earth which it represents?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (Carter, p. 131).  We recognize here the imbalance of concentrated power, which renders “spiritless” those who suffer such deprivations. The issue here is one of totally negative expectations regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or community. This is a condition experienced by people who are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates which the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is, significantly with respect to our concern for care of creation, the condition often experienced in our culture by people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so entirely futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so relentlessly. The powerful appear so thoroughly indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely controlled by their own self-interests. The judgment articulated by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (Carter, p. 132).

Will God intervene? Jesus promises not only that God will, but that God is intervening: the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is now theirs. The deficit of spirit is made up with the presence of God in the very company of Jesus’ in which they participate. The hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because in their very struggles God is in the process of liberating them.  Indeed, even as they mourn what they have lost to “the destructive impact of imperial powers,” they are lifted out of an oppression that is seen to be against God’s gracious will, and thus should be greatly and deeply mourned. Their mourning is in fact a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength. They mourn because they love, and have suffered the loss of what they love. The Comforter, the Spirit who is the giver and sustainer of all life, comforts them in their mourning.

While these first two beatitudes thus respond to the spiritual deficit experienced by mourning humans, the next one addresses more squarely their embodied situation in creation, and suggests a course of action to address and remedy their loss. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence, or more precisely in Rasmussen’s careful phrase,  they act to foster that “minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.” The behavior of “the meek” is an implicitly but nevertheless profoundly “ecological” way of being in community. It is the human analog to the manifold space-creating ecology of the mountain. Indeed, it is what God does in creation. The blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, ‘this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically. “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1).” “humans are to nurture it (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

So also, accordingly, blessed are those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence in the community of creation characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)–they “will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions are consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also in relation to non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has installed in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” as God inhabits these righteous relationships. And, finally, blessed are the makers of peace: certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity”; nor, for that matter, the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped by neither ethnicity nor species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of the triune God.

Which brings us to the final two beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). Jesus returns here to the power struggle identified in the first two beatitudes, that of encountering the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in these beatitudes. “The empire will certainly strike back” warns Carter. But the reward of those persecuted on account of Jesus is, again,  “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” that is, in God’s presence, God’s own righteous response to the faithfulness that such action exhibits. The reviled participate in the “completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire” (Carter, p. 136).  These last two beatitudes thus clearly anticipate Jesus’ own persecution and death, in which, as our second reading from I Corinthians reminds us, “the power of God and the wisdom of God,”  divine “foolishness” that is “wiser than human wisdom,” and holy “weakness” that is “stronger than human strength,”  are manifest in “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”   It is in this power that the restoration of all creation will be accomplished; and to share in this power is to be empowered in God’s love for the creation.