Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of Creation – Dennis 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
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.