Tag Archives: servant of creation

Preaching On Creation: Sunday October 9-15 in Year A (Ormseth)

It Is God’s Will Dennis Ormseth reflects on joining with the Lord, Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is the Feast of Victory for our God!

The coupling of the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” from Matthew 22:1-14 with this Sunday’s first lesson from Isaiah 25 suggests that the parable must be understood as referring to the messianic banquet. Reading these texts together in Christian worship, however, raises a difficult question for those who rejoice in God’s love for all creation.

A verse of one of the canticles of praise sung by Lutheran congregations at the opening of eucharistic worship expresses the expectation that all of creation joins in the feast that celebrates the triumph of God over all evil:

“This is the feast of victory for our God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
. . . Sing with all the people of God,
and join in the hymn of all creation. . . .”

The liturgy “Now the Feast and Celebration” makes the point even more emphatically: “Now the feast and celebration, all of creation sings for joy.” We have urged this perspective upon our readers at every opportunity in this series of comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. That the “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” suggests a markedly less inclusive vision might therefore give us pause concerning this expectation. The refusal of the invitation by a whole host of humans, coupled with the final exclusion of a person brought in from the streets because he is not appropriately dressed, tends to lessen our confidence in the inclusiveness of God’s victorious love. What, then, really counts for inclusion or exclusion in the great feast? Why is the proper wedding garment the crucial factor related to inclusion? And what actually is this exclusion about?

Why the inclusion and then the exclusion?

In Bernard Brandon Scott’s view, Matthew’s version of the parable of the “Man Who Gave a Banquet” needs to be read in sequence with Matthew’s earlier parables of “A Man had Two Sons” and “A Man Planted a Vineyard.” In the progression of the three parables, Matthew “sketches out his vision of the kingdom and its coming,” which represents an “ideology of salvation history” and which “concludes, on the one hand, that Israel has rejected God’s messengers and, on the other, that the church’s good fruits show forth that it is the true Israel.” At the same time, however, this progression undercuts the apparent verisimilitude of the parables, which removes the cause of offence taken at the rejection of the man having no wedding garment. Matthew simply wants to make clear, Scott suggests, “as is most evident in his Great Judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46),” that “if grace calls, the threat of no fruits remains for judgment.” The man without a wedding garment is a man “without the fruits of the kingdom” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 162-63).

The key to the series of parables is that we join God in care for all creation.

Our reading of the parables of these last several Sundays, while making use of Scott’s suggestion that Matthew undercuts their verisimilitude, also supplants the ideology of salvation history with a theology of care of creation. We would accordingly include in this progression the parable of “the laborers in the vineyard,” the point of which, we suggested (following Scott and Norman Wirzba), is that “God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing” (See our comment on the readings for last Sunday). God’s call to work in the vineyard of creation is a principle motif of the entire sequence, which invites us to enter into “‘the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head.” The invitation is “’to join God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen. 2:8-9). It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality’” (See our comment on the readings for Lectionary 25.  The quote is from Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 155).

Accordingly, the parable of “A Man had Two Sons,” while also part of the ideology of salvation history in which the church becomes the “true Israel,” in this reading can be seen to imply that the Son who actually went to the vineyard and engaged in its care is the true Servant of the creation. Our reading of the parable of “A Man Planted a Vineyard,” furthermore, enlarges the scope of this line of interpretation by drawing on the primary vineyard texts of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46 for development of the metaphor: those who reject the son reject their role as caretakers of the vineyard; and the new tenants who replace them are those who reclaim the heritage of the Son and join him in the work of restoring the creation, a near parallel to the Gospel for this Sunday.

Warren Carter explains the connection: like the harvesting of good fruits, “feasting and eating indicate participation in God’s purposes.” The readings of Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 serve to illustrate and underscore the point: the “meal also symbolizes the yet-future completion of God’s purposes when God’s empire will be established in full. Isaiah envisions God’s future triumphant return to Zion, where God will make “for all peoples a feast of rich food. . . . In the parable those who refuse to attend the wedding celebration are excluded, while those who come participate in God’s purposes.” The man who comes without a wedding garment, fails “to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king,” and therefore suffers the worst imaginable consequences because “to be called and chosen means honoring God (22:37-39) and doing God’s will (7:24-27; 12:46-50) until the judgment” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins, p. 434).

Just as we join the Lord in care for the poor and distress, so also we join the Lord, the Servant of Creation in unending care for God’s creation.

Brandon Scott’s treatment of this parable, which he renames “’What If No One Came?” provides an additional insight worthy of mention here. The banquet, he argues, along with the excuses, which allude to a list of reasons for refusing to participate in holy war, add to the reader’s expectation that this is the messianic banquet that celebrates victory over the Lord’s enemies. But strangely, the meal in the parable “never escalates to the expected messianic banquet, because the master is powerless to attack those who have snubbed him.” Furthermore, the master “loses his upper-class status and must join those who live in the streets.” In contrast to the passage from Isaiah, in which “the poor and distressed receive new value from being associated with God,” in the parable, the “householder cannot raise the poor up but must himself join them.” Perhaps this is the way the Servant of Creation would have originally told the parable. If Matthew, on the other hand, insists on the necessity of vengeance to restore the king’s honor, the point is well taken: it is God’s will that we join with the Lord, the Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation!

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

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Ormseth)

Acceptance in an Economy of Grace Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost invite our participation in God’s gracious care for all creation. In the words of the Psalmist, we “celebrate the fame of [God’s] abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of [God’s] righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:7-8). An additional verse makes it clear that this love is all-inclusive: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). So we hear that out of concern for the “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals,” God relents of a threat to punish all Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). And we are encouraged by the Apostle Paul to engage in the “fruitful labor” of a life lived “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” the one whom we know as the Lord, the Servant of all creation. And the Gospel provides more specific encouragement for engaging in this care.

Interpretations of the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard” typically emphasize the landowner’s generosity and “the free gift of grace associated with the kingdom’s coming.” The problem with this reading, suggests Bernard Brandon Scott, is that the supposed target of this teaching, the Pharisees, “would not have seen themselves as rejecting God’s generosity to sinners,” nor is it suggested anywhere that “those who have worked in the vineyard all day have not earned their wages,” which on close analysis turn out to be not generous, but only what an average a peasant could expect to earn (”the usual daily wage,” NRSV) (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 282-83).

What about these workers living on the margins?

The point of the parable lies elsewhere, Scott urges. Matthew reads the parable “as an example of the theme that the first shall be last and of the moral contrast between good and evil” (Ibid., p. 287). He leads his readers into the parable, we note, with a sketch of the end of time (“at the renewal of all things” . . . “and when everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life”) and a portrayal of the great reversal it brings about (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”). The parable also speaks of those who have left home. As Warren Carter notes in his illuminating commentary, day laborers like those invited by the landowner to work in the vineyard,

“. . . were a common sight in the agora, or marketplace (20:3) as they waited to be hired for work. They were a readily available pool of cheap labor for wealthier landowners and urban dwellers. Commonly uprooted from peasant farms taken over by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household, they looked for agricultural or urban work, usually day by day and at minimal rates. During planting and harvest, work was readily available, ‘for vintage and haying’ (Varro, On agric 1.17.2), but in between times it often was not. For these ‘expendables’ or involuntary marginals . . . life was unpredictable, marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them” (Matthew and the Margins, p.397).

We have seen their modern-day counterparts crowding the entrances to Home Depot parking lots. They are persons for whom the passage of the time of day could easily descend into hunger and a state of despair. Those not hired will end the day without resources to restore themselves for another day of anxious waiting to be hired; they will know themselves as persons without place or means to live. The question that has to be answered in the hearing of this parable is: “What is right?”—because those who are jobless at the day’s end have the same needs as those who are hired early in the morning. And what possibly could the hope for the renewal of all things mean for them?

Determining what is “right” is not so easy.

The narrative of the parable is structured according to the passage of time: from morning, to noon, then through the afternoon and into the evening. The landowner has promised that he will pay each of them “‘whatever is right.” And as each new cohort arrives to work in the vineyard, the question “what is right?” has to resonate more stridently with those who came earlier—and, of course, with the parable’s audience. The surprise at the end of the day is that all are paid the same, what those hired first agreed to, namely, a day’s living wage. Just so, those who came first want to know, what is right about equal pay for very unequal work? And hearers who identify “with the complaint of the first-hired,” opt “for a world in which justice is defined by a hierarchical relation between individuals (i.e., for a world in which the accounting should set matters aright.). To treat all the same is not just, because all are not alike, all have not earned the same.”

The issue is not justice but acceptance

But we have seen earlier what can happen when an accounting is expected to set matters aright. For example, in the parable of the king’s accounting we read last Sunday, an expectation of different treatment on the part of the servant elicited a demand from his fellow servants for an equally harsh punishment! It appears that it is indeed more difficult to say “what is right” than one at first thinks. But is it really a fair resolution that the landowner claims for himself: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Again the ground has shifted under the feet of the audience: there will be no resolution to the question “what is right.” As Scott explains, “The lack in the parable of any absolute standard of justice undermines any human standard for the kingdom.” What then is the standard? For the parable, value or worth (i.e., a place in the kingdom), Scott argues, is determined not by what is right but by acceptance. The householder’s urgent though unexplained need for laborers is the parable’s metaphor for grace. It is not wages or hierarchy that counts but the call to go into the vineyard. The householder’s generosity lies not in the wage but in the need (Scott, p. 297). And because nothing is said about it being either planting or harvest time, the need is not so much the landowner’s own need, but rather that of the laborers themselves. Those who hear the parable as a story of injustice (“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”) are sent away from the vineyard; they do not belong here with “the last.”

The vineyard is God’s vineyard—the world!

How then is this parable concerned with care of creation? Early, midday, afternoon, evening, the landowner persists through the cycle of the day. The workers are called, Scott notes, to service at “not simply any farm work but labor in a vineyard,” which has the strong metaphorical potential of the Song of the Vineyard (Is 5:1-7) and Jeremiah 12:10, the vineyard which “many shepherds have destroyed.” It is a richly significant place. And who is the householder? In Matthew’s casting, it is Jesus (Scott, p. 287). In our reading, it is Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And he calls these persons at the margins to participate in the “alternative economy of unlimited grace” which we envisioned in our comment on last Sunday’s readings, in which the gift of creation always creates the value to be enjoyed by those who participate in it. Here, too, is that “alternative economy” in which an “alternative egalitarian lifestyle” with its equal opportunity for meaningful work is regarded as the “right” thing, the good, Godlike thing, to do (Carter, p. 398). The workers were without place to work; but by the end of the day each of them has been restored to work in the creation and invited to enter into the joy of that “good thing.”

Can we offer work that is meaningful for people and that restores creation?

Among the strategies for developing a “culture of creation” (identified by Norman Wirzba in his Paradise of God) is the renewal of the meaning of work in relationship to the creation. Work that is severed from the rhythms of creation in places that are not familiar to us has an anonymous character, he suggests,

“that makes it impossible for workers to see practically how what they are doing might benefit or harm others, and vice versa. What we do, our productivity, serves a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to us, and so the affection and care that are the hallmarks of quality work, as well as the inspiration for a fulfilling and enjoyable work experience, are untapped. In a global economy, for the most part, we do not see the effects of what we do because they take place, oftentimes, thousands of miles away. Compensation serves as the substitute for the felt kindness and experienced blessing that otherwise would come from the close, affirming interaction among friends. . . More fundamental to work than its compensatory or its obligatory aspects is its ability to express gratitude and respect for innumerable benefits received. . . .Put positively, authentic or proper work and leisure reflect an attitude of attention to the orders and the needs of creation and a disposition to care for and preserve the rhythms and flow of life” (Wirzba, pp. 153-54).

The workers hired at the beginning of the day protested the seeming injustice of the landowner; they obviously thought mainly of their value in terms of the compensation they should earn, it seems. Those called later had the opportunity to learn about mercy, respect and gratitude from one who wanted to be not just an employer, but also one who would be a friend.

Can we root our work in the grace of creation?

Can members of a congregation learn to think differently about their work, and perhaps even to experience it differently? Possibly, if they can see themselves as people who have at least in spirit “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields,” for Jesus’ name’s sake. As Wirzba suggests, drawing on the mystical insight of Meister Eckhart, in “returning to our ‘ground ‘. . . we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head. It is to join with God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen 2:8-9).  It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality.” For those who came last to the vineyard, all this opens up as possibility for them—for them, and for those who hear, whenever the invitation of Jesus to work in God’s vineyard is presented.

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

Sunday September 11-17 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Reconfigured Parable Dennis Ormseth reflects on a parable’s proposal of the unlimited economy of grace.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 11-17, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

With a compelling primary theme of forgiveness, the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost seemingly offer little of direct relevance to our concern with care of creation. To be sure, the attention given to the church community’s ethos in the Gospel and the second lesson can prove salutary for any effort that requires corporate discipline and generosity of spirit. The emphasis on forgiveness might be particularly helpful, specifically, in strengthening the interpersonal relationships of a congregation that seeks to model the kind of face-to-face web of neighborhood relationships we proposed in our comment on last Sunday’s readings.

Can forgiveness be extended to the relationship between congregation and neighborhood?

F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage illustrate the point nicely in The Faces of Forgiveness:  Searching for Wholeness and Salvation. They interpret Matthew 18:23-35 in terms of a “facial hermeneutics of intersubjectivity” that reveals a community “struggling with problems of power in their way of ordering their life together and needed instruction and exhortation on manifesting grace toward each other.” The offending slave of the parable, they suggest, shows no “positive movement toward forgiveness in the sense of therapeutic transformation.” The horizon of his understanding needs to be extended “both temporally and spatially so that he could imaginatively envision his own place in the broader human community” (Shults and Sandage, pp.237-39). Any such extension of understanding within the community, we can hope, would contribute to a healthier dynamic in the relationship between a congregation and its neighborhood.

See how God’s goodness has cosmic dimensions!

Encouragement for going beyond this modest result to reflect further on these texts in search of specific direction for care of creation might nonetheless be inferred from reading the Psalm appointed for the day. Giving thanks for God’s goodness (“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity”), the psalmist measures God’s “steadfast love” with cosmic dimensions: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (103:11-12). The psalmist speaks of the Creator’s love: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (103:14, not included in the appointed verses). Is there, possibly, a cosmic significance, then, to the practice of forgiveness?

Could this tyrant reflect God’s image?

Furthermore, the parable with which Jesus exhorts the undoubtedly astonished Peter to unlimited acts of forgiveness is focused rather less clearly on interpersonal relationships than Shults and Sandage tend to view it. Rather, the frames of reference are the economic, social, and political relationships characteristic of imperial rule. As Warren Carter observes,

“The king and his reign are usually understood as images of God and God’s empire (18:35). But the gospel has established that God’s empire manifested in Jesus is generally not like the death-bringing and oppressive reign of Rome and typical kings (17:25; 20:25). Yet the parable evokes precisely this scenario! The king is a tyrant who, like Rome (see 18:24), collects excessive tribute, and in the end inflicts vicious torture on a servant” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 370-71).

Thus, the scope within which the act of forgiveness is being considered has been expanded to encompass “affairs of state,” in the phrase of Bernard Brandon Scott.

And there is even more. There is a striking contradiction in this parable’s presentation by Matthew: It evokes for the reader that “the familiar image of God as king, but the imperial scenario of exploitative and oppressive reign . . . indicates that this figure cannot be God. The audience can discern that God’s empire is not like this, is not oppressive, does not deal in self-serving ‘mercy’. . , does not forgive just once only to revoke it.” Nevertheless, to the reader’s great surprise, at the conclusion of the parable, Jesus insists that his “heavenly Father” will do exactly what this king does to his servant. The frame of the parable has been enlarged to embrace the huge and even monstrous question of the relationship of God to the great conflicts of human history.

Is this not unjust fiscal policy?

Interpreters struggle to thread their way though the thicket of this text. Scott is helpful in providing a reading that does not require strict narrative consistency to reach its result. “A chaotic situation entraps the audience,” he notes:

“The king’s brutal action forces a hearer to reconsider the consistency building that has held the story together. By identifying with the fellow servants in reporting the servant, a hearer bears with them responsibility for unleashing the king’s wrath. By bringing vengeance on the servant, the fellow servants (and the hearer) have left their own situation in jeopardy.  The demand for ‘like for like,’ for apparent justice, has left them exposed. If a king can take back his forgiveness, who is safe?” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp.  278).

“Who, indeed?” we might ask in our times of massive public indebtedness generated by the policies and behavior of a global financial elite. While the fellow servants might have avoided the moral hazard of “bailing out” the king’s lead tax farmer, in the phrase of our day, they have lent legitimacy to the crushing disintegration of the economic order that they themselves depend on for their well being. All of them have become inescapably more vulnerable to the harsh policy of the king who will destroy the servant’s business, his family, and his position of power within the community, in the name of accountability.

But the disturbance goes even deeper, Scott observes. The fellow servants’ reporting is like the first servant’s own activity. In the end, the fellow servants have behaved the same way he did, namely, they failed to forgive and they demanded punishment. And so the audience is drawn ineluctably “into a threatening world whose boundaries and guidelines begin to dissolve,” and the hearers are “swept into a vortex for chaos” in which they fail as the servant fails: they, too, “have failed to forgive.” The narrative thus leads its audience to a “parabolic experience of evil, not intentional evil but implicit, unanticipated, systemic evil . . . where the only option left is repentance” (Ibid., p. 279-80).

How might the scenario of this parable have gone differently?

The audience’s conundrum serves to raise the question, beyond the telling of the parable, regarding how things might have gone differently? How might this terrifying result of the king’s need for accountability be avoided? Is it really conceivable that the king might have forgiven his debtor not just once, but a second and third time, or even “seven times seven times,” as Jesus set the standard for Peter? In a less troubled but real world, of course, the situation could have been avoided entirely if the debtor paid his debt, with appropriate interest. Or being unable to do that, on account of whatever combination of factors, perhaps he might have succeeded in winning the king’s assent to a plan that would have allowed him to continue service of his co-servants debt, with which he might, over time, pay what he owes. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s Gospel will recognize a set of problems that confront us daily in a time of extended financial crisis.

Such leniency on the part of king and servant alike would have the advantage, it might be argued, of allowing the others to share in the good king’s generosity. It seems that the servant’s better course might have been not only to encourage his master in this creative course of action, but to demonstrate its value and power by first taking the initiative himself, even risking his own wealth, in order to show the others that such a generous spirit works to the well-being of all. Couldn’t the king then indeed be the good king of God’s empire, on whom one could rely for a properly positive analogy for an infinitely forgiving God? Indeed, might one not quite appropriately imagine that the king of the parable is truly Jesus’ heavenly father, the creator of all things?

How can we give account of our care for the Earth?

If that were taken to be the case, then the servant who was called to give account is clearly the human being tasked with responsible care of the creation, and we have a parable very much concerned with care of creation. Ideally, the servant could report that his care has indeed enhanced the creation, so responsible has he been in exercising his responsibility. But failing that, again for whatever reason, would it not be appropriate for him, relying on his king’s generous mercy, to set forth in a great venture to restore what has been lost, drawing along with him in this great project of restoration of all those who are in turn accountable to him, so that they could know and rejoice with the king that not only his original gift was being honored, but that with each successive allowance of space and time to further amend their destructive ways, the glory of that creation might be enhanced far beyond its original state, now understood to have been good enough for starters, but hardly perfect?

We can be participants in a web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time by an infinitely loving God.

The reader will hopefully understand and appreciate what this new spinning of the parable is meant to accomplish: as an alternative to the “parabolic experience of evil” set out above, we propose a “parabolic experience of good,” as it were—indeed, an intentional, explicit, anticipated, and whole reality of created goodness, in which both king and servants participate with great joy!  This, we would suggest, is what becomes possible when Jesus is seen to be truly the servant of creation, who does the will of his heavenly father, the creator of all things. God is indeed infinitely gracious in giving the creation for the benefit of humanity, but only as participants in the whole web of creation that is re-given in every moment of its journey through time. Precisely in responding to this infinite love of the creation by properly caring for the creation his father loves, the servant of creation works out the role that the unforgiving servant refused. Now that he has been introduced in the shadow of his antithesis, this true servant will appear in other parables of Jesus’ telling in Matthew, such as “the Faithful and Wise Servant” (Mt 24:45-51), “A Man Entrusts Property” (Mt 21:33-46), and “A Householder Went Out Early” (Mt 20:1-15), and, of course, in many parables in the other Gospels.

The new parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace.

The parable proposes an alternative economy of unlimited grace as a clue to understanding what forgiveness is about, and why it must be unlimited. Our resetting of the parable proposes a narrative of the relationship between the human servant of God and God’s creation that envisions its restoration as a possible outcome of a radically forgiving spirit. Support for this re-setting can be found in two provocatively different essays. Thomas Friedman has argued in his Hot, Flat, and Crowded (Release 2.0 Edition), that the 2008 financial crisis and the environmental crisis are derived from one cause. As he puts it, the Great Recession that began in 2008 was a “warning heart attack” that we ignore at our great peril:

“. . . while they might not appear on the surface to have been related, the destabilization of both the Market and Mother Nature had the same root causes. That is why Bear Stearns and the polar bears both faced extinction at the same time. That is why Citibank, Iceland’s banks, and the ice banks of Antarctica all melted down at the same time. The same recklessness undermined all of them. I am talking about a broad breakdown in individual and institutional responsibility by key actors in both the natural world and the financial world—on top of a broad descent into dishonest accounting, which allowed individuals, banks, and investment firms to systematically conceal or underprice risks, privatize gains, and socialize losses without the general public grasping what was going on” (Friedman, pp.6-7).

This insight is strong reason to attend, as this reading does, to the origins of the practice of forgiveness of sin in the practice of forgiveness of debt, as the phrase “forgive us our debts” in what used to be the standard version of the Lord’s Prayer serves to remind us. Its implications for the current “affairs of state,” not just its psychology of the failure to forgive as Jesus would have us forgive, are clear.

Our current financial crisis is a crisis also of the environment

If the financial crisis is also a crisis of the environment, are they not together also a crisis of the creation? If our reading finds surprising resonance with such current “affairs of state,” however, it also remains faithful to the theological concern for forgiveness as a relationship between God and humankind. In his discussion of the doctrine of salvation in The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart observes that Christian theology effects a conversion “of the story of wrath into the story of mercy,” replacing “the myth of sacrifice as economy with the narrative of sacrifice as a ceaseless outpouring of gift and restoration in an infinite motion exceeding every economy.” Without developing his argument in full, we see its relevance to our reading in the following comment:

“The sacrifice that Christian theology upholds is inseparable from the gift: it underwrites not the stabilizing regime of prudential violence, but the destabilizing extravagance of giving and giving again, of declaring love and delight in the exchange of songs of peace, outside of every calculation of debt or power. The gift of the covenant—which in a sense implores Israel to respond—belongs to the Trinity’s eternal “discourse” of love, which eternally “invites” and offers regard and recognition; it precedes and exceeds, then, every economy of power, because all “credit” is already given and exhausted, because the love it declares and invokes is prior to, and the premise of, all that is given” (Hart, pp. 350).

Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness;

God’s balances, he concludes, “are not righted by an act of immolation, the debt is not discharged by the destruction of the victim and his transformation into credit; rather, God simply continues to give, freely, inexhaustible, regardless of rejection. God gives and forgives; he fore-gives and gives again” (Ibid., p. 351). Just so, Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores the Creator’s gift and offers it anew for our responsible care as an act of forgiveness; those who join in care of creation share in that act, as often as it takes place.

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

Sunday September 4-10 in Year A (Ormseth)

Love Your Neighbor! Dennis Ormseth reflects on cultivating a sense of place, where love for one another includes all of life.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 4-10, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

With the texts for this Sunday after Pentecost, we continue from the previous two Sundays a search for principles to guide the church’s care for creation. Our requirement is that the principles be consonant with Jesus’ role as Servant of Creation and also conform to the general expectations he set out for his followers. The reading from Matthew reiterates the encouragement from the Gospel reading two Sunday’s ago for engaging in this search: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  As we stated in our comment on that text, we understand this promise to encourage the church in the pursuit of understanding what works for the “care, preservation, and restoration of the Earth,” in view of the global ecological crisis of our times.

The Gospel for this Sunday is clearly focused on interpersonal conflict within the community of faith. The practices proposed here for resolving conflict within the community, while not specifically relevant to care of creation, are nonetheless good counsel for those advancing the cause of creation care within congregations. They envision a close, but not a closed, community that holds its members accountable for the ethical consequences of their beliefs. By careful comparison, Warren Carter shows that while these guidelines are similar to those developed in other religious communities of the period, they clearly incline more toward reconciliation than strict exclusion. Even those who have resisted both private and public admonishment are still to be regarded as “Gentiles and tax collectors,” which would make them “objects of mission, people to be won over to the community of disciples . . . . What is ratified is not the offender’s permanent exclusion.” Like God (Mt 18:10-14), the community pursues the difficult task of restoration.” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading pp. 367-68).

This is wise counsel for environmentalists operating within the church; adamant, self-righteous insistence on environmentally benign practices can quickly alienate offenders beyond the point of recruitment to the cause. Patience in developing an appropriate understanding of the issues at stake is by far the more successful strategy. The “two or three” gathered in the name of Jesus do well to keep the purpose of the healing and restoration of creation ahead of being “right”—it should suffice that they have the promise of the Servant of Creation to be with them.

Love for Neighbor and Self Cannot Ignore Love of the Nature that Undergirds Us.

While the counsel regarding love of neighbor from the second reading in Romans 13 would seem to be similarly limited to the arena of social relationships, it is in fact highly relevant to our concern with care of creation. We noted in our comment on the lesson from Romans for last Sunday that, in the view of David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in their recent book on Greening Paul, the Apostle Paul’s ethical reflections generally constitute “an ethic of universal human concern” that “offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection,” although remaining “a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric.” Paul’s summation of the law under the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” in today’s first lesson demonstrates their point exactly. Paul’s choice of commandments fits well within this limitation of concern to human relationships; and the suggestion that such love is appropriately measured by one’s love of self would appear to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to “deny self and take up one’s cross,” which we encountered in last Sunday’s Gospel. On the other hand, when read in the context of faith in Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this command to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” proves to be profoundly salutary for care of creation as practiced by his church.

Caring for the sheep means tending to the pasture. Loving the neighbor means caring for our shared place in creation.

Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the “ ‘hood” in which the neighbor lives? The problem of Paul’s “anthropocentricism,” in this instance at least, may be more a matter of our tendency to read “neighbors” simply as individuals who either have needs to be met or, as in a common interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, the means and will to meet those needs. But was the man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho to be loved even though, or precisely because, he was not at home with his own neighbors, in the sense of those who live close by (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Might not Jesus have meant to assert the importance of that very natural web of relationships we call a neighborhood across a wider span of reference? As we have noted before, a good shepherd takes care not only for the sheep of his flock but also for the pasture where his sheep feed. In a sense, what the Good Samaritan did for the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was to create a neighborhood that would provide for his very desperate and immediate need.

Love your neighbor! Love your neighborhood!

Furthermore, the idea of taking one’s self-love as the measure of one’s love of neighbor is removed in the instance of the actual neighbor, since the actual neighbor is by definition one who shares that ‘hood’ with one’s self. The practice of love for the neighbor’s neighborhood necessarily entails love for one’s own neighborhood. Since they are the same place, what one does for the ‘hood’ to the benefit of the neighbor necessarily also benefits oneself within that same web of relationships.

Cultivate a sense of your place.

Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor encompasses all aspects of that web, natural no less than social, economic and political. However, the importance of care of the neighborhood, understood as a geographically-limited region, derives also from the fact that it involves a network of personal relationships that, as we have seen above with reference to the Gospel reading, should be present and operative within the life of a congregation. Such relationships are characteristically face-to-face, whether that interface is between humans or between humans and the non-human creation.  They make possible a quality of concern and care all too rare in the normally less personal relationships of modern society. As Norman Wirzba observes,

“The significance of proximity, of face-to-face familiarity, should not be underestimated as we try to recover a sense of responsibility for creation. In large part it is because the moral sense depends on it. Is it an accident that the eclipse of the moral sense of the world goes hand in hand with the practical and the theoretical distance between humanity and the earth that is fully developed in the modern world? So long as we treat others, whether they be human or nonhuman others, in an abstract manner as objects or workers or consumers, we invariable tend to degrade them, to misunderstand and misuse them. We overlook their intrinsic value or at best assign to them a value derived from our economic or utilitarian calculus” (Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, p. 170).

While Wirzba makes this point relative to the growth of economic and social organizations in modern society, we would raise it as an especially important concern for congregations seeking to consistently demonstrate care of creation. In the church, as elsewhere, responsible action requires “that we become knowledgeable about the contexts in which our action takes place.” This happens only as we “forsake our passive ways and become attentive to the world around us” (Ibid., pp. 165-66.)

Measure your ecological imprint on the place you inhabit.

The drive for what usually counts for success on the part of contemporary congregational organizations involves growth that quickly transcends capacity for awareness of the congregation’s ecological footprint. Corporate efficiency “demands uniformity and generalization,” Wirzba notes. This is true also for churches: policy is too often guided by principles of growth that foster disregard, not only for differences between persons, but also for the great variety of life in the ecological setting of the congregation. “There simply isn’t the time to pay attention to, nor is there someone who can master all the specifics of, the needs of particular places. What this simplification amounts to is a distortion of the reality engaged” (Ibid., p. 167). Who takes note if that huge expanse of asphalt deemed necessary to attract young suburban families represents an assault on water quality and animal habitat? Who counts the cost to the health, so that people might come, ironically, to worship God the Creator and proclaim Jesus the Servant of Creation, Lord?

When love of neighbor is taken to include love of the neighbor’s neighborhood, the congregation will necessarily develop concern for the health of the larger community’s ecological situation. Care for the congregation’s neighborhood will indeed be a primary concern for a congregation that cares for creation.

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

Sunday August 28 – September 3 in Year A (Ormseth)

Following Jesus as Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on self-centered reasons and altruism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 28 – September 3, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In our comment on the lections for last Sunday, we presented an argument for the appropriateness of our identification of Jesus as “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” Authorization for this new title, we suggested, grows out of Jesus’ promise that he would build his church on the basis of Peter’ confession and that it’s use constitutes a proper use of the powers vested in the church “to bind and loose” such matters as arise in the manifestation of God’s empire. The argument we have presented provides strong encouragement for the work of caring for creation on the part of the church, we believe, with the caution that this Sunday’s Gospel needs to be taken into consideration as one engages in such care.

What might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?

Our concern is this: when ecological awareness and political action on environmental issues become part of the ethos of the Christian church, they should be governed by principles that Jesus laid down for his followers for their ministry. It follows, with respect to the Gospel reading, that just as Peter’s confidence in his confession of Jesus as Messiah is challenged in this Sunday’s Gospel by Jesus’ announcement that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” so also does the authorization of care of creation entail an expectation that those who draw on Jesus for support and guidance for their care of creation will conform to the counsel set forth in his response to Peter’s rebuke:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Or what will they give in return for their life? (Mt 16:24-26).

What, then, might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?

“Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’”

Our answer will of course be shaped by what we understand it to have meant for Jesus to take up his cross. Warren Carter explains the necessity of Jesus’ suffering in terms of two broad themes.  First, there is the political imperative: “He must suffer in Jerusalem because the center is always threatened by the margins and the empire strikes back at those who expose its injustice and who promote an alternative empire. His suffering is the inevitable consequence of this collision course with the political, socioeconomic, and religious elite” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 341). To care for creation as Jesus cares for it, accordingly, carries an expectation of coming into conflict with the economic and political structures of our society, with an awareness that this conflict will be costly to one’s status and power in relationship to the community where one lives. As we suggested in our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday, Jesus, who serves God by faithfully serving creation, suffers precisely on account of that service. “Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’” In Jesus’ words from the Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” For, to follow Jesus, as Carter puts it, “is to renounce the practice of telling God and God’s agent how God’s purposes are best accomplished. It is to refuse to place oneself ahead of, or in the place of, the revealer.” It was in holding to this rule that Jesus came into conflict with the religious and political authorities. And so will we.

Will we face the cost?

At the same time, it is precisely this “cost” that can be expected to generate the spiritual power and churchly social capital needed to stand in steadfast opposition to the community’s disregard for creation, and the courage to await vindication. Coinciding with this first necessity is a second, more explicitly theological one:  his suffering is “also inevitable because through Jesus’ suffering and death, God will expose the limits of the elite’s power to punish and control. God will raise him to show that while the political and religious elite trade in death, God’s sovereignty asserts life over death. They do not have the last word” (Ibid.).

The appeal to care for creation is here grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of the consequences for one’s self.

The difference of approach here, in comparison with standard appeals for action on environmental issues, is clear. The latter generally appeal to rationally calculated and/or emotionally awakened self-interest. Utilization of new technologies, it is urged, save a congregation money as well as reduce pollution; or, it is said, we must act so that our grandchildren can enjoy the same quality of life we enjoy, or better. Such appeals have their place, to be sure. But the appeal here is instead grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of consequences for one’s self. Again, in Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

Or, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ scandalous call . . . is a call to martyrdom, to die as Jesus does . . . . Such is the risk of continuing Jesus’ countercultural work of proclaiming and demonstrating God’s empire (Mt 10:7-8).” Because the calculation involved here is a matter of life and death, both one’s own and others, the action provides the occasion for the manifestation of the living God’s creative sovereignty over life and death; only so can one actually hope for defeat of the demonic powers operative in the oppressive systems of the social and political order, which—because they are deeply rooted in self-concern and presuppose the existence of the self in unbroken continuity and undiminished power—cannot otherwise be overcome.

Paul challenges us to oppose evil with goodness.

The second lesson, Romans 12:9-21, provides an illuminating comparison of different ways of developing an ethic of care for creation. The ethical counsels offered by Paul also express a degree of altruistic regard for the other, informed as they are by the quest “to discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” offered in 12:2 as the basic principle of Christian life. Carol Dempsey appropriately characterizes the two main themes of the counsels as follows:

” . . . first, the ways that Christians are to manifest genuine love (vv. 10-13), and second, the obligations that one has towards one’s enemies (vv. 14-20). The final verse summarizes Paul’s comments: Christians are not to succumb to evil and evil’s ways but are to deal with evil according to the ways of goodness” (Dempsey, “Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 188).

However, notably missing from the counsels in this passage is the eschatological life and death thrust of Jesus’ teaching. David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate make the argument that while Paul’s ethical teaching represents (in this and other passages such as Romans 12:14-17; Galatians 6:10; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 5:15):

“an ethic of universal human concern that offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection, since the injunction to love or do good to all (human) neighbors can promote action to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation or change where this influences human health or welfare, for example, in flooding exacerbated by global warming. But this remains a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, pp. 195-95.)

Paul encompasses the whole creation in the story of redemption!

These authors propose to go beyond this exclusively anthropocentric concern by reading such passages in the light of Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, where Paul more “clearly encompasses the whole creation” in his story of redemption. More helpful, as we look to developing a message for Christians gathered in worship, we suggest, is to read it in the light of today’s Gospel. This scripture supplies the missing kenotic and eschatological dimensions of the narrative of Jesus’ life that provide for the inclusion of the whole of creation as a proper object of Christian ethical concern.

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

Sunday August 21-27 in Year A (Ormseth)

The Best Title for Jesus?  He is the Lord and Servant of Creation! Dennis Ormseth reflects on who the Gospel of Matthew tells us Jesus is.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 21-27, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Who do you say I am? The Lord and Servant of Creation.

“But who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus of his disciples in the Gospel for this Sunday after Pentecost. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” his disciple Simon Peter answers. Our own response to Jesus’ question, based on the readings we have given to the lections thus far in Year A, is this: “Jesus is the Lord, the Servant of creation.” We have argued for the validity of this new title for Jesus through a now rather extended commentary on those lections. In our comment on the readings for The Holy Trinity we summarized our reflections towards that conclusion, and we would refer our readers to that comment for the substance of our argument.

Peter’s answer raises the question of the validity of our answer anew, however. Because the title of “Messiah” tends to evoke for the Christian reader a rather high Christology, our answer may seem to have less than a clear claim to be revealed by Jesus’ “Father in heaven.” It is, perhaps, more like those answers the disciples reported “people” were giving, answers derived no doubt from “flesh and blood,” which Warren Carter suggests, “denotes the human situation before God, . . . as the inability to know God and God’s ways. It underlines the limitations of ‘human intellectual, religious and mystical capacities’ before God” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 56).

 We acknowledge such limitations! It can be noted, however, that contrary to conventional views, there was in fact “no standard expectation of a messiah, nor did every Jew look for a special anointed figure.” Use of the term, Carter insists, rather “raises a question. For what special task or role has God anointed or designated Jesus?” An answer is given early in the Gospel: “He will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). But it takes the entire gospel to develop fully what this disarmingly simple answer actually entails. The account of Peter’s confession can accordingly be seen as a “summary scene” that “restates the central issue” as it relates to the narrative of Jesus’ story at the end of the third block of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 11:2-16:20): “Have people been able to discern from Jesus’ ministry that he is God’s Christ, the one anointed to manifest God’s salvation and empire (cf. Mt 11:2-6)” (Ibid., p. 332).

It seems clear that while “the people” do not see in Jesus “the Christ,” the disciples do. On the other hand, it is not clear that the disciples know what the actual role of this Messiah is. At the conclusion of his commentary on this section of Matthew, Carter cautions that “as the unfolding narrative will show, the disciples do not yet fully understand what Jesus is commissioned to do” (Ibid., p. 337). Carter has reference, of course, to Jesus’ announcement that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Mt 16:21), part of the Gospel reading for next Sunday. But without anticipating what that will mean for our answer, how can we presume to know more than the disciples do at this point? How legitimate is it for us to make the claim we do? What really could we know about what it means to “manifest God’s salvation and empire,” in Carter’s phrase?

What is Jesus’ mission? To be shepherd to Israel.

For Carter, an answer to this question begins to emerge from careful analysis of the context of Jesus’ mission. The setting of this Sunday’s gospel narrative, we are immediately informed in v. 13, is “the district of Caesarea Philippi.” Carter comments on this information as follows: “The scene is set . . . some twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee south of Mt. Hermon.  G. W. Nickelsburg notes it as a place of revelation and commission. . . , important elements of this scene. The site had been a shrine for the god Pan, god of flocks and shepherds (Josephus, Ant 15.363-64).” In Carter’s view, this information should remind us that Matthew has already told us that Jesus is also to be known as a shepherd of his people.

The one who shepherds/governs my people Israel (see Mt 2:6), who has compassion for the crowds as sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Ezek 34), who is sent to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 15:24), and who sends his disciples on a similar mission (Mt 10:6), the son of the shepherd David who manifests God’s reign among the marginal (Mt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22) is again recognized as God’s commissioned agent (Carter, p.332).

In this perspective, therefore, Jesus would be an alternative shepherd for the people. Thus is introduced a metaphor for the interpretation of Jesus’ role that we have seen to have considerable significance for our understanding of him within the community of his followers as “The Lord, the Servant of creation.” If Jesus is “the Messiah;” he is also “the good shepherd.”  Do the “people” see this? No, and neither, strictly speaking, do the disciples. This is not necessarily what the title “Messiah” would have meant to them. But for the reader of the Gospel of Matthew who knows the territory and its culture, Jesus’ presence there nonetheless sets up the possibility for “discovery” of this meaning.

As shepherd to his people, Jesus restores people and land!

This proposal regarding Jesus as shepherd gives rise to further difficulty for our answer to Jesus’ question, however. In our comment on the lections for Good Shepherd Sunday, we suggested “the complex of relations brought to mind by [Jesus’] metaphor [of the shepherd] is incomplete without the lived-in context of the creation that shepherd and sheep share. A people or a community, centered on and founded by Jesus, the servant of creation, will flourish in the context of a creation that, especially in view of the resurrection, is being restored.”  The first reading assigned for this Sunday actually amplifies this expectation: “For the Lord will comfort Zion,” the prophet writes; “he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isa 51:3). As the Servant of God, Jesus would do what God would do; God, this lesson insists, restores not only the people but also the land to which they are returned. And the Messiah, the commissioned agent of God, will work to effect this restoration.  God’s salvation includes the restoration, we might say, of the shepherd’s pasture.

But is such restoration a real possibility within the territory that Jesus now enters? How can it happen, in view of the fact that there is also another claimant to lordship over this very same territory? And this is something that both the people and the disciples had to know, since it obviously was a matter of ‘flesh and blood.” The location of Caesarea Philippi, Carter notes, “also underlines the issue of sovereignty.” The name of the city reflects its involvement with imperial power. King Herod built a marble temple there in honor of Augustus . . . Philip enlarged the city and named it Caesarea . . . Agrippa enlarged it further and renamed it Neronias in honor of the emperor Nero . . . After Jerusalem fell (70 C.E.), Titus visited the city, and “many” Jewish captives were thrown to wild beasts or forced to fight each other. . . Its names, buildings (typically using local wealth [taxes and levies], labor, and materials), activities, and history attest Rome’s claims and power (Carter, p. 332).

Even in land “ruled” by the Roman Empire, the shepherd comes to restore the land.

Is it not then quite astonishing that it is in precisely this place that a disciple of Jesus first names him “Messiah”? On the contrary, as it is precisely in the face of this difficulty that, as Carter observes, God’s purposes for Jesus and his followers are affirmed, purposes which contest Rome’s claims that Jupiter determines human affairs, that history is under Rome’s control, and that the emperor is the channel for the god’s blessing and presence . . . Jesus, not Rome, is the agent of God’s purposes, which will ultimately be triumphant (Ibid.)

The pasture over which this shepherd watches, to follow through the implications of our metaphor, is the very territory that the Roman army has violated and laid waste in its imperial conquest. Even into such a place the one who is Christ comes to restore the creation.

But again, how could it ever actually be accomplished? The confession made by Peter does actually suggest how this will happen, perhaps beyond his own understanding. Jesus is, after all, the Messiah, the agent of God. And more precisely, he is “the Son of the living God.” This is perhaps the more decisive claim, in our view, as it begins to fill out the role of the Messiah by suggesting the source and purposes of his work. Carter helpfully explains the meaning of this second part of Peter’s confession:

As the living God, or God of life (Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10; 1 Sam 17:26, 36, @ Kgs 19:4, 16; Pss 42:2; 84:2; Hos 1:10; Dan 6:20), God is creative, active, faithful, and just.  As God’s son/child or agent, Jesus expresses this life in his words and healings, feedings, exorcisms, and so on (cf. 11:2-6), and in creating a community that participates in God’s empire. To recognize Jesus as God’s agent confirms that he, not the emperor, manifests God’s purposes (Ibid., p.333).

Christians are a “Community that participates in God’s empire.”

Hence, the things that Jesus has been doing in the Gospel readings for the Sundays after Pentecost are precisely the kind of actions we would expect of the Messiah, if we understand his work as the Servant’s service to God’s creation. 

Is such a reading legitimate?  Much of this, to be sure, we are reading into the text. We read it into the text from diverse sources: from the first lesson, from the scholar’s careful reading of the entire Gospel in the light of what he or she knows about the cultural context, and from the creation–interested agenda of Christians concerned with care of creation. We think it appropriate to engage the text in this manner, first of all, because given the nature of these resources, together they constitute an apt proposal regarding his interaction with the historical context provided by Matthew’s narrative. But equally important, especially considering that this reading takes place within the context of the Christian assembly for worship, we think it conforms to what Jesus himself anticipates will happen with Peter’s confession. It builds on that confession, as Carter puts it, to create “a community that participates in God’s empire.”

Peter’s confession is the “rock.”

The exchange between Peter and Jesus takes a surprising turn here: Having acknowledged the divine inspiration of Peter’s confession, Jesus goes on to say, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Jesus shifts their focus from his own identity to that of Peter, and to the role that Peter and the other disciples will have in the future. 

This shift turns on the introduction of a new metaphor, that of “the rock.”  Quickly sorting the alternative interpretations of this much controverted saying, Carter takes Jesus’ reference to be “Peter’s faith or confession in 16:16,” albeit as embodied in the person of Peter as “the representative of every Christian,” (passing over the alternatives of “Christ” and “Peter the model bishop”) (Ibid., p. 334). But in the assembly this Sunday, hearers of the Gospel will catch the allusion to Isaiah 51:1 from the first lesson, for the sake of which, we surmise, the church has brought this lesson into juxtaposition to the Gospel. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug,” says the prophet. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.” Here “the rock” is the founding couple of Israel and their faith.  And what does one see by looking to them? As we already noted above, we see the prophet’s promise that the Lord “will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

To be sure, the prophet spoke in a different time and place.  But as we noted above, he spoke about what God does, and this is what the congregation will attend to. In addition, what God does, the Messiah, God’s commissioned agent, would surely also do, when and where the situation demanded it. The good shepherd attends to the needs of his sheep where they are at pasture. Does “the district of Caesarea Philippi” represent such a situation? We can’t say for sure, of course. But we can say with some confidence that Jesus himself would not contradict that possibility. His focus here is more general, but his intention is clear: Through the faith of Peter and his other disciples, Jesus will work to effect all such purposes as are consonant with the will of God for God’s empire wherever they may be called to do so.

As Carter adroitly observes, Jesus’ response quickly moves the conversation to a new levels, first political and then cosmic. On the rock of Peter’s confession of him as Messiah, he says, he will build his ecclesia. The word “ecclesia,” Carter insists, refers to more than we commonly understand as a religious community. “Frequently overlooked,” he notes, “is the observation that the term ekklesia is used in the political sphere. It denotes the ‘duly summoned’ . . .civic and political assembly of citizens in Greek cities which along with a council (the boule’) expressed the will of the assembled people (demos).  . . The assembly is not primarily cultic but political, social, cultural.  It gathers to reinforce and administer the status quo under Roman control. As R. A. Horsley notes in discussing Paul’s use of this term, by claiming the same name, the community centered on Jesus exists in ‘pointed juxtaposition’ and ‘competition’ with the official city assembly. . .(as) an alternative society to the Roman imperial order. . . rooted in the history of Israel, in opposition to Pax Romana. In God’s guidance of human affairs, history, which had been running through Israel and not through Rome,” continues in this counter society with its alternative commitment and practices (Ibid., p. 335).

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

In this light, the significance of the linkage between the gospel and the first lesson for our concern for care of creation grows. The “alternative commitment and practices” could certainly include, with full legitimacy, such activities as will further God’s will to “comfort all (Zion’s) waste places” and to “make her wilderness like Eden her desert like the garden of the Lord.”

Carol J. Dempsey makes note of this possibility in commenting on the first lesson: “Embedded in this text,” she writes, “is a message to the natural world as well. When Israel was redeemed from exile, the people were also restored to their land, which itself was restored to life after the ravages of the battles it endured. God’s words that promise restoration to Jerusalem’s waste places and deserts need to be heard by all environmentalists today working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth.  Indeed God is at work in their activity and their work is a sign of God’s saving grace in our midst” (Dempsey, ‘Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time,’ in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 176).

The church has a mandate to care for creation

While we agree with Dempsey, we would restate her affirmation of care of creation much more broadly to include the whole community of the church. “Working for the care, preservation, and restoration of the earth” is something not only those who identify themselves as environmentalists do; consequent to our reading is commitment to such work as essential to the mandate of the community built on the rock of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. It is an important aspect of what those disciples are to “bind and loose” on earth, on behalf of the Father who is in heaven. As they work to understand and do “what God’s reign requires as declared by the scriptures and interpreted not by the religious leaders . . .but by Jesus, and by Peter and the disciples . . .all disciples are entrusted with the task of proclaiming and manifesting God’s empire (10:7-8)” (Ibid., p. 337). Because of the situation and condition of the Earth today, it is, we believe, part and parcel of what all Jesus’ followers are called out to do together, as Jesus’ ecclesia for our time and place.

The potential consequences of such action are, Jesus promises, cosmic:  “the gates of Hades will not prevail against” the work of the community so constituted and committed. “The phrase the gates of Hades,” Carter points out, “is metonymy in which a part (gates) refers to the whole realm of Hades. . . Hades, associated with the dead, contains the demons and evil spirits of death and destruction . . . Hades attacks Jesus’ community (as the rock is attacked in Mt 7:24-27; cf. 14:24). The gates of Hades open to let the attacking demons out. . . This attack is part of the eschatological woes which disciples experience as they conduct their mission before Jesus’ return.  . . . In Matthew 13:24-30, 38-39 the opposition comes from the devil. It can take all sorts of forms: domestic (Mt 10:21-22), and religious and social (Mt 10:17; 16:21), cultural (Mt 13:21-22), and political, since the devil claims control of the nations (Mt 4:8; cf. 10:17-18). But Jesus promises that this diabolical opposition will not prevail against the community centered on Jesus (Mt 13:36-43) (Ibid., p. 335).

Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

Discouraged and pessimistic environmentalists, take note: Your work is not in vain. Heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to the congregation in Rome, living in the shadow of the Empire’s capital: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). Working together, thinking “with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned,” we will see the creation through its crisis in the good company of “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” But there is also this: With Jesus’ promise, comes this cautionary word in next Sunday’s Gospel: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Christian care of creation comes with sacrifice.

Who do you say I am? The Lord and Servant of Creation.

What is Jesus’ mission? To be shepherd to Israel.

As shepherd to his people, Jesus restores people and land!

Even in land “ruled” by the Roman Empire, the shepherd comes to restore the land.

Christians are a “Community that participates in God’s empire.”

The lesson is a message directed to creation itself!

 The church has a mandate to care for creation

 Environmentalists: Your work is not in vain!!

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

Sunday August 14-20 in Year A (Ormseth)

If we are to address Earth-care together, no nation can claim privileged exceptionalism. Dennis Ormseth  reflects on a global scope for the vision of well-being.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 14-20, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Constructing political agreements to address on a global scale the degradation of the earth’s ecology is proving to be a nearly insurmountable challenge. As James Gustave Speth writes in an “anatomy of failure” of global environmental governance, environmental deterioration “is driven by powerful underlying forces; it requires far-reaching international responses; and the political base to support these measures tends to be weak and scattered.” These forces are quickly identified: “the steady expansion of human populations, the routine deployment of inappropriate technologies, the near universal aspiration for affluence and high levels of consumption, and the widespread unwillingness to correct the failures of the unaided market.” But the strategies needed to deal with these forces are very difficult to put in place. They need to be far-reaching and complex: new energy policies, new transportation strategies, changes in agriculture and the management of forests around the world. The required actions “demand international cooperation on a scale seldom achieved” (Speth, pp. 98-99).

The politics of such cooperation are exceedingly difficult: the issues are increasingly complex and difficult to understand; the impacts are remote or difficult to perceive; they concern future problems more than current ones, and problems that may be felt more immediately by other people in other places rather than close to home; and the problems tend to be chronic rather than acute. The political institutions needed for sustained and effective action are rarely strong enough. Economic needs regularly trump the needs of the environment. The wealthy global North protects its world dominance over against the poorer South. And particularly problematic is the persistence of the government of the United States in its arrogant attitude of exceptionalism, which undergirds a “pattern of unilateralism and of staying outside the multilateral system unless we need it—a la carte multilateralism” (Speth, pp.98 – 99, 107-11)

Can Christian churches contribute to the effort to meet this immense and daunting set of challenges? Without addressing specific issues identified by Speth, the lectionary lessons for this Sunday nonetheless point to resources within the tradition for helping the world deal with important, perhaps even crucial, aspects of them. The readings evince a powerful determination on the part of God to overcome the divisions that separate peoples from each other and work against their mutual well-being. Psalm 67, for example, reminds us that God’s people are to pray that God’s “way may be known upon earth, [God’s] saving power among all nations” (67:2; our emphasis). There is global scope to the vision of well-being for which we commonly pray, as in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Furthermore, the challenge of bridging divisions between peoples is clearly addressed in the lesson from Isaiah 56; through the prophet, God promises to gather “the outcasts of Israel” and “others . . . besides those already gathered” (56:8). To the “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these,” the prophet promises on behalf of God, “I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” Interpreted in terms of the mission of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this promise means that those who minister to God and act as God’s servants will be co-servants with him in serving creation. Together with these strangers the people of God already gathered embrace the restoration of creation adumbrated in Jesus’ ministry: keeping the Sabbath rest, which encompasses all creatures in God’s own shalom, they join his ascent of the “holy mountain,” which is to say that, the representative ecology in which God, the creation, and the servants of creation are brought together in prayers of joyful praise and thanksgiving. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7).

In the Gospel reading for the day we see how such promises might actually begin to be realized. The encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman offers a vision of how such deep divisions that prohibit the healing of creation might be overcome. Warren Carter describes the situation as follows:

Just as Jesus “came out” or left one place (Mt 15:21), the woman also “came out.” They meet in an unspecified “nowhere” place in the boundary region of Galilee and Tyre-Sidon, the interface of Jewish and Gentile territory. It is a place of tension and prejudice: Josephus declares  “the Tyrians are our bitterest enemies” (Con Ap 1.70), and there were clashes between Tyrians and Jews in the 60s (JW 2.478). Along with ethnic conflict, there are competing religious understandings (Israel is God’s chosen people), economic needs (the urban centers Tyre and Sidon require food from rural areas), and political goals. Tyrian political aspirations for further territory and resentment of Roman rule ran high. Josephus notes that many followers of John of Gischala, who revolted against Rome, came from ‘the region of Tyre” (JW 2.5888; cf. Vita 372). The woman comes not from the cities of Tyre or Sidon but from that region, suggesting perhaps her poverty as a rural peasant (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 321-22).

Thus, in her appeal to Jesus as he enters the conflicted territory that separates her people from Jesus’ people, the woman confronts many of the complex factors that render political accommodation of any kind difficult, today no less than in the first century: rival populations struggle for control of contested territories and the resources they contain; the power and prerogatives of empire trump local concerns; and the resort to military power to guarantee access to material resources adds to the people’s sense of vulnerability and hopelessness. And figuring most prominently in their exchange is the challenge of the imperialistic ideology of Israel that, astonishingly, seems in the first instance to be even Jesus’ own point of deep resistance to her appeal.

Nevertheless, the woman draws on virtues she intuitively knows she can depend on for the response she seeks from Jesus: she cries out persistently, as in prayer, to one she acknowledges as Lord and son of David, challenging, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ very identity and mission.” Her petition squarely confronts the ideology implied by that mission:

“her request has challenged his ideology of chosenness, which restricts his mission and his disciples mission to Israel. In the tradition of Abraham, she demands her share in God’s blessing for all the world (15:29-39; 1:1-2). Her request protests an excluding focus on Israel and reclaims her place as a Canaanite and a Gentile in God’s purposes” (Ibid., p. 323.)

When Jesus persists in his resistance she matches him with both wit and courage. In the crux of their exchange, so offensive to contemporary ears attuned to politically correct standards of speech, he supplies a metaphor that provides an impetus to transcend their conflict.” It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says. “Why does he use a food metaphor when she has not asked for food?” Carter astutely asks, and observes:

“Bread or food has also been an issue in two previous stories (12:7-8; 15:1-20) that have involved conflict between traditions and God’s will. Here the struggle concerns whether Jesus will be bound by cultural and historical conventions in resisting this woman from around Tyre and Sidon (see 15:21-22), or understand that faithfulness to his commission to manifest God’s saving reign does not violate Israel’s priority if he extends the reign to Gentiles. Food, then, is a metaphor for God’s empire or salvation (1:21, 23; 4:17)” (Ibid., p. 324).

So while his comment persists in maintaining “the status quo of ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, and political division, her response lays claim to his metaphor for her own cause: “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Thus, she reaches out

“beyond these barriers to possibilities that are faithful to God’s promises to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-13). Without questioning the priority of the children (Israel), and while recognizing the authority of the masters, she reframes the significance of dogs (Gentiles). It is not a matter of food or no food (Jesus’ alternative), but food for both. . . . She demands a place at the table, not under it.”

What Carter calls attention to is the relationship between a master of the household and its domestic animals. Not only the children of the household receive the master’s care; the animals belong to the household as well, and cannot be denied the food that is appropriate to them. And, we note, this wild metaphorical stratagem of the woman triumphs!

Jesus has a name for her persistence: “Woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” Indeed, the narrative has made the greatness of her faith very clear; she has overcome every obstacle. But it is important to see precisely what that faith is. It is clearly not faith in Jesus as the one who delivers special privilege and power to Israel among the nations, or, for that matter, to Christian believers. It is rather a faith in the gracious mercy of God that transcends all such “ethnic, gender, religious, political, and economic barriers.” And even more: we would suggest that her metaphor expresses a faith that overcomes the commonly assumed division between humans and their animal companions. Here, we might say, is faith in God as the creator of all who provides food for all. Her appeal is to a God for whom, in the vivid image of the woman’s plea, dogs are as welcome at the family table as are the children!

The implication for people of faith in the context of contemporary care of creation is clear: in the face of this woman’s faith in the God of all creation, whose healing servant she recognized in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the exceptionalist ideology of Israel or any other nation falls away. For this God, there is no barrier to restoration of all creation. This truth comes hard to Americans or citizens of any nation who expect from the rest of the world subservience to their unilateralist conceptions of fairness and justice. To embrace such faith can be painfully difficult, and especially so for those who have taken special pride in being recipients of God’s salvation. Indeed, in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see how painful this recognition was for even the great apostle of justifying faith. God, he acknowledges, has given everything to his people, and yet he must relinquish their exclusive claim in favor of God’s transcendent compassion and all-inclusive mercy. Even Jesus would seem to give up his people’s privileged status with great reluctance.

So we should not be surprised that it comes with great difficulty for a nation such as ours, so wonderfully blessed as America has been in this place, to acknowledge other nations’ claims on ecological equity and justice. Nor, for that matter, for the human species in relationship to the needs of the rest of God’s creation.  The woman transformed Jesus’ understanding of his mission in relationship to the purposes of God; who will change ours, so that the creation God so loves can be truly and finally restored?  The Christian community has this transformation of perspective and orientation to offer the nations of the world, in their quest for policies that address the dreadful reality of our degradation of God’s creation, with both compassion and justice for all.

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

Sunday July 24-30 in Year A (Ormseth)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday July 17-23 in Year A (Ormseth)

Desist from Ecological Destruction, NOW! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the ecological integrity of all things.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17-23, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 44:6-8 or Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Psalm 88:12-25
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Notice the ecology of these parables!

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat follows immediately on the reading of the Parable of the Sower and its explanation, both in Matthew’s narrative and in the lectionary last Sunday and this Sunday. Comparison of the two parables is instructive. The parables share important elements of interest to the reader concerned with care of creation. Although Jesus’ purpose in telling the story is to instruct the disciples concerning the growth of their community, the story locates that community in relationship to Earth. The parables share a narrative structure that moves from sowing to sprouting to harvest. They both have a very simple, relational, if not explicitly ecological, perspective, namely, seeds need to be matched to soil, and roots hidden beneath the soil are intertwined and cannot be separated without killing the plant. Finally, in both parables, the seed represents the potential growth of the community of Jesus’ followers. The kingdom of heaven on earth, we might conclude, conforms in important ways to the regular processes of creation. Like the parable of the Sower, the parable of weeds among the wheat is a story that the Lord, the Servant of Creation, would have loved to tell.

There are significant contrasts between the parables as well. Here the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat is explicitly introduced as a means to understanding the kingdom of heaven, a point that was only an unspoken assumption in relation to the parable from last Sunday. Warren Carter plausibly suggests that the aim is “to direct the audience to think about the story in relation to God’s empire, but leaves it to the audience to discern connections” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 288). Here the seed is declared good, and the field is the sower’s own property—both factors unmentioned in the first story. The new parable involves more human characters: a lone sower in the first parable, here a landowner with his household slaves, and also the unidentified “enemy” who comes in the night to sow weeds among the wheat and then disappears. The more complex operation of the household economy contrasts significantly with the simple agrarian image of the solitary peasant sower.

 This comparison illumines an important feature of the context implied by this Sunday’s parable.  It is a context in which considerable control over the land is presupposed:  it is land that is owned as part of an estate with slaves. The land is under regular, organized cultivation, where care is taken to see that the seed is good quality, and slaves or servants appropriately share the landowner’s concern about the yield. One suspects that the careless sower of last Sunday’s parable might not last long in this company. And, notably, the slaves expect to be directed into the field to violently uproot the weeds. Carter’s point about empire is well taken: the social location is an organized economy, which is being disrupted by an alien agent, in a conflicted cultural environment.

In contrast to the Roman Empire, the Empire of God is creative and life-giving.

Yet the empire of God is different: evocative of a highly organized economy though the narrative might be, the images remain agrarian. As Carter observes, “The scene of growing wheat suggests that God’s empire is creative and life-giving in providing food to sustain life, in anticipation of the abundance that will mark its full establishment” (Ibid., p.288-9). Furthermore, when the weeds sown by the enemy are discovered, the landowner restrains the slaves, saying “let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (13:30).  The point is clearly to keep the plants in the earth until they are ripe, well beyond the time their true character has been revealed, so that the harvest of the yield of the good seed can be as full and complete as possible.

As before, Jesus is not instructing his followers in agronomy; he makes use of what would be largely common sense for most everyone in an agrarian culture, to set out what would be uncommon sense under an imperial regime.  The powerful typically get rid of those in opposition to them by “rooting them out” without regard to collateral damage, in the phrase of our day. We have the technological means to do this now: well-designed herbicides can do precisely what mechanical row hoes have done clumsily. But political applications of the policy are still very costly of life. For example, some do it with no concern for collateral damage, like the well-intended but unthinking slaves in the parable, do the damage by incurring unintended consequences. Others heedlessly and deliberately “do what is necessary” to eliminate whatever threat the opposition poses, up to and including “scorched earth” warfare and genocide. The destruction of both human communities and their natural environment continues, the opposition seemingly ineffective against the newest juggernaut.

Things are different in the reign of the Son of Man, the parable promises. As Jesus’ subsequent explanation to his disciples makes clear, in what is now revealed to be a cosmic struggle between the powers of good and evil in the world, the good children of the empire are encouraged patiently to wait out the season of growth and the ultimate denouement of the children of the enemy (those who sowed weeds), in confidence that God’s purposes will prevail at the harvest.  The imperial cycle of violence will stop. True, the image of that harvest is itself violent: “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42). As Carter observes, ‘the gospel borrows imperial and violent images to depict the final triumph of God’s purposes,” although we might suggest alternatively that as every good gardener or farmer knows, weeds need to be burned to prevent them from regenerating, and ashes help renew the soil. It is nature’s way.

The final judgment marks the end to imperial violence—not replication of it.

What is in view here, in any case, is a final end to imperial violence—not replication of it. As Carter explains, “The evil that is overcome includes all causes of sin, a cognate of the verb ‘cause to stumble/sin.’ These causes include anything that diverts or destroys disciples (5:29-30; 18:6-9) and anything that rejects Jesus rather than recognizing his identity as God’s commissioned agent” (Carter, p. 294).  And whatever the implications of this violent image for the end of the ages beyond the triumph of God’s purposes, the mandate for time forward until God brings the world to fulfillment is to follow the policy of the wise landholder, or Son of Man, namely, to act so as to sustain and to fulfill life as fully as possible, even for those who oppose the purposes of God, and let God bring all things to their appropriate, God-determined end. And as the Son of Man, in our view, is also the Servant of Creation who does what God wills for the entire creation (see our comment in this series on the readings for The Holy Trinity), what God wills for the sake of the “children of the empire,” namely to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” (13:43) is more likely to be the final purpose of God’s creative activity on behalf of the rest of creation as well, and not its utter destruction, as a literalistic application of the parable’s conclusion might be taken to suggest.

This reading of the parable is strongly supported by the lessons that accompany it. Indeed, the lessons provide a basis for sketching out a theology of creation that fully grounds the reading we have given. The reading from Isaiah is an example of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Old Testament’s “rhetoric of incomparability:”  “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god; Who is like me?” (Is. 44:7). This kind of statement, he notes, comes early in the tradition “and yet is a most sweeping generalization,” so that “we may regard it as the most poignant spine and leitmotif of all of Israel’s testimony concerning Yahweh” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 139). The point is not so much that there is no other god like Yahweh (“Israel did not know or care that other peoples made similar claims for their gods.”),  “but that Yahweh really is as said—in extreme form a God of astonishing power and reassuring solidarity” (Ibid., p. 143). Specifically, in this instance. the incomparability concerns God’s ability to know the future he has promised: “Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.” This future, strikingly, is the renewal of the land and people together upon their return from exile: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendents, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams” (44:3-4; not included in the assigned verses). Yahweh is, according to this first lesson, the one to bring about the renewal and restoration of creation envisioned as the culmination of the narrative of the parable. God knows the future, because God creates it (Cf. Isaiah 40:28-31; 45:12-13.)

It is the second lesson, however, that draws our greatest interest here. The second half of the reading, Romans 8:18-25, is what David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate regard as an “ecotheological mantra text.” The text has come to be cited widely by writers on ecotheology, as they make their appeals for creation care and Christian environmental concern. But the text has received new attention from Pauline scholars without special environmental agendas as well. Horrell, Hunt and Southgate locate a significant change in the weight the passage is given in the interpretation of Romans and in the Pauline literature more generally. “The changing readings of this passage . . . give a clear indication of the way in which the issues and challenges of the contemporary context shape the questions brought to the text and in turn shape the interpretation on the meaning of the text.” The development is similar to what happened to the interpretation of Romans 9-11 when Jewish-Christian relations became a significant aspect of the interpretive context. “Under the influence of a context in which the magnitude of the ecological challenge is increasingly a point of public and political consensus,” these authors write, Romans 8:19-23 “may come to be seen as a (even the) theological climax of the letter.” In their recent book, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, they devote an entire chapter to the interpretation of this passage, and they carefully weigh the question of whether or not the text can sustain the importance that is being placed on it by ecotheologians (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, pp. 69-70).

See the excellent book, The Greening of Paul, by Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate.

In this reader’s estimation, this book is absolutely essential for anyone engaged in our quest for biblical underpinnings for the care of creation, and we therefore present the argument of this chapter is some detail. The key steps in their argument are as follows:

  1. The narrative approach to the interpretation of Paul’s theology, for which the authors present a strong argument in the opening chapters of the book, is particularly appropriate to interpretation of this passage. “While itself brief and frustratingly allusive,” the passage “depends on a certain story about the past, present , and future of creation in God’s saving purposes. Creation ‘is waiting with eager longing’. . , ‘was subjected to futility’. . , in hope that it ‘will be set free’ . . .” (Ibid., p.71; the elided words are the corresponding Greek terms, which we are not able to reproduce here.) The account has “a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it also entails a transformation,” which allows the authors “to construct the outlines of a narrative trajectory, while the employment of [gar] and [hoti] indicates causal links between the elements, thus constituting a plot.” Furthermore, they note, Paul introduced the comment about creation groaning, saying “we know that . . ,” thus apparently “appealing to knowledge that he can reasonably presume his readers share” (Ibid.).
  2. The narrative’s “past” includes some event of “making/founding/creating” the object of which is in a condition of  “current, and presumably prior . . . bondage to decay.” This “creation” has, additionally, “been subjected to futility, of an unspecified nature, not of its own choice, though the subjector is not named.” Bondage and subjection represent “the negative dimensions of its past and present experience, which are transformed with the resolution of the story” (Ibid., p. 72). The “present” is the co-groaning in co-travail of creation and Paul’s community. The “future” anticipated in the longing of creation for the revealing of the “sons of God,” the hearers “who have the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ and “wait for adoption as God’s sons”, and the hope of creation to be “liberated from bondage to decay” and to “obtain the freedom of the children of God.” Thus, as the authors see it, “the plot looks forward to a final transformation which resolves and surpasses the negative state of decay and futility” (Ibid.).
  3. Turning to a more detailed analysis of key phrases, Horrell, Hunt and Southgate argue that “creation” refers here to “nonhuman creation, whatever precisely is or is not included in Paul’s implicit definition” (Ibid., p. 73).  “Bondage to decay” refers, they think, not to death as the consequence of the Adamic fall, but more comprehensively to the ‘unfolding story of Genesis 1-11, in which corruption affects all flesh. “Subjection to futility” refers, similarly, not to any specific act or cause, but to the fact that “the existence of creation (and of humanity) is futile and frustrated, since it is unable to achieve its purpose, or to emerge from the constant cycle of toil, suffering, and death” (Ibid., p. 77.)
  4. With respect to the present, the creation’s groaning is “a co-groaning with Paul and other Christians and the Spirit, a shared travail that also represents a shared hope, though some aspects of that hope are distinctive to the ‘sons of God,’ who are described here as those who have ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’” (Ibid., p. 79.) The creation, specifically, is “awaiting the revelation of the Christian believers,” and this “unveiling is related to their adoption as sons spoken of in verse 23” (Ibid, pp. 79-80). The “adoption as sons” probably includes “redemption of their bodies” in a resurrection from the dead which in Pauline eschatology is “the initial event in a series that will eventually encompass all creation. . .” The adoption is “important not simply in itself, but insofar as it heralds a wider process of eschatological transformation. The hope that always accompanied the creation’s subjection to futility was and is the hope that the creation itself will be liberated” (Ibid., p. 80-81).

In summary, Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate hold that Paul teaches that an “enslave-too-decay creation has been subjected to futility by God.”  But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co-groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning, and, similarly, a shared hope” (Ibid., p. 82).

The highlight in Romans is the moment when the groaning creation will welcome the revelation of the “children of God” who will care for creation.

Focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons of God,” the passage presents “the sons/children of God” as “leading characters, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused.” But of course the character of the story whose presence is “most crucial to the progress of the plot” is actually God, whose actions are “hidden within the force of the so-called divine passives” of the “creation was subjected . . .  will be liberated” (Ibid, p. 82-83.)  Romans 8, the authors conclude, “is a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17), a narrative in which verses 19-23 so enigmatically include the whole of creation as co-groaning” (Ibid., p. 83).

What strikes us so forcefully relative to the interpretation of the assigned texts for this Sunday is the parallel structure and themes between the narrative of the parable of the weeds among the wheat and this Pauline creation narrative. The unexpected and unexplained seeding of the weeds, the command of the landowner to the servants of the household to desist from destructive separation of the weeds from the wheat, the promised future rescue of the wheat at a future time when the Son of Man will act to end the competition for land by removing all causes of sin and evil; here in a “down to earth version is the narrative of bondage to decay, subjection in hope, and future redemption” in which “children of God” play an important if not a decisive role of bearing hope and assisting the (non-human) creation to its ultimate restoration in Christ. To be sure, the narratives differ in language and accents, appropriate to their narrative settings and social context. But it seems reasonable to suggest that when Paul wrote that this narrative is something that “we know,” it is not difficult to imagine that they knew because Jesus himself had told the story, in different words, at an earlier time.

At minimum, the texts urge us to desist from ecological destruction—now!

What this correspondence might mean for the practice of the Christian church in its care for creation is, of course, another whole discussion. While Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate caution their readers that “there are reasons to be more cautious and careful than much ecological appeal to this favorite text has been,” they find that there are “significant ethical implications” to be inferred from the passage “when its narrative genre is taken into account. . .and when it is related to the wider contours of Pauline theology and ethics,” as they do in the concluding chapters of their book (Ibid, p. 85). We would suggest, for starters, that following the command of the land-owning Son of Man, the ethic of the parable is to desist from the ecologically destructive action of “rooting out” our enemies. Or, expressed positively, we should maintain respect for the ecological integrity of all things. Expressed in positive terms, this conforms well to the ethics of “other-regard and corporate solidarity” as the authors envision it emerging from the Pauline literature (See their chapter 8, “Pauline Ethics through an Ecotheological Lens” pp. 189-220). But for the Apostle, it is more simply a matter of “by the Spirit” putting “to death the deeds of the body” so that one may live. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God—the Lord, the giver of Life”—are children of God . . and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (8:13-17).

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

Sunday June 26 – July 2 in Year A (Ormseth)

Righteousness and Justice for All Creation! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on true prophets.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

We disciples make present the Lord, the Servant of Creation.

Welcome is a warm word of hospitality, a word that offers place in which to dwell. Mindful of Jesus’ Easter promise in his Farewell Address to his disciples to “go and prepare a place for you (John 14:3),” we hear this anticipation of the disciples’ outreach with the joyful awareness that we, too, have been prepared to be able to be “home” for these witnesses to the Servant of Creation, in our place, and with them Jesus himself and his Father. That is indeed what Jesus promised them:  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). With those who have been sent out in the power of the Spirit of Life, comes the Servant of Creation and the God of Creation.

 Acclaiming Jesus as King may compromise his role as Servant.

Thus we find ourselves this Sunday gathered for our worship of the God of creation whose steadfast love, according to Psalm 89: 1-2, sustains all generations. What was promised in covenant with David, we are given to understand, is now being extended, through Christ, to all nations. Care must be taken, however, to note the ambiguity inherent in this use of the psalm, lest we welcome a view of God that is subversive for care of creation. In verses excluded from the assigned reading of the psalm, the Hebrew monarch is presented as mediator of God’s gracious presence in and through all creation.

As Walter Brueggemann observes, the psalm reiterates an affirmation of the monarch expressed in 2 Sam 7:12-16, which may “be regarded as the beginning point for graciousness without qualification as a datum of Israel’s life and for the assertion of messianism wherein this particular human agent (and his family) is made constitutive for Yahweh’s way with Israel” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 605). But while efforts to qualify the absoluteness of this claim are made in the Old Testament by making the monarch subject to the Torah, Brueggemann suggests that the tension between these commitments is not easily maintained. If “the purposes of Yahweh have now been entrusted to a human agent . . . what is from Yahweh’s side a singular intention becomes complicated both by high aggrandizing ideology and by uncurbed self-service.” For the church, he notes, there is a temptation to “take the high lyrical claims of oracle and royal psalm and ‘supersede’ the narratives of sordidness, so that kingship takes on a somewhat docetic flavor.” Christians appropriate “for Christology the highest claims of kingship and assign to Judaism the demands of the Torah,” which both distorts “the way in which Jewish interpretation kept Torah and messiah in fruitful tension,” and “overlooks the way in which this same tension continues to swirl around Jesus” (Ibid., pp. 609-10).

 The Warrior God (Psalm 89) is opposite to the God who sustains creation (Psalm 104).

The selection of verses from Psalm 89 for this reading nicely illustrates this temptation. The implications of this ambiguity of the psalm’s images of God for our relationship to the creation are significant. The God who “rule[s] the raging of the sea” (89:8), the psalm proclaims, “set[s] the hand” of his servant David “on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” (89:25). As Arthur Walker-Jones points out in his book on The Green Psalter, the images here reflect the continuing influence in Israel of the ancient mythology of the warrior god, who creates by destroying Leviathan, the symbol of chaos, which will compete in the tradition with the more ecologically oriented images of God’s relationship with creation exemplified by Psalm 104 (Walker Jones, pp. 155-57). The relationship of the warrior god to creation is clearly one of domination and control, which is inconsistent with the Trinitarian view of God as relational (cf. Terry Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 43-48). The selection of only versus 1-4 and 15-18, serves to conceal this concern from the congregation, but it does not manage to remove from the reading the triumphalist spirit of the monarchical ideology. It also hides the fact that the psalm, taken as a whole, is a lament for the failure of the monarchy to keep the covenant of David, the failure that itself manifests the brokenness of that ideology.

 We welcome visitors who bring gifts—and “baggage”

The presence of Christ as the Servant of Creation, in any case, brings about a decisively different reality. The gospel lesson for this Sunday, we have suggested, is concerned with the extension of the Christian community out into the world, as gatherings of those drawn to Jesus welcome his disciples. We find ourselves amongst those so gathered, and are delighted by the company we share with them around the word of their testimony and we are delighted by the meal that they have taught us to share as a sign of our communion with Jesus in the presence of God. As a congregation, we are of course pleased to welcome newcomers of almost any kind. The growth of a congregation is naturally seen as a sign of success in meeting people’s needs, whether spiritual or social, and perhaps even material. The growth is likely to be credited to the spiritual gifts of the congregation’s leaders and those with whom they amply share these gifts, the local disciples, as it were. Such growth is typically rewarded by heightened confidence in the future of the congregation, greater pride of the members in their choice, and their collective prestige in the larger community, not to forget higher salaries for the staff.

So, at least in a general way, we have some sense for what Jesus is talking about when he suggests that those who welcome a variety of newcomers into their gatherings receive the rewards associated with the arrival and welcome of assorted outsiders. Strangers bring gifts; the disciples bring gifts of word and sacrament, and the blessings that go with them. But sometimes strangers also bring “baggage,” in the metaphor of our times. They bring baggage of different kinds; and the congregation has to deal with that, as well. So we might often find ourselves asking, “what are we letting ourselves in for, as we welcome these newcomers? What, specifically, are we letting ourselves in for, in welcoming these disciples of Jesus?”

 If we welcome prophets, what is the reward?

Jesus suggests a few instructive analogies. First, of special interest to us in view of our discussion about of the character of the monarchy, he says “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matthew 10:41a). The trick here is that, as our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah conveniently reminds us, prophets come in different kinds, with different agendas relating to the reigning powers in the land. There are prophets of a rosy future, like Hananiah; and there are prophets of doom, like Jeremiah, who wears the wooden yoke of obedience to Torah. As Diane Jacobsen puts it, it’s a “Case of the Dueling Prophets.”

 Who are the true prophets and who are the false prophets?

At issue is: How can one distinguish true prophesy from false prophecy, a subject taken up in Deut. 18:9-22? Which of us, given a choice, would not choose good news over bad? We will want to believe the bearer of good tidings; and we will tend to dismiss the harbinger of woe. So it was throughout biblical history. The people were wont to choose Hananiah and to dismiss or even to kill Jeremiah.  Jeremiah responds to Hananiah’s smug assurance with the same clear and obvious message as Deuteronomy—time will tell (Jacobsen, p. 115).

 The rewards of the prophets vary, depending on the prophet!

The prophet’s rewards: Hananiah’s promise that the exiles in Babylon will return in two years, irrespective of the people’s disobedience, Jeremiah insists, is a lie; instead, he “has broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them;” Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will continue in absolute control (Yahweh has “even given him the wild animals”) until the people turn and repent of their disobedience. The prophecy will end in death, in the first instance, Hananiah’s own. By way of contrast, Jeremiah foresees “days surely coming” when, Yahweh promises, “I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” Before then, however, the nations will be convulsed with “warfare, famine and pestilence,” as the “fierce anger of the Lord” works itself out and “he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind” (Jeremiah 30:24).

 Prophecy always embraces all creation—animals, vegetation, land and people.

The prophet’s mention of “wild animals” reminds us that Jeremiah’s prophecy embraces the wide net of all creation. As Terry Fretheim writes in an illuminating essay on The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12:

“God’s purposes in the world must be conceived in relation to the story of all of God’s creatures, including the land. Using Isaiah’s language (65.17-25; see 11.6-9), God is creating a new earth and it will be populated by animals, vegetation, and people (see Hos. 2.18-23). Comparably, the salvation oracles of Jeremiah are remarkably inclusive in their orientation, including non-Israelites (e.g. 3.17; 12.14-17; cf. 29.7) and the land itself (31.5, 12, 14, 27; 32.42-44; 33.10-13; 50.19).

When the trumpet sounds, and God rides the cloud chariots into a new heaven and a new earth, the children will come singing, leading wolves and leopards and playing among the snakes. They will not hurt or destroy, for God will, finally, ‘give rest to the earth’ (50.34; see Isa. 14.7; 51.3)” (Fretheim, The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12, in Readings from the Perspective of Earth, ed. by Norman C. Habel, p. 110).

The reception of Jeremiah’s vision, in sort, will be rewarded with confidence in the restoration of the whole creation.

 Who are the true and false prophets in climate change? Will we listen?

We find ourselves in something of a similar contention between prophecies these days in the debate regarding climate change. Prophets on the right promise peace, with only modest adaptations needed to adjust to the more or less natural changes in climate they foresee taking place in the next half-century. Prophets on the left see instead a doomsday of sorts, climate changes that will engulf whole cities as well as alter habitat for uncounted species. Which prophets do we prefer? Politically it is clear that the American people are choosing the Hananiahs of our time, in spite of the weight of scientific evidence that the prophets of the left have tied around their necks. It is a choice for economic development, over against the restraints of ecologically disciplined policies of sustainable growth.

Economic growth is the Earth-destroying idolatry of our age. And, each year, that choice makes more likely the results foreseen by the prophets of doom. Setting the reputed uncertainties of scientific prediction aside, the church of Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, will have to decide on which basis the rule of that Servant will be upheld: Will we do what we want? Or will we instead look forward to what God the creator and Jesus the servant of creation will do, and so enlist in their cause? Will we choose a course that follows the imperative of economic growth, or will we turn around and re-vision our future? Those who welcome a prophet, receive a prophet’s reward.

 If we welcome righteous people, what is the reward? Justice for the whole creation!

The second saying, “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous,” broadens the scope of the discussion of rewards, but with the same results. “Righteousness,” in the Gospel of Matthew, we recall, refers to “actions that are faithful to commitments and relationships.” We welcome Jesus as the one chosen by God to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus’ mission embraces righteousness and justice for the whole creation. The reward for those who receive Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is re-direction toward the purposes of God for God’s beloved creation. Our second reading, Romans 6:12-23, is relevant here as well: the “righteous ones” are those who do “not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” They present themselves “to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present [their] members to God as instruments of righteousness.” In Christ, the Servant of Creation, they belong to the dominion of life for all creation. Those who receive a righteous person, receive a righteous person’s reward.

 If we provide (a cup of) “water” to the poor, will it be polluted or pure?

And so, finally, the special relevance of the third saying: “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I tell, you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42).  The phrase “little ones” refers here to the disciples and points, Warren Carter suggests, to their “vulnerability and danger as a minority group. . . . It recalls the context of persecution and exhortation to persevere which is evident throughout the chapter” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 245). It suggests to us also those made vulnerable in society by the struggle with the conditions of poverty, for whom a mere cup of water is a precious gift of life. Jesus, we remember, is more than a little aware of the importance of water as necessary to the flourishing, not only of human beings, but also of all creatures. “Water,” as we put it in our comment in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, (see our comment on Third Sunday in Lent; cf. John 4:5-42) is “the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God.”

It probably should go without saying, (but won’t) that to provide the stranger with a “cup of water’ that is beyond proverbial and therefore truly and completely righteous and life-giving, the water will be pure and safe for all to drink, whatever it takes to bring it to the scene. And with that availability, the congregation does indeed, at a minimum, have its reward. As metaphor for the source of all life, furthermore, the cup of water carries astonishingly greater significance: it represents the whole of the creation in its capacity to fulfill the purposes of God, so that all of creation might be freed to flourish in its time. It is indeed a sign of the presence of the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And those who give that cup in the name of Christ, truly, none of them will lose their reward.

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

Sunday July 10-16 in Year A (Ormseth)

The Parable of the Sower as Sign of God’s Provision in Nature Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the Servant of Creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 10-16, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Welcome righteous persons, and we welcome Jesus the Servant of Creation!

Welcome and rejection: the lections for the two prior Sundays after Pentecost provided a basis for setting out implications for care of creation of welcoming or rejecting Jesus the Servant of Creation and his disciples. Those who welcome his disciples welcome him: to welcome him is akin to welcoming a prophet like Jeremiah, who rewards the congregation with confidence in the restoration of the whole creation;” it is like welcoming a righteous person, who rewards the gathering with ‘redirection toward the purposes of God for God’s beloved creation;” it is like giving to vulnerable persons a cup of water, which beyond being a precious gift that sustains life, exemplifies the capacity of the creation to fulfill the purposes of God. Those who welcome the Servant of Creation do indeed receive their reward (see our comment on the readings for Time after Pentecost – Lectionary 13).

Exploit creation and we reject Jesus the Servant of Creation!

Those who reject his disciples, on the other hand, also reject Jesus, the Servant of Creation. For what reason might we reject them? Mainly because we are too caught up in the business of the market place to share his concern for the gifts of creation. Or to put it somewhat differently, we are too deeply enthralled by the vision of a ruling power that can effectively dominate and control creation so that we secure and deliver the resources we need to sustain our lives (e.g., our industrial model of agriculture?). In other words, we completely fail to appreciate Jesus’ humble way of exercising dominion as care of creation, and we disregard his offer to provide the divine “rest” that encompasses all of creation.

Sowing seeds yields an abundant harvest.

Today’s readings invite reflection on this dynamic of welcome and rejection at a deeper level; they provide additional perspective on the reasons for and the consequences of these responses. Jesus’ parable of the sower locates the responses in a narrative thick with ecological insight. The sower’s seemingly careless hand distributes seed without regard to the terrain into which it happens to fall: “some seeds fell on the path. . . Other seeds fell on rocky ground…Other seeds fell among thorns. . . Other seeds fell on good soil . . . .” Indeed, one might suspect that this sower is blind, so completely does he appear to abandon his rate of yield to chance. His purpose is accomplished nonetheless! The seeds that fell on good soil “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty,” which, while not overly abundant, is sufficient for the sower’s purposes. Scholars argue whether or not the yield should be regarded as “superabundant.” Bernard Brandon Scott, for example, thinks the results “are well within the bounds of the believable. They are an average-to-good harvest.” See his discussion in Hear Then the Parable, pp. 355-58). In any case, it is an abundant harvest.

What good may come from sowing everywhere!

With respect to the seed that falls on path, rocky ground, or amongst thorns, the interpretive emphasis is commonly on the failed results. But if one reads with ecological perspective, there are possible advantages to the sower’s casual practice: birds are fed that otherwise might have gone hungry; no doubt stretches of good soil are utilized that might otherwise have been missed; and it is difficult to discriminate between good soil and poor, as one walks through the field. Indeed, could one really tell in advance which soil was really good and not just average, before it gave up its yield? And might there not also be some variation between seeds as well? From the same hand came seed that produced in some of the good soil “a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” With a sowing so thoroughly characterized by indeterminacy, perhaps there was more purpose in the action of the sower than first meets the eye.

God’s purposes in the sowing will prevail in the harvest.

That is Jesus’ point, in our perspective.  He knows about seeds and soils, obviously, and he appreciates the complexities of their cooperation in producing the yield the sower wishes so devotedly to achieve. His purpose in telling the story, of course, was not to instruct the disciples in agronomy, but rather to give them insight concerning their outreach to others. Appropriate to their call as disciples of the Servant of Creation, their mission is like a planting. They are as seed cast from the hand of the sower—in some places they will meet welcome and in other places they will meet rejection. Even when they are at first well-received and on occasion drawn into deeply fertile relationships, they will produce responses of wildly differing magnitude. But if the yield is not superabundant, in larger perspective the will of the sower will still be accomplished, because the yield will come in sufficient quantities that the hungry bodies in the sower’s household will be fed. The presence of the Servant of Creation will become known, and the purposes of his Father with the creation will be accomplished, in and through the disciples’ encounters on their journey, however often they meet with rejection.

See how God creates the order of creation.

So we are encouraged by this parable to have confidence in the results of our cooperation in the mission of the Servant of creation. And this encouragement is supported by the psalm and by the first lesson that accompanies it in the readings selected for this Sunday. The selected passage from Psalm 65 is all about the relationships God establishes in the world in the course of creating and sustaining it. The God that creates order out of chaos may seem more the forceful monarch who dominates and controls, rather than the relational creator of the Christian Trinity: “By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” (Psalm 65:6-8). But God is also praised because “you visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its [i.e., the Earth’s] furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth” (Psalm 65:9-10).

The creative action of God is continuous!

Here is relevant background, indeed, for the parable of the sower:  the soil is good because the Creator has taken care in preparing it! And anticipating the results of the sower’s action, the creation flourishes, whether aided by human hands or not: “the pastures of the wilderness overflow; the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy” (65:12-13). Thus the creative action of God is continuous; the relational purposes of God are indeed accomplished, with respect to both the creation and its continuing care and development, even to the welcoming of the disciples as followers of the Servant of Creation.

Just look at God’s provision! Earth and people rejoice together!

A similar assertion of divine purpose that is successful over a continuum that includes both creation and salvation comes from Isaiah 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Stunningly, people and nature are in this instance seen to join together in rejoicing at the accomplishment of God’s purposes: “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). And equally remarkably, those purposes include not only restoration of the people to the land but also rejuvenation of the land itself, even to the point of the generation of new kinds of vegetation: “Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 55:13).

God the Sower will achieve God’s purposes for creation.

Thus far, we note, the parable’s meaning is located entirely within the large frame of the relationship between Creator and creation. If the sower is God, humans are present within the narrative of the parable only as the seed and its yield for the household of God. So also psalmist and prophet rejoice in God’s works for the whole creation. This great frame was perhaps suggested by the author of the Gospel when he noted that Jesus told the parable as he “sat by the sea,” having gone “out of the house” where he had been meeting with his disciples. This is a message for everybody; indeed, it is of relevance for everything, for all creatures. So also, according to the parable, irrespective of the results of individual instances of human interaction, in the end, the seeding of the reign of God will produce yields sufficient to achieve God’s purposes for the creation.

Does the parable of the sower portray the theory of natural selection?

For the contemporary reader, it needs to be acknowledged that another meaning entirely might be drawn from the parable. We have suggested the possibility that the sower is blind and that his sowing is pervaded by indeterminacy. These are hints of an evolutionary reading of the process that would find no basis for attributing purpose in the sowing at all. The parable contains a good share of the elements needed for an argument for the theory of natural selection! The match between seed and soil is largely a matter of chance, and the variation in yields suggests the possibility of superior seed to be selected for the next generation. The yield is in any case readily explained as the result of a complex process governed from the beginning to end by natural process and contingent fact. If the intent was to tell about a ”supernatural” sower and account for the difficulties those who believe in such a being might have in being accepted, the outcome of the story is barely credible.

Especially problematic under such a reading would be the suggestion that so much seed should go to waste, the vexing question of an evolutionary theodicy: if its creator is the benevolent source of all good, worthy of praise by all creation, why is the process of nature so inherently wasteful of possible good? The occasional failure of the entire harvest, under such an indeterminate process, might easily result in famine throughout the land. The question, once raised, quickly escapes the bounds of reflection based on the parable. With respect to our focus on care of creation, we might ask: Why is the possibility of creation’s diminishment in any measure, seemingly built into its very structure?

Rejection of Jesus the Servant of Creation thwarts the harvest.

We cannot pursue this discussion here; see Christopher Southgate’s extended analysis of the problem in his The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. We raise the question primarily to note that the lurking in the background of the telling of the parable is an anxiety about the success of God’s purposes in the ministry of Jesus the Servant of Creation, an anxiety that surfaces in the interpretation of the parable that Matthew presents as follow-up teaching of Jesus to his disciples. At fault in the failure to understand “the word of the kingdom,” is “the evil one” who comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path”; or alternately, weakness in the face of persecution causes the initially eager follower to fall away; and “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” choke the initially avid reception of the word.

God’s empire is an alternative to the Roman Empire.

Rejection of the Servant of Creation has multiple sources, and their collective cultural power is strong. In this reading, it should be noted, a door is opened to introduce a variety of other factors:  unmentioned, notes Warren Carter, but important for his interpretation of the parable as a critique of the imperial domination experienced by the sower who is “trying to eke out a living in generally inhospitable conditions,” are “other obstacles: rent, tithes, taxes and tolls, seed for the next year, a household to support. Crop failure meant borrowed money; indebtedness meant defaulting on the loan, loss of land, and virtual slavery as a laborer.” Carter clearly has in mind the oppressive culture of the Roman Empire, which sought to dominate and control all aspects of society, including, we need to add, its relationship to the creation that sustains it. The parable, Carter rightly suggests, “concerns socialization into an alternative culture constituted by God’s empire and in conflict with the dominant values and structures of the surrounding cultures” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 282, 286).

It is unfortunate, however, that in the context of the parable itself, the birds and the sun have been, retroactively as it were, turned into adversaries of God’s purposes: the bird that snatches away the seed is “the evil one who snatches away what is sown in the heart”; the withering sun is the “trouble or persecution” which “arises on account of the word.” While it may be true that in relatively unknown Hebrew texts there is precedent for viewing birds as ”agents of the devil” (because they are known to eat seeds important for human consumption) the view is heedlessly allegorical and anthropocentric. It leads too easily to the supposition that the creation itself, beyond the human being, has been turned against the will of its creator, an interpretation of the consequences of the “fall”—that is, in the view of recent interpreters of the Genesis text, no longer viable (See Terry Fretheim’s discussion in his God and World in the Old Testament:  A Relational Theology of Creation, pp. 70-89; and Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, pp. 28-34).

Accordingly, we have double reason to rejoice with the “mountains and the hills before us” as they burst into song, and to clap our hands “with all the trees of the field,” when “good soil” turns up to rescue us, creatures of the dirt that we are, along with all the other creatures, including the birds (Genesis 1:7).  If further reflection on the cause of rejection beyond what has been offered here is needed, the reading for the second lesson from Romans provides a basis for exploring the inner struggle that humans experience when humans are alienated from God’s creation and turn it into an enemy of the Spirit, the giver of life (an orientation to the creation referred to as “living according to the flesh”). Because the eighth chapter of Romans is listed for reading on the next two Sundays, however, we defer discussion of that possibility to our comments on those texts.

Our alienation from creation contributes to our rejection of Jesus as Servant of Creation.

In conclusion, we note that this parable of Jesus, drawn as it is from an agrarian experience of life, implies a culture that is deeply counter to our modern, industrialized orientation to nature. It is the tension between these two cultures that we encounter in every aspect of the environmental crisis of our times: do we live and work and have our being within God’s creation? Or do we seek domination and control of nature, in pursuit of entirely anthropocentric purposes? Naturally, this culture of ours is not receptive to the Servant of Creation or his disciples. We cannot expect it to be, nor can we simply be content to adapt to its destructive power; we must hope for a restoration of the creation by the God who knows and loves it, and be willing to be enlisted in that mission.

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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

The Story of Jesus the Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the triune God of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

As we noted in our commenting on Jesus Farewell Discourse (see the “Sixth Sunday of Easter” in this series), the issues at stake in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Church’s first four centuries are all adumbrated in the readings for the last four Sundays of Easter. Jaroslav Pelican summarizes them well:

“the question of unity of the God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that the church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics. (For the basis of this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172).

The doctrine of the Trinity, in the form of the Nicene Creed, serves to keep the church responsive to these issues. As we have seen, the issues are significant for understanding the Christian concern for care of creation. The bond between redemption and creation was part of our discussion on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Holy Spirit figured importantly, of course, in our comment on the Day of Pentecost. And we explored the relationship of the Father and the Son with respect to its significance for the ongoing life of the church in the post-Ascension period. It remains, then, to take up the issue of the unity of God or monotheism, as it also bears upon our concern for the care of creation.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the tradition’s guarantee that the story of Jesus belongs as part and parcel of the story of Israel’s God, who, as our first reading reminds us, is confessed to be the creator of all things. Thus the Sunday of the Holy Trinity provides occasion for a recapitulation of the narrative of the Gospel of the Servant of Creation, whose life and mission we have followed through the readings for the seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, perhaps even the authority and power of this God of creation? And if so, what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times?

The Gospel of the Servant of Creation which we have constructed on the foundation of lections from the Seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter begins with that “creational moment” of Jesus’ baptism, when the water “falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove.” Rising from gently troubled waters, he hears “the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation.” This is the one God calls “my servant. . . my chosen,” the one who will bring forth justice to the nations. He will see waters far more violently troubled, including those of our time stirred up by the changing of Earth’s climate. If it is the church’s expectation that Jesus will bring justice to all the Earth, will he bring justice also to those troubled waters? (See Matthew 3:13-7; Isaiah 42:1-9).

So, from the outset, the story of Jesus is about this “trinity”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it is about the care for creation of this triune God. Instructed by the Spirit, John the Baptist hails this Son as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” His death, we have noted, will become “an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life, as well as with the victims of social competition” (Second Sunday after the Epiphany). He will call as his first disciples fishermen who are experienced with life at the edge of the wilderness, who are familiar with imperial strategies to dominate the economies of the Earth’s lands and seas and who will be able to envision ‘new ways of living in and with the non-human creation,’ ways that bring ‘the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs, and for the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood’” of the creation (Third Sunday After the Epiphany). Following the way first taken by Moses, he will ascend a mountain to teach these disciples; as representative of the ecology of the earth, the mountain attends to that teaching with an ear for wisdom that “tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community”—i.e. for a “land ethic” that might truly “constitute justice for the whole creation.”

The mountain is not disappointed, for here is teaching that buoys the spirit of people who, in our time, care passionately about an Earth in deep distress and who genuinely mourn its destruction. Jesus blesses those who give place to others, a fundamental principle of ecological awareness; and he also blesses those who live according to the purposes their Creator has installed within their very nature. The mountain rejoices to hear him reject the “bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’ in favor of the sacrifice of love that overcomes the ‘pattern of sin endlessly repeated’ of taking ‘creation not as a gift but as a violence—either the violence of order or the violence of chaos—an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty” (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). As “salt for the earth” and “light of the world,” his followers will “carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time” (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany). With an ear for Moses’ admonition to “choose life,” Jesus prepares to descend the mountain of wisdom and walk the plains of Galilee with his disciples, whom he gathers as he goes; he will lead them in a “demonstration project of the power of God’s love” lived out in a community of relationships that include all that God loves, the whole creation (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). He steels them for what lies ahead by envisioning for them the possibility that they might not only love what God loves, but love as God loves: “without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions . . . without qualifying distinctions”  (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany).

With a full complement of eight Sundays, the extended season of Epiphany provided the occasion for an excursus at this last point, namely, on the real difficulties humans face in realizing such unconditioned, self-giving love for others, especially given our existential anxiety concerning the availability of the material resources we feel we need to sustain our lives. Noting that the texts implied a difference in the way God values human and non-human creatures, we asked, “Granted that God desires human flourishing . . . does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation?” Jesus would have us “not worry;” and so he assures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. Yet the creation provides for neither human nor other creatures’ flourishing consistently; our anxiety responds to a “deep insufficiency” that is “built into nature’s creative process.” Nevertheless, Jesus would have us refuse the master of wealth in favor of obedience to God—and for good reason from the perspective of the care of creation. For in its multiple aspects, the pursuit of wealth is easily the chief “driver of environmental deterioration,” in James Gustave Speth’s apt characterization.

This conversation about serving wealth, we noted, again took place in the presence of mountains, our ecological representative of the creation. Obviously, much is at stake in that conversation, for them and for their co-creatures. And indeed, it is fascinating to see how the struggle between these rival loyalties plays out in the culmination of Jesus’ story, to the benefit or to the adversity of the creation. The story from this point moves, as it were, from mountain to mountain: first to Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration; then, by way of the observance of Ash Wednesday, to the ecologically provocative plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains,” which attends the people’s abandonment of the covenant; to the mountain of temptation in the wilderness; and so eventually to the conflict with the religious and political leaders on Mount Zion. These earthly witnesses to Jesus’ passage through the land provide consistent testimony regarding the importance of this story for the creation.  What happened to Jesus on Tabor, we noted, is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the “sign of things to come for the whole creation.” As the concerns of the disciples about status and power in the kingdom of God fall away, the Transfiguration draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world” to which the mountain’s “landscape of accessible and gentle beauty” invites them (Transfiguration of our Lord). The “blackness upon the mountains” of the text from the prophet Joel read on Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, prompts a call for repentance in our contemporary situation for the environmental crisis of our time, in response to God’s promise to restore the people to “the life and well-being that God intended for the creation” (Ash Wednesday).

The issues at stake here are focused most sharply, however, when the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We summed up the significance of their confrontation this way: considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit: one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, 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 Earth. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for the non-human creation; the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and regard for “otherkind.”

These eco-friendly decisions are not merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God, we argued. When read in the context of the story of human temptation from Genesis 2 and 3, the account of the temptation shows that what Jesus does for God in his temptations is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. “To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God.” In the struggle that is here joined between the dominion of life and the dominion of death, Jesus clearly chooses the dominion of life (First Sunday of Lent).

He will be faithful to that choice on his way to Mount Zion. As we saw in the readings for the Sundays of Lent, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem fill out his role as Servant of Creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus “brought ‘living water,’ i.e. water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet.” And with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation, while exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. And even in the face of the death of his dear friend Lazarus, his actions were governed by what we have come to call the rule of the servant of God’s creation: “What he does is always shaped and determined. . , not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, what God wants for the world God so loves” (Fifth Sunday in Lent). This is true to the end of Jesus’ life. Even in his confrontation with the powers of temple and empire, his actions are not about what he wants, but about “what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation” (Passion Sunday).

As we proclaimed on reading the lections for the Resurrection of Our Lord, this service to creation is vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The power of death’s dominion has been broken, even though not driven from Earth. So the meaning of the resurrection has to be about more than vindication. That is to say that the resurrection is also a first demonstration of the restoration of creation, of the “new creation.” A bulwark against all later attempts to “spiritualize” the meaning of the Resurrection, the readings for the Sundays of Easter consistently exhibit the conviction that Jesus’ service to the creation is for its restoration and perfection, not its abandonment. The new creation is already begun, and “is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread” (Fourth Sunday of Easter). As Risen Lord, Jesus provides sustenance in a meal that models human flourishing in the context of a restored creation, for which he will both locate place and provide way, truth and life in the company of his Father, the Creator of all things. As we wrote in summary comment on the readings for the post-ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on Earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found, from time to time, more desirable and “wise,” from a human point of view (Seventh Sunday of Easter).

It is the reality of this New Creation that the church experiences and continues to foster, as we enter more deeply into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the weeks of the season of Pentecost to come, we will explore the fruits, both early and late, of this New Creation.

Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, and even the authority and power of this God of creation? On the basis of this narrative, we have to answer “yes”—decidedly so! And it is consistent with this judgment that in the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday that the disciples went “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to receive the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’” (Matthew 28:18). Again, the mountain is the ecologically responsible witness. And Jesus is the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” meaning thereby that he is responsible for all thing contained within the cosmos. His is “the dominion,” which, in Greek, is the same word as “authority,” Warren Carter notes (in Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 551) that both the reading from Genesis and the reading from Psalm 8 remind us that what was granted to humankind in the beginning of creation was the responsibility to care for the needs of all the non-human creations, both wild and domestic, both on land and in the sea. Jesus is the human image of God, who, as we suggested in our comment on the readings for Name of Jesus in the Season of Christmas, “does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation” (Name of Jesus).

Then what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times? The text tells us that when the disciples saw him, some worshiped him, but others doubted. There is room in this story for those who have difficulty accepting Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. Certainly, misunderstandings and misapplications of the claim of “dominion” have contributed to a resistance to accept Jesus on the part of advocates for Earth. (For our brief discussion of this issue, as raised by cultural historian Lynn White, see our comment on the Name of Jesus.) Of deeper and more general significance, perhaps, is what Norman Wirzba describes as the “culture as denial of creation.” The problem, he suggests, is that in modern culture, we no longer share what he calls “the experience of creation:”

Though many people still profess a vague belief in a higher power that created the universe, there are almost no signs indicating that people have thought seriously about themselves as created being enmeshed in a common redemptive fate with the rest of the created order and that this belief should have any effect in practical, day-to-day decision-making. For the most part, our assumptions about reality, its ontological status, reflect modern scientific, economic, and technological views that place humanity and its interests over and against the natural world. Nature, rather than being the realm of God’s creative work and plan, the object of God’s good pleasure, is the foil for human technique and desire (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 62).

Thus, it is important that we get “clear about how changing concrete and social conditions mitigate or promote our capacity for attention, care, and responsibility—all virtues central to the divinely mandated vocation that we till and keep the earth,” and seek understanding of “those features of modern life that compromise our experience of the world as creation and thus distort our vocations as servants of it” (Ibid., p. 64).

First on the list of Wirzba’s culprits is the demise in modern culture of the practice of an allegorical method for the interpretation of scripture. “Allegorical interpretation,” he observes, “reflected a mental milieu in which words, the world, and God together formed a whole through which meaning and sense could circulate.” Collapse of this approach was due, not to the influence of an alien force of secularization, as one might think, but rather to the efforts of faithful “Protestant reformers to “establish the authority of scripture in terms of its literal and historical sense.” Nonetheless, the loss to the faith was real. As Wirzba explains, “allegory presupposes that the whole of reality forms an organic unity in which humans, because they participate in the material and spiritual realms, play an important role. As creatures made in the image of God we are exemplars, a microcosm of the universe, and thus form a bridge or conduit that mediates this world and the divine intention.”

The combination of the readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, we might note, provided authorization for this view. Faithful understanding is part of the dominion given, lost, and restored (Ibid., p. 66). When on nominalist epistemological grounds, this linkage no longer made sense, both God and the human being were liberated from its constraints and responsibilities: God becomes an “inscrutable, unpredictable being, massively large and powerful, that exists, if God exists at all, beyond this life and world.” Humanity was left to construct life’s meaning on its own, and the world of things was demoted to the status of objects for human manipulation. “Whereas premodern cultures understood value to be embedded within the world, the modern mind separated fact and value, housing the former in an objective world and the latter in a form-giving subject. The sense of the world as creation, as ordered in terms of a divine plan, is largely gone” (Ibid, p.68-70).

Other factors in this “loss of creation,” according to Wirzba, include the “eclipse of agrarian life,” which comes as a result of the fact that as the practice of farming has been industrialized. Technology more generally transforms our access to the reality of the world from one of participatory engagement to a spectator observer of “bits of data, which means that the context for understanding is limited to the moment of the glance” (Ibid., p. 79). “The modern technological mind, in short, destroys the sacred, divests the world of its sanctity or integrity, since its overriding goal is to transform the world into means for decidedly human ends” (Ibid., p. 81). Our culture has become abstract:  “interdependencies are either forgotten, denied, or scorned, the assumption being that persons float above their life-giving context, dipping in and out as consumption patterns dictate” (Ibid., p. 85). The processes that sustain human life are increasingly severed from the processes of the earth, as money becomes the medium for all interaction between them.

And finally, the meaning of creation is made difficult by “the growing irrelevance of God:” As we have become controllers of our own fate, God has simply become an unnecessary hypothesis. We, rather than God, run the world. Talk of God as a creator who is intimately and concernfully involved in the daily affairs of existence is simply quaint, a reflection of the refusal to deal with the naturalistic assumptions of modern science. How, then, can we think of ourselves and the world as creation, when the idea of a creator has been so severely compromised? (Ibid., p. 91).

If there is still much “God-talk,” the reality to which the talk refers is seriously compromised:

“Whereas the God of former times may have arisen in a context in which the feeling of our dependence was palpable and clear, the God of our consumer society is dependent upon us for its reality and significance” (Ibid., p. 91). . . . “God is not so much dead, as absent: God has been banished by us in the drive to fashion a world according to our own liking or, failing that, the liking of corporate, global, economic forces. In this divine banishment, it is not surprising that the nature of the divine power as being-for-another should be entirely lost on us. We cannot be the caretakers of creation because the divine model for such care has been systematically denied or repressed by the dominant cultural trends of the last several centuries” (Ibid., p. 92).

At best, God becomes our personal friend, and Jesus a ‘soul mate’ who feels our pain and encourages us in our distancing ourselves from engagement in the web of nature. The idea that God is the God of creation and Jesus the servant of creation would appear, in view of this cultural situation, to be excised from the teaching of the church simply because it no longer makes sense within a culture that has no experience of creation, and probably cannot have one, given the way our minds and our society are structured to interpret and interact with the world.

What then are we to do? Or more to the point here, does what we have done in constructing this narrative of Jesus the Servant of Creation address the situation at all effectively? Readers will have to judge this matter for themselves and, in doing so, will profitably draw on the many other interpreters of both scripture and culture that have become engaged in this conversation. But we would hope that we have at least made a good beginning, and we would point to several aspects of our commentary that give us hope in relationship to Wirzba’s analysis. In the first place, Wirzba argues for the difference that ecological science is making in our understanding of the world as fundamentally relational (Ibid., pp. 93-122).  At several points we have been in conversation with ecological science and its foundational theory of evolutionary development and we have drawn on writers who are themselves in such conversations. That conversation with the science of ecology actually shapes our discussion at some depth.

Working back through Wirzba’s list, we may also note that biblical scholars are finding new insights on which to base a “relational theology of creation.” In particular, we have found the work of Terry Fretheim extremely helpful in this regard. For example, his interpretation of Genesis 1, which is of interest for this Sunday, pays attention to the multiple modes of God’s creative activity. God not only originates creation, but also continues creating, which “enables the becoming of the creation;” and God completes creation, by which action “something genuinely new will come to be” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 5-9). God is creator/maker, speaker, evaluator, and consultant of others; in interaction with one another. Fretheim suggests that “these images provide a more relational model of creation than has been traditionally presented.” On the other hand, he disallows imaging God as “victor” over the powers of chaos; while chaos is, to be sure, tamed in the process of creation, it remains an element in the creation that God considers to be “good;” and “a key human responsibility set out in the command of Gen 1:28 is to work creatively with that disorder,” as contrasted with authorization to dominate it and bring it under control. Neither does Fretheim hold in high regard the interpretation of God in this text as “king,” because a decisive argument against it is the “democratization that is inherent in the claim that every human being is created in the image of God. If royal language as been democratized, then royal links that may be present have been subverted and non-hierarchical perspectives prevail.” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 36-47.)  Here is a God with whom people in contemporary culture informed by ecological and evolutionary science can much more easily relate!

Additionally, in the development of our narrative, we have worked to keep our discussion relevant to real world situations, where the interdependencies of “life-giving sources of food, energy, and water” are at stake” (Ibid., p. 85). We have emphasized the need for non-anthropocentric understandings of the human/nature relationship. We find the thought of agrarians such as Waldo Leopold and Wendell Berry helpful for translating the meaning of the story of Jesus into our context.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we think that this commentary’s search for the Servant of Creation amidst the appointed texts for the Sunday’s worship services serves to bring us back into something like that allegorical imagination that allows for a sense of creation to be part of a congregation’s shared experience. It is within the conversation between the texts—in the presence of water that can be the bearer of Spirit, and of bread and wine that are acknowledged as gifts of the Creator, even as they are also nature transformed by human hands—that we find the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who invites the community into the experience of creation and moves it toward assuming responsibility for its care. The story of the Servant of Creation becomes our story, even as our story of the abandonment of creation has become his. And he is with us, to the end of the age.

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

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.

Sunday October 9 – 15 in Year C

What it means to be servants of creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on 2 Kings 5 and Luke 17:11-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 9-15, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

As we began this series of short comments several weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke guides us on a ‘New Exodus journey’ (Luke 9:31), a journey that features a ‘new Miriam,’ Mary, who begins her trek with a simple statement of faith: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While we have no evidence that this Miriam danced, her song, the Magnificat, still echoes as a New Exodus manifesto: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly . . . .” (Luke 1:52).

Mary gives birth to a child, born of the earth, wrapped in earth’s cloth, and laid in a manger of earthen material. Yet, this lowly infant, a servant of creation, is attested by the elderly Simeon to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). This week’s readings will demonstrate just this power of servanthood to break through the boundaries that divide to provide new hope for all creation.

At first, General Naaman, who has won significant victory over Israel in the field, seems a most unlikely candidate for healing that breaks down boundaries. Yet, as part of his war plunder, Naaman had acquired a Jewish female servant who had compassion for the skin disease (leprosy) suffered by her master. The young servant girl lamented to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5: 3). Hearing this, and grasping at the hope it presented, Naaman went to his ‘master,’ the king, who agreed to send a letter of request along with an unimaginably great ‘healing fee’ to his counterpart, the king of Israel (2 Kings 5:4-5).

But the king of Israel wondered if this request was a diplomatic ruse that may lead to further conflict. Nevertheless, when Elijah learned of the request, he replied simply, “Let him (Naaman) come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). And Naaman did come, arriving with his retinue at Elisha’s house. But he did not see Elisha himself, only a messenger who advised Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean” (2 Kings 5:10)

Naaman was angry that Elisha did not attend to someone of his rank personally. What’s more, he was offended by the thought that this healing could not take place in the far more impressive rivers of Syria. He made plans to leave in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12). Fortunately for Naaman, his servants calmed him down, suggesting, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?”(2 Kings 5:13).

Naaman reconsidered.  He went down to the Jordan, immersed himself seven times, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). Renewed, Naaman returned with his company to Elisha and confessed: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” Now, the mighty Naaman was a servant! He saw himself as part of the “network of servanthood” that had accomplished his healing. Even though he wanted to share his joy with a large gift to Elisha, as one called to bring God’s healing word as a servant, Elisha refused it (2 Kings 5:16). Naaman had only one more request: that he be given two mule-loads of Israeli earth, to ‘ground’ himself in his new servanthood (2 Kings 5:17).

The power of such a network of servanthood to break down old barriers is at work in this week’s Gospel reading as well. At first glance, our pericope seems to be a healing story with a bonus lesson on giving thanks. Of course, it is both of these. Ten lepers, forced to live outside the village by religious law, keeping their distance cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13). Jesus responds by saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they enter the village to seek ‘certificates of cleansing’ from the priests, a kind of New Exodus, they are all made clean (Luke 17:14). Luke continues the story by describing one who returned praising God with a loud voice. Only as he falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him, do we read “And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16).

But this story is much more than it appears to be. Following Jesus’ instruction about servanthood, it is significant that the lepers correctly address Jesus as “Master.” This correct address reminds the disciples that they were all as outcast as the lepers. Not only can they expect no thanks for their servanthood (Luke 17:9), like the Samaritan leper, they are called to thank the one who has saved them. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The ‘faith that saves’ of the Samaritan reminds the apostles—for whom the temptation to assume the role of “master” rather than “slave” is endemic—of the absoluteness of the faith given them. For this they can never stop giving thanks to the master, never arrogate to themselves the status of master” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 262).

And, it is ‘arrogating to themselves the status of master,’ or, as Frederic Danker puts it, “self-aggrandizement that is maintained at the expense of others” (Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 291) that blocks breakthroughs experiencing the breadth of the new creation Jesus inaugurates. Certainly, this kind of breakthrough is symbolized by Luke’s dramatic mentioning of the seemingly incidental fact, “And he was a Samaritan,” only after the former leper returned to give thanks and find a community home (Luke 17:16. This was undoubtedly a Samaritan who knew his role as servant.

Yet, this should be no surprise. When the, New Exodus company began their journey toward Jerusalem, they reacted strongly to being rebuffed by a Samaritan village and asked their Master if they should, like Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16), call down fire from heaven. “But he (Jesus) turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55). This rebuke is made all the sharper in the very next chapter of Luke’s narrative, where Jesus tells the story of the ‘Good’ Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we recall that when Jesus began his formal ministry in Nazareth, in his ‘inaugural sermon’ he included a telling reference to Naaman, who was healed despite his status as a foreigner (Luke 4:27). The cost, of course, was an attempt to “hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4: 29), a portent of things to come.

It is Jesus, the Master become servant of creation, who breaks barriers and frees those who come after to move beyond contemporary boundaries to creation care. Reading through his new book, Oil and Honey (New York: Holt, 2013) one cannot help being moved by the servanthood of Bill McKibben. Not only is his orientation to working to care for creation global—helping to found 350.org to confront climate change and leading the largest U.S. civil disobedience action in this century to at least delay the Keystone XL pipeline; he completes this servant-calling by involvement with the local economy in the area surrounding his home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.

This involvement began when McKibben was asked to teach a class on “Local Food Production” at Middlebury College in 2001. While there were not many resources available then, he seemed to come across the name Kirk Webster in article after article in the Small Farmer’s Journal, writings primarily focusing on beekeeping. Desperately searching for resource people to speak to the class, McKibben discovered that Webster lived in “the next town over” (McKibben, p. 2). Webster not only presented to the class, but he and McKibben developed a growing friendship.

Webster had been involved in beekeeping for years, but had never been able to accumulate enough money to buy a place of his own. Even though Webster had developed techniques to deal with “colony collapse disorder” without resorting to toxic chemicals and was well-known in the world of apiarists, this did not translate into capital funds. McKibben, who had achieved some financial independence through his writings, made him an offer: “What if I buy you a piece of land and grant you free lifetime tenure on it? In return, you build the farm buildings and get the land working, and pay the insurance and taxes” (McKibben, p. 6).

Webster agreed to this “too good to refuse” offer and began the building process with the hope of passing on his skills to apprentices over what he hoped would be twenty more years of work. While McKibben could not be called an ‘apprentice,’ it is clear that he has worked with Webster when he is able in order to deepen his understanding of the beekeeping process crucial for the pollination of at least one-third of all that grows. In doing this, he has modeled the connection between servanthood in one’s home and on our home planet, a servanthood designed to break down the boundaries between humankind and the rest of creation so that we can see all that God has made as a gift and learn to restrain ourselves so that less than one-quarter of the carbon-based fuel available is ever burned (McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012)

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

For additional 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