Tag Archives: wilderness

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

Jesus Ushers in a New Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the new creation we experience in baptism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new” (II Corinthians 5:7, translation by David Rhoads).

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church begins to tell its story of how it has come to see creation as “new.” With the ministry of Jesus, the old does indeed “pass away” and “all things are new.” As Mark’s gospel opens, we realize that this transition is already underway.  As God’s people are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, the power and authority of the Jewish temple-state centered in Jerusalem, with its exclusivistic appropriation of the blessings of the God’s covenant and its sustaining cosmology, begins to give way to the reality of a new people dwelling with God within a renewed creation.

The readings draw this reality into view in dramatic fashion. In the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are invited to see the opening of a new creation story, in which again, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Once again “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). As the dove descends on Jesus, we are reminded of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). In the fresh light of this “first day,” the first born of a new humanity rises out of the waters. Having identified fully with our sinfulness in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, this “son of God” begins to restore among us the imago Dei, and opens the possibility of our lives being regenerated by the Spirit in his name.

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” Jesus’ baptism serves to mark the difference between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full  “renunciation of the old order” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete their baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. In view of its cosmological accents, however, Jesus’ baptism also marks a parallel liberation of the biblical cosmology from its ties to the temple state, in favor of its restoration as part and parcel of the new reign of God in creation. New creation, and not merely repentance, this suggests, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; this difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

It is instructive to note, following William P. Brown’s discussion of biblical cosmology in his book on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), that the cosmological elements we have identified here are drawn primarily from the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3, a portion of which is therefore appropriately selected for our first reading. This cosmogony, Brown shows, is clearly modeled on the pattern of the temple in Jerusalem. With clearly and fully differentiated domains,” the account “gives form to creation” that “manifests a symmetry supple enough to allow for variation and surprise.” The narrative progresses day by day from the empty formlessness of “Day 0” through the differentiation of realms of light, waters above and below, and land, which are then in turn filled with lights, aviary and marine life, and land animals, including humans, with their food, to the fully differentiated fullness of the completed creation on Day 7. It is a literary version, Brown argues, of the three-fold structure of the temple’s portico, nave and Holy of Holies. “The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space.  The last day inhabits, as it were, the most holy space . . . . In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests” (Brown, p. 38-40).

What is particularly striking about this description is its inherent dynamic, which is hardly compatible with the rigidity and hierarchy commonly associated with the management of sacred space under the authority of a priestly governing elite, like what the reader will encounter later in the pages of Mark’s gospel. Here, differentiation of realms never becomes separation; dominion never implies domination. On the contrary, division is regularly overcome by generativity. As Brown puts it, “Genesis 1 . . . describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that allows for and sustains the plethora of life.” Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the narrative’s treatment of the very holiness of God. While adhering to the “aniconic” prohibition of divine images, the account nevertheless allows for the identification of an imago Dei with humanity.  “Cast in God’s image, women and men reflect and refract God’s presence in the world. The only appropriate ‘image of God,’ according to Genesis, is one made of flesh and blood, not wood or gold (p. 38).”  Whether interpreted in terms of an “essential resemblance” of son to father, the “universalizing” of the exercise of dominion, the displacement of the divine assembly unto human community, or the reflection as male and female of the “communal and generative dimensions of the divine,” the imago Dei shares with God in the “cooperative process of creation” (Brown, p. 44). Even as the waters and the earth share in that agency, so do humans participate in creation as “a cooperative venture exercised not without a degree of freedom,” and as “deemed good by God,” set toward the furtherance of life.

Mark’s Gospel, we suggest, while insisting on the displacement of the presence of God from the Jerusalem temple onto Jesus, by no means intends that this move renders irrelevant or obsolete the cosmogony of the temple. On the contrary, with his setting at the very beginning of the Gospel, of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, and filled with the cosmological reverberations as it is, the author opens up that cosmology to the restored embrace of the full creation. As all the people walk the land and move to the bank of the river and as they then experience the movement of the Spirit over the waters and the voice declaring a human being good (“my beloved”), the reader senses that this story opens one afresh to the wonder of the creation. As once before when Israel came out of exile, we are caught up in what Brown sees as the import of Genesis 1: there is here “a profound effort . . . to put the painful past of conquest and exile behind and to point the way to a new future.”

It is therefore exceedingly important to observe, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed practice of Christian baptism retains several key cosmological elements from the Genesis cosmogeny. Water, of course, takes central place here, combined with Spirit. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite, but, as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say.  Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless gives a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Holy Ground,  p. 106).

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

Then, just as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life, and the tree of life}, so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to . . .

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace:  a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized.  We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation, and indeed, what “new creation” actually might mean for us.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

If You Would Experience God, You Must Fall in Love with Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on baptism as a cosmic event.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, we return to “the beginning” of the Gospel of Mark which, as we noted in our comments on the lections for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, draws us quickly into the cosmological as well as the eschatological themes of Mark’s story. Readers of those comments will recall the strong interest of Mark’s Gospel in these themes: the author breaks decisively with the cosmology of the temple-state centered on the Jerusalem temple, as the elect of God are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness for the opening of the new creation. This break in fact provided the impetus for us to trace in the lections of the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus. Subsequently, in the readings for Christmas Eve and Day, we beheld him enfolded in the glory of God’s primordial light and life. Jesus’ birth is worthy of all creation’s praise, we suggested, because, as Mary saw, not only would he break with the human pattern of domination that makes a desert of creation, but the birth itself effects a reorientation to creation expressed in the insight that the incarnation of God in his person means that the “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.” In Larry Rasmussen’s excellent words, “so if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

In the readings appointed for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church fully affirms these cosmological accents of Jesus’ advent. Once again, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). Yes, in the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are meant to see the opening of a new creation story, in which, as on “the first day” of creation, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), and we are reminded of the  “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). Out of the waters rises a new humanity: having identified fully with our sinfulness in an act of repentance, Jesus opens the possibility of our identifying with him as God’s new creation.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” The cosmological accents of Jesus’ baptism thus serve to mark the difference not only between the temple state and the kingdom of God, but also between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full “renunciation of the old order” which Jesus’ baptism represents (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete the baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. New creation, and not merely repentance, this shows, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; the difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

It is instructive to note in this respect that, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed baptismal practice retains significant cosmological elements. Water, of course, takes central place here. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite; as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say. Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to replace the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“. . . that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force here. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Ibid., p. 106).

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Ibid., p. 107).

Then, as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life and the tree of life; see our discussion in the comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent), so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace: a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Ibid., p. 107).

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized. We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation.

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Advent Is about Gathering for the New Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on wilderness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Again this second Sunday of Advent, we gather with heightened expectation for the coming of God. “A voice cries out,” the first lesson proclaims: “‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3). “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” echoes the Gospel, “who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:2). Again we are being reoriented to God’s arrival, but also, as we suggested in our commentary for the first Sunday of Advent, to God’s creation: as we read in the surprisingly eschatological second lesson, we need to consider “what sort of persons [we] ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire[;],” for “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

This combination of texts strikes us as discordant and confusing. We are at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  But we also read what for most hearers will be a word about the end of the world: “the day of the Lord” that “comes like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it be disclosed,” (or, as some ancient authorities read, “will be burned up” NRSV note). What, we might ask, does the end have to do with the beginning? And does the voice cry out in the wilderness, “to prepare the way” for Jesus? Or is the voice itself the preparation of the way in the wilderness, as alternative readings of Mark suggest? Or does the voice call to prepare a way through the wilderness towards Jerusalem, as the reading for Isaiah suggests? Aside from inherent difficulties of interpretation that these questions raise, at stake for those whose concern is a mandate for care of creation are the meanings to be attached to the heavens that pass away, the elements that are dissolved, and the value and uses of wilderness.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

The story of the Gospel of Mark, interpreters of the book advise us, needs to be read on two levels. There is the first-time-through story of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is the eventful account of Jesus’ mission as it unfolds through his gathering of disciples, his teaching his way to them, and the conflict with religious and political authorities in Jerusalem that leads to his death. But there is also the re-reading of the Gospel invited by the direction the young man at the tomb gives to Jesus’ astonished followers, to go back to Galilee where “you will see him, just as he told you.” Readers revisiting the Galilee of the beginning of the Gospel will see things one did not notice in the first reading.

Ched Myers shows how this works with respect to the first sentence of the Gospel in Mark 1:1. On the first level, the beginning is simply what it indicates, the starting point of the story. But on the second level, Mark’s arche is also an “echo of Genesis” which according to Myers serves three functions:

“First, Mark is boldly suggesting that his story represents a fundamental regeneration of salvation history, as will soon be confirmed by his citation of the prophets. Secondly, it introduces at the outset the ‘palingenetic’ thrust of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse: this is a story about a new heaven and new earth. Thirdly, it has a specific meaning in light of the ending of the story . . . where Mark will point back to the place where the discipleship narrative was originally generated—Galilee. A rereading of (reengagement with) the story offers a ‘new beginning’ for the discipleship adventure.” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p.122).

Salvation history, eschatological cosmology, and discipleship are folded into the narrative of the Gospel. Interestingly, the selection of texts for this Sunday accordingly serves well to bring these “hidden” structures of meaning to light. The first lesson introduces relevant material from Isaiah that will help to uncover what the author of the Gospel does to regenerate salvation history. The second lesson presents apocalyptic material from early Christian tradition to help illuminate the promise of a new creation. And the Gospel reading itself engages us in the call to discipleship with a telling account of the first gathering of potential followers. We will consider each of these inter-textual connections in order. What is of special interest to us, of course, is the way in which this re-reading transforms the narrative at its very outset into a story that draws together the new salvation history, the new cosmology, and the anticipated interaction of Jesus with his followers in a narrative of the renewal of creation.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

This is precisely what our reading of the scriptures for the First Sunday of Advent led us to expect, of course. The “heavens and earth” represented by the Jerusalem temple and the orientation to the creation which its social and political organizations involved, we recall, were “heavens and earth” in which righteousness was clearly not “at home” and, with the coming of the Son of Man, will give way to the dawn of a new world “in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 323; cf. our comment in this series on the texts for the First Sunday of Advent). The beginning of the Gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the campaign for “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” And, as we will see, readers are drawn dramatically into this enriched narrative, along with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”

The campaign opens on two cultural fronts, the imperial Roman and the local Jewish. The very title of the Gospel, Myers points out, is intended to serve notice that “Mark is challenging the apparatus of imperial propagation.” The “good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” proclaims ‘the advent of an ‘anointed’ leader, who is confirmed by the Deity and who proclaims a ‘kingdom.’ In other words, Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myth” with “a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire” (Ibid., p. 124).  Secondly, the prophetic voice crying “prepare the way” is indeed the voice of the prophet Isaiah from our first lesson, but with certain important revisions of the text. The “way” to be prepared, Myers notes, functions to introduce “the central discipleship motif in the gospel.” The “way” is “no mere path; a new way of life is being built [Mark’s verb is “constructed”] in the shell of the old world.” Additionally, the voice of “one crying out in the wilderness” is a reawakened voice thought by many of Mark’s contemporaries to have fallen silent forever with the prophet Malachi. But where that last prophetic word “announces that Yahweh is about to make a dramatic appearance in history,” it also “envisioned the site of Yahweh’s epiphany to be the Jerusalem temple (Malachi 3:1).” Not so Mark, who “conspicuously omits this part of the oracle, and in its place grafts on an almost literal quotation of Isaiah 40:3,” which, contrary to the plain meaning of Isaiah 40:9-10, in which Zion itself is the voice that calls the “cities of Judah” to attend to God’s arrival in their midst, also serves to direct attention away from Jerusalem. “The messenger will appear instead in the wilderness (1:3)—which is precisely where we find John the Baptist in the opening act (1:4)” (Ibid. p.127). Thus does Mark engage his second front, a polemic against the temple cult in the city of Jerusalem, which we discussed in our comment on the lessons for the First Sunday of Advent.

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

“Wilderness” is a “crucial coordinate of Mark’s narrative world,” Myers notes. It has “the principal narrative function” here in the Gospel’s prologue, he suggests, of representing the “peripheries:”

By inserting this coordinate in place of ‘Malachi’s temple (representative of the “center”) as the site of Yahweh’s renewed action, Mark creates a spatial tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces. This wilderness/temple polarity becomes explicit in Mark’s wry report—a typical Semitic hyperbole—that ‘all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem’ seek John in the wilderness (1:5). According to the dominant nationalist ideology of salvation history, Jerusalem was considered the hub of the world to which all nations would one day come (see Ps 69:35f. and Is 60:10-14) (Ibid. p. 125).

“Wilderness” is, of course, a “crucial coordinate” in the narrative world of contemporary environmentalists as well; and the reading of this Scripture can perhaps provide an occasion for reflection on this shared symbolism, for reasons shared by the semantic field of Mark’s readers: “In literal terms, wilderness connoted an uninhabited and desolate place, marginal existence: John lives on locusts and honey (Mark 1:6), and persons hunger there (Mark 8:2f).  Symbolically, it was the site of a community in flight (as in the exodus tradition) or a refuge for the persecuted faithful who await deliverance.” These are meanings wilderness has certainly had in the story of the American west, meanings which are also commonly used in the ideological struggle for the preservation of untrammeled regions of forest, lake and mountain. We wonder, however, if another meaning of wilderness isn’t significant for both contexts. Wilderness is also the place of renewal and even redemption. At least it certainly appears to have that significance here in the Markan story: as earlier at Sinai, the wilderness is the location of a new encounter with God, to which is attached a new story and a new set of religious practices. Wilderness is the location of a reorientation to God that Mark regards as necessary to redemptive history, a complete break with the temple state—and, as such, needs the open and indeterminate space of the wilderness for its thorough realization. It is the “down to earth” counterpart to the relocation of God from the temple to the open skies of the cosmos.

 In that general way, it serves needs like those we find in the much-quoted statement of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The wilderness is a spiritual anchor for the renewal of both personal life and civil society in our time. We cannot dwell on this topic at length here; Mark’s gospel will provide additional occasions to carry the discussion forward. However, one meaning essential to the appreciation of this meaning of wilderness in either context is expressed in the first lesson from Isaiah. When the prophet asks what he shall cry, he is instructed to cry, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The acknowledgement of being part of a fragile and vulnerable creation is an essential element in a sound theology of creation; and it is also the foundation of every campaign to discourage the human presumption of dominating and controlling nature to serve our purposes (See Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind for a discussion of “The Wilderness Cult’ in American experience; and Wallace Stegner’s brief “Wilderness Letter” in Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, pp. 110-120 for a range of meanings of wilderness in American culture).

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Mark thus proposes the regeneration of salvation history by means of a pointedly altered prophetic voice and the reorientation to God’s presence by relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology. These are coupled to the dramatic movement of peoples from the “whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” out to the river Jordan to be baptized by John. We have noted above the hyperbole of this statement. Mark’s exaggeration serves to remind us of the significance of these events in the eschatological perspective we developed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. “Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling,” we wrote, reflecting on the apocalypse of Mark 13:27. “Off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man.”  Myers suggests that as Mark “envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled,” the implied regathering at the end of the story makes the crucial connection to Mark’s story of discipleship.  The young man at the tomb

“sends the disciples back to Galilee—that is, back to the ‘genesis’ of the discipleship narrative. And how does Mark’s story commence? ‘The beginning of the gospel’ (1:1), the new creation! Like the ‘end,’ the ‘beginning’ too is archetypal, representing the invitation to join anew in the journey of discipleship, that struggle for justice in the only world there is.

So too all later readers of the Gospel are to be immediately caught up in the movement of people from Jerusalem out to the Jordan where they will witness the baptism of Jesus and the conferring of his mandate to bring about the new creation.” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 344)

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

All of which suggests a powerful theme for Advent preaching, namely, Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth. The church gathers for many different reasons in different seasons and at various times of day, but in this first season of Advent, our gathering establishes the pattern for righteous gathering in worship all year long. The “elect gathered from the four wind, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” going out to John to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. When we gather as we do in Advent, at the beginning of the whole story of Jesus Christ, we gather in a way that is prototypical for every time we gather for eucharistic worship, in which, similarly, the pattern of the whole story is recapitulated in gathering, word, meal, and sending.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

If this is so, then might it not also be properly said, that according to Mark’s gospel, the Christian gathering for eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness, calling us to come out of the cosmologies that entrap us in nationalistic, socially and politically self-serving appropriations of God’s good creation? And if wilderness is the appropriate location where all this becomes very obvious, then perhaps it can also be said that Christian worship, rightly done, always begins in the wilderness under open skies, looking forward to the coming of God and the new creation that God’s Son brings, and in genuine repentance for the harm we have done and continue to do. Of that confession of sin, more later. But the psalmist is entirely correct in singing, as this morning’s psalm has it,

Surely his salvation is at and for those who fear him,
That his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground;
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
And will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:9-13.)

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “For as the rain and 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 shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a presence that not only “comes with might,” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). The evangelist suggests here that a resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the Temple is no longer the case.  Now the action is far from Zion; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed“(The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps the Baptizer. At first glance, he seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”(Mark 1:5). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25).

This lament is answered by an oracle of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday October 2-8 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Parable about Caring for Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost remind us that, according to God’s purpose, the life of God’s people is securely grounded in the Earth. Our first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all have in common a key metaphor that brings this home, the metaphor of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; (Isaiah 5:1-7).

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land (Psalm 80:8-9)

Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. . . (Matthew 21:33-34).

In Walter Brueggemann’s judgment, the Song of the Vineyard in our first lesson is the “paradigmatic use of the metaphor in the Old Testament.” And the Parable of Matthew 21:33-41 is correspondingly “the most extended and complex usage of the imagery in the New Testament” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 257). In the commentary for these lessons, we explore the significance of this metaphor for our call to care for creation.

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

We have encountered the metaphor of the vineyard before in our reading of the selections from the Gospel of Matthew, most recently with the texts for Lectionary 25, with the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard.” There we pictured a God who cares passionately about his vineyard and is pleased to call laborer after laborer to the good work of caring for it. As the landowner explains to the laborers who criticize the equal pay they received for unequal time spent at labor, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” As we suggested, 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. While both Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and Matthew’s rendering of the parable of “the wicked tenants’ evoke this same level of concern for the vineyard, these narratives also draw the reader into the deep anguish of God over what happens to the vineyard, when its inhabitants refuse to engage in their work in a righteous manner.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

In Isaiah’s narrative, God is envisioned, not as the manager of the vineyard but as its “Gardener-Vinedresser,” an image which links the narrative to the garden in the story of creation in Genesis 2, and as Brueggemann suggests, “connotes fruitfulness and the full function of creation (Num 24:6).” As the use of the metaphor in the accompanying Psalm 80 makes explicit, the image also links the story to the narrative of the Exodus, as it was expressed already in Exodus 15:17: “You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established” (Ibid., p. 255). God’s investment in the vineyard is made absolutely clear in the detailed accounting of the planting. The digging, the clearing of stones, the selection of choice vines, and the building of a watchtower all provide detailed substance for the claim reflected in the anguished question of v. 4a:  “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

The gardener’s expectations are high: the vat for the wine has been hewn out and is ready to receive the fruit. The gardener’s disappointment is equally great: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4b). And his action is correspondingly astonishing. With no thought to trying another variety in another season (the standard modern gardener’s perennial response to a disappointing crop), the gardener resolves to destroy the whole vineyard: 

“I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

So serious for the gardener is this failure to produce good fruit. The gardener’s response goes beyond the passionate concern that the vineyard be well tended; he is angry enough to bring to bear the full weight of both enemy armies and cosmic forces against the vineyard and its occupants, an anger that is sustained, in the prophet’s telling,  until “the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust” (6:24a). Why so great and consuming anger? “For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (6:24b).

Brueggemann notes that the metaphor of the gardener-vinedresser is what he calls a “metaphor of sustenance,” contrasted with “metaphors of governance,” according to which God is imaged as “one who nurtures, evokes, values, and enhances life,” as opposed to the concern “to maintain a viable order in which life is possible for Israel and for all of creation” (Ibid., p. 250).  But it seems then that there is a certain unexpected wildness about this gardener. The vine and the vineyard together are destroyed in his cataclysmic fury! What are we to make of this?

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

That the Song of the Vineyard has reference to the experience of the people of Israel in exile is obvious, of course; and the agenda of the prophet concerns not gardening but the lack of political and economic justice on the part of the leadership. The sour grapes that so anger the gardener are the unjust and uncaring actions of those leaders. As Brueggemann observes, the metaphor of the gardener and his garden or vineyard is:

“able to express both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in time of displacement.  In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine” (p. 257).

But the metaphor guarantees that the fate of the vineyard cannot be separated from that of the vine. The vine and the vineyard are of one piece; people and land are caught up together in the destruction that the leaders of the people have brought upon them all. It comes, surely, of the deep rootedness of the people in the land, a rootedness that perhaps only a gardener who has dug soil, cleared stones, and planted with expensive “choice vines” can fully appreciate. 

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

Contemporary readers concerned with care of creation might see in this a warning that social justice and environmental concern are inseparably linked, however remote the connections may appear to be on the surface. This would suggest, at the least, that neither social justice nor environmental restoration should be pursued in isolation from or at the expense of the other; eventually the linkage will make itself manifest. We might also be struck by the fact that the vineyard, once so carefully tended by God, is, as it were, to be turned back into wasteland or wilderness. No wall shuts out wild animals; no knife or hoe disturbs whatever grows there; and it matters not that drought parches the land. There is an ironic sense of justice to this:  after all the care God extended, the vineyard yield’s only wild grapes. And so the land is returned to wilderness. It was Thoreau who famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and the idea is perhaps no more prophetic than it is apt as a basis for setting aside tracts of land called “wilderness.” The wildness that haunts our culture’s disregard of calls for social and eco-justice pertains to energies that are far more comprehensive and threatening than anything that can be designated as a preserve. Such ideas need to be used carefully, of course, as has been demonstrated lately by the claims of politicians to know just exactly what “sins” are responsible for the environmental “wildness” we are experiencing globally in recent times. They seldom seem to have in mind acts of injustice that involve our relationship to the Earth. But the return of the land to wildness as envisioned here echoes themes from the story of Noah; and there is perhaps a sense that land degraded by human misuse needs to “go wild” and be devoid of human habitation before it is ready to be inhabited once again in the expectation of good fruit.

Does Jesus see the significance of the metaphor of the vineyard similarly? Brueggemann calls attention to the fact that in Matthew 21:33-41, the image is again “potentially positive toward Israel and a witness to Yahweh’s attentive generosity” but is “utilized as an assertion of judgment:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matt 21:41). But there are interesting and perhaps significant differences in the details, as well. First of all, the gardener has become an absentee landowner, who lets out his vineyard to tenants. This social and economic distance opens up the possibility for people to have an impersonal financial interest in the vineyard; and the actions of the tenants seem to confirm this as part of Jesus’ understanding. They do not have the investment in the vineyard that the gardener does; they are not concerned about producing good fruits as much as they are concerned to gain control over the property, even though they acknowledge that it is another’s “heritage” they covet. Indeed, they both dishonor the owner and ignore whatever purposes he might have for the vineyard.

Warren Carter argues that the parable “utilizes a struggle over land and resources to raise questions about ownership and just use” as part of salvation history. Thus the parable:

“evokes a dominant economic practice of the Greco-Roman world where high rents, civic and religious taxes, acquiring seed and feed for the next crop and for livestock, and the need to trade or barter for other goods not produced on a farm, made subsistence existence difficult for many. The religious elite as tenants experience not only the desperation many experienced, but the desperation they helped to cause” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 427).

 Especially telling is their treatment of the son and heir; in killing him they destroy any possibility of the son taking charge of the vineyard and restoring it in accordance with the landowner’s purposes. The linkage between owner, people, and land implicit in the metaphor of the vineyard but weakened in the commercial transaction of renting, is thus willfully broken. The consequence again seems quite astonishing, if at the outset we assume that the landowner represents God. In Carter’s view, the “vineyard remains intact, owned by its owner. It is the tenants who are punished by losing their position as its caretakers,” a punishment which, Carter suggests, is “understood to happen in Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome in 70 C.E.” (Ibid., p. 429). 

We learn the fate of the land owners, but what about the fate of the vineyard?

This conclusion seems strange in the mouth of Jesus. And Bernard Brandon Scott is less certain about the fate of the vineyard. The threat of displacement is, after all, first voiced by the authorities, for whom this is an entirely ordinary way of thinking. With allusions to the patriarchal stories of Joseph, however, and to the conflict over inheritance classically represented by the story of Esau and Jacob, the fact that the parable “provides no ready identification models, no clear metaphorical referencing, an audience is left in a precarious position: In the plot, the kingdom fails and the inheritance is in doubt.”  Even worse, the parable seems to recall Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven is breaking out by violence and violent men are raping it.” The kingdom is an object of violence. The owner is a fool, the tenants are bandits, and the messengers are beaten or murdered. . . [The]  parable challenges the predictability of the kingdom’s heirs as good and the apocalyptic assumption that the kingdom’s true heirs will in the end triumph.  In the parable, the final fate of the vineyard is unresolved because the owner is still alive, but no evidence is given for its eventual liberation.  The owner’s fate may be that of his son.” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 252-53.)

Following this line of interpretation leads inevitably to the question whether Jesus (or Matthew) intends to prefigure Jesus’ death in the telling of the parable in the face of his opponents, who are in fact the party that will be responsible for his death. For reading of the parable in Christian worship, this identification seems inescapable. The one who first enters our company at worship appears in the narrative of the Psalm as “one at your right hand,” on whom the hand of God will rest, “the one whom you made strong for yourself” and then reappears here as the son sent by the father from a far country. And so the fate of the vineyard is made to lie in the same grave as the son, awaiting some great reversal at the end of the story.

 The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

Again we can ask, what does all this mean for care of creation? Carter comes close to what we think it means when he writes that this parable of the vineyard “repeats the condemnation of the religious leaders by depicting the fateful consequences of their persistent rejection of God’s purposes, especially in Jesus the son. They are rejected as caretakers of the vineyard. It identifies another group to take over the role of the displaced leaders as God’s agents to ensure the fruitfulness of the vineyard Israel” (Carter, p. 426).

Finding good caretakers for the vineyard is what this is about. However, as we have seen above, people and vineyard are not that easily separated. Or to put it differently, they are only separated so easily in the covetous minds of the thieving tenants and in the coveting minds of those incensed authorities who proclaim that the tenants should be replaced! But the ambiguity of the parable suggests another reason to resist Carter’s conclusion and to close the gap of the imagination with this:

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

If the landowner is God the creator and Jesus his beloved son, then the Vineyard is not simply the limited space of Israel but extends to the whole creation that God loves. And the new tenants are those who will care for that vineyard as the passionate gardener would care for it, or indeed as his son will, when he returns from the wildness beyond the broken walls to reclaim his heritage and restore both the vine and all others, with their vineyard, their proper places in the Earth. Isn’t this very likely what Jesus’ anticipated in saying, The Kingdom of God will be . . . given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? (Matthew 21:44).

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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