Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Series B: 2018
by Nick Utphall
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
From top to bottom this week, the lectionary readings seem ready-made for sacrificial substitutionary atonement. This is the view that Jesus died for your sins, that his righteousness is offered as recompense to cover the debt of your sins, a sense of justice that must be retributive, and—most centrally—that a perfect Father demands satisfaction so that you need not be condemned eternally, but since somebody’s gotta pay for it Jesus died vicariously in your place. Built partly on one reading of the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, God the Father sends the Son expressly for this purpose, and Jesus was so obedient to this command that he suffered even to the point of death on the cross (I would say that’s a misreading, much preferring the sort of perspective that it is about love for humanity, like partially described here from David Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=146). This substitutionary satisfaction view has become the dominant sense (in American Christianity, at least) of the whole reason for Jesus. It has even become the default understanding, where any other theological perspective is inherently viewed with suspicion.
As a reader of a care for creation commentary, I suspect that you might not fully endorse such an atonement theory. In a model that mainly deals with eternal consequences. Life in this world is mainly relegated to a tally sheet, keeping a record of how well you’ve done or noting that no matter what you’ve done, an eschatologically significant rupture of relationship with God will occur. Given that it deals with and focuses on Jesus’ death, it seems to be a matter for after-life and doesn’t seem to connect much to actual relationships and interactions of our lives on earth now. For that regard, I’d simply guess that most people invested in caring for creation are not as directly concerned with Jesus paying for our sins (Maybe someone could do a survey to find out just how much those two categories mix?).
So what are we to do with these readings, if they seem to scream a perspective of internal, spiritualized ledger sheets? Here’s some of the litany for the week:
Jesus said, “The Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
He “was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:5)
He was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8)
“It was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” and “make his life an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10)
“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11)
Jesus “was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9)
So how to confront these readings, or how to hear them in a way that isn’t about Jesus forced to serve as a vicarious satisfaction in substitute for you and your death demanded by a vengefully righteous God? Is there room for care for creation, or is it that all is lost and we must look to heaven (or, perhaps more palatable to us, the new creation yet to come)?
In his review of the alternatives to this dominant atonement theory, Mennonite and nonviolent theologian J. Denny Weaver points out that “In ‘God of the Oppressed,’ James H. Cone, the founder of the black theology movement, pointed out that the dominant Anselmian doctrine posed atonement in terms of an abstract theory that lacked ethical dimensions in the historical arena. Consequently, it allowed white people to claim salvation while accommodating and advocating the violence of racism and slavery”—a criticism also leveled by feminist theologians, among others (“The Nonviolent Atonement,” p 4). This begins to take seriously our human relationships and God’s actions in society, even as we who care for creation insist that this must be broader even than some multiracial and gender-inclusive anthropocentrism.
One way to approach these readings comes from Girardian theologian James Allison, who has posed the question, “Who sacrificed who to whom?” The answer should not be so directly presumed that God insisted on killing Jesus for God’s own sake. Humanity was and remains too steeped in the practice of doing violence to each other. The death of Jesus, in this Girardian view, was a rupture designed to break the perpetual cycle of scapegoating and violence. Allison, who takes seriously the notion and practice of sacrifice, can remind us that this is about life being able to continue on, about God entering the creation and being restored in right relationship. (For some of those historical reflections on sacrifice, where it is clarified that in traditional sacrifice God was sacrificing God-self for the sake of humanity and creation, a “divine movement to set people free,” see this essay: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html.)
In spite of how readily these Bible passages might be enlisted for the purposes of the retributive violent atonement models, it also is readily apparent that the goal is about life. It is not a story of a God whose will is suffering or punishment or death. Rather than terms or pain, notice Isaiah’s efforts for healing, wholeness, prolonged days, and life. One phrase in particular that jumps out is “by a perversion of justice” (53:8). Clearly any of the suffering or pain cannot be seen as right, the afflictions and oppressions cannot be labeled as divinely intended, when that is a perversion of justice. It is when the system is broken that pain and suffering prevail, not by the system God designed and intended and planned.
I’m averse to saying that we have to learn the perfect submission or that our suffering will make us perfect in that way that Hebrews perceives it. But the brutality of Isaiah may make more sense through a perspective of self-sacrifice. It seems vitally significant that suffering is not something that one is told to endure, but that one chooses for oneself. This is not the oppression of groups of people explained away, the abuse done in relationships excused, the subjugation and disregard that takes advantage of others. No one may be told to suffer, to confine them by telling them to learn obedience to that way. Rather, this is chosen. Following Cone’s criticism mentioned above, rather than masters justifying their enslavement of others, this voluntarily takes the place of a servant. This is a slavery opted into for the sake of love and in service of life. With Isaiah, the prophet sees himself as the suffering servant (and is not predicting the fate of another, much less saying what God will do to Jesus).
Here is one explanation from Terence Fretheim: “At the very least, we must say that the suffering of the servant is reflective of the suffering of God; in the giving up of the servant for the world, personal self-sacrifice is seen to define God’s purpose here. But even more, as the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence, we should also say that God, too, experiences what the servant suffers. This consequence is something which God chooses to bring not only upon the servant but also upon [God]self. While God does not die, God experiences in a profound way what death is like in and through the servant. By so participating in the depths of the death-dealing forces of this world, God transforms the world from within; and a new creation thereby begins to be born.” (“The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective,” p164-65)
For this perspective of God’s efforts for life over death, one of the most useful aspects of this Gospel reading is as a corrective to the dominant and domineering readings of Genesis 1 that give license to the abuse of creation. When God offers the instruction for the humans to “have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), dominion has much too frequently been interpreted as permission to do whatever we want. I believe it is helpful to consider the word “dominion.” It ties to the Latin “dominus,” for Lord.
Similarly, the word in Genesis 1:28 in the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament includes Kyrie—which we know from “Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.” Although the term Jesus uses is the exact same word (katekyrie) for “lord it over,” we can see that he advocates and leads us into a very different kind of dominion. Though we might be more apt to be “like the nations” (in Jesus’ phrase from Mark 10:42), our own practice of lordship should not be to “lord it over” as tyrants, but should follow the model and example of the one we name as Lord. As disciples of our Lord Jesus, we see that dominion is about service, that greatness is found in being a “slave of all” (10:44). That is more representative of the kind of God we have. God is not one who is so far above us that we must fear threats. God is not so distant from us that we can’t even begin to hope to be so proper and holy that we could gain proximity. Our God comes to strive on our behalf, to offer God’s own self for the sake of our lives and ongoing goodness of creation.
Since this is what it means not just for John and James but also for us to be associated with Jesus, to share his baptism and receive from his cup, then we find our place separate from the “great ones” (with the depictive Greek phrase “megaloi”) who claim authority over others. It almost can feel like a Godzilla, stomping through the city and across a landscape, leaving a wake of destruction, entirely careless for what it has abused. We, instead, are called to serve, even to enter into the suffering Jesus has been describing and is moving toward in Jerusalem.
This is likely what is meant by the term “ransom,” in a paradoxical or ironic way. Similar to Luther’s paired theses in “The Freedom of a Christian,” that a Christian is “totally free master of all, subject to none; and totally bound slave of all, subject to all,” Jesus frees you in order to serve. “The term [‘ransom’] referred to the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants” (Ched Myers, “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” p279). Jesus frees you from slavery to the tyrannical overlords, in order that you may be slave not just to their whims but “slave to all.”
Further, we recognize that sometimes giving life should, indeed, be perceived as in line with God’s will. Parents give up and restrict their opportunities and options on behalf of their children. A firefighter will freely risk her own wellbeing, maybe even sacrificing to save others from a burning building. As a dog owner, I know that it means. I’m up in the middle of the night and out for walks in the cold. As a gardener, I’m rubbing sore back muscles and fighting sunburn and swatting mosquitoes so that I can care for those vegetables and flowers. Some labor is referred to as “punishing,” even though we might only be subjecting ourselves to the work. That seems a better and more life-giving view, and more appropriately tied to a God who created and sustains out of love, than one of obedience and being stricken for transgressions.