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Commentary for Lenten readings (including Ash Wednesday)

Dennis Ormseth served from 1991 to 2005 as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that emphasizes care of the earth as part of its mission. In retirement, he has served on the executive committee of Congregations Caring for Creation, an interfaith network promoting care of the earth as integral to spirituality and social justice in Minnesota congregations of faith. Holding a Ph. D. from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Dr. Ormseth is also a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He taught religious history and the history of Christian thought at Luther Seminary and Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was campus pastor for Lutheran students at Purdue University in Indiana.



Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51:1-17

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word “hypernatural” (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such “had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the

earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic,

anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their

relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.
 
 

First Sunday of Lent

Psalm 32

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Romans 5: 12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

In our commentary on the lections for Ash Wednesday, we identified a strong eco-theological element in each of the three texts. The first reading presents a passionate call of the people of God to repentance in the face of impending ecological disaster. The second reading, slightly extended, offers the promise of a “new creation” in and through the cross of Christ as a cosmic saving event. And the Gospel reading enlists a section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in a call to genuine altruism or “other-regard.” Implicit in the reading of these combined texts, we might have argued, is a call for the people to turn from the idolatrous and self-interested orientation that leads to the destruction of God’s creation, both human and nonhuman together, in the hope that the God present in the life and death of Jesus will bring about the conservation and restoration of the creation, at least in part through the actions of the community that follows Jesus in true and unfailing other-regard. None of the assigned texts offered a comprehensive narrative to connect the elements this way, however; so it seemed more appropriate to look for that narrative in the unfolding sequence of the lections for the Sundays in Lent, taken as a whole. Accordingly, in this commentary on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, we need to ask: What is this season about? And what does the season, so considered, possibly offer by way of encouragement and guidance for congregations to engage in care of creation?

The Season of Lent is commonly characterized as time set aside for spiritual pilgrimage. Like Israel and like Jesus in the readings for this first Sunday, we metaphorically enter wilderness in order that in the course of our journey there our life might be reoriented to God and to God’s will for our lives. Recalling that in the ancient church the Lenten season was the time for preparation of candidates for baptism at the Vigil of Easter, we also take “time out” to revisit the foundations of our faith and the meaning of its key practices for our lives. What is not always clear in this treatment of the season, however, is the goal of this pilgrimage. For example, one interpreter says that we go “to prepare for something new.” (Christine Roy Yoder, “The Season of Lent,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2001-2002, p. 149). Another suggests that the journey “brings us to ourselves, so that, like the prodigal son, we may realize that the condition in which we find ourselves is not our true home and that as comfortable as we usually feel, we are aliens in a foreign land and need to come home.” Or, alternately, we are summoned “to travel a different road, the way that leads to God, a road that leads out of the confinement of our mundane existence and into the uplands to open wide vistas for those who travel this way” (Philip H. Pfatteicher, ‘The Season of Lent,’ New Proclamation, Year B, 2002-3, p. 140-41). Rendering wilderness as metaphor clearly authorizes the imagination to take us where it will. Our reading

proposes a journey narrative as well, but one that leads in a rather different, more geographically defined and “down to earth” direction.

With others, we would argue that the way we follow is the way of Jesus, a journey that, to be sure, begins with the recollection of a sojourn of forty days in the wilderness, but which actually proceeds from the Mount of Transfiguration on the Sunday just previous to the First Sunday in Lent, through the land we call holy, towards Jerusalem. The wilderness setting is important for this first Sunday, to be sure, but subsequently we are traveling through inhabited territory, and moving steadily towards the urban heart of the country. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold power over it. The ecological footprint of this journey, one might say, covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; and it raises questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. Thus, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of the three broad contexts in which, according to Christopher Southgate, humans might have 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, p. 113). What is really intriguing to this reader is that all three of these contexts figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation and that, as we suggested earlier in our comments on the reading for the Transfiguration of our Lord, what Jesus’ journey is about is the healing of creation with respect to each of these three contexts (See our comment in this series on the lections for The Transfiguration of Our Lord, p. 3).

We read that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). The journey is inspired, that is to say, by “the Lord, the giver of life” who is confessed by the church to represent the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the baptism. Wilderness, we are reminded once more, is of crucial importance to the unfolding of the story of God’s saving action. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground, so to speak, for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. 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, space where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There the individual is made newly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in the non-human part 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 temptation is that he could use his relationship to God, “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by violating the created order of things, in this instance by turning stones into bread. Jesus refuses to do this, however, observing that ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” His response acknowledges limits on the demands humans place on the non-human creation; stones are not to be changed into something else, simply for the sake of nourishment or other human need. The word of God has provided otherwise in the course of the creation; and humans’ greater need is to respect both that word and the relationship with creation it protects.

Thus, Jesus manifests care for wilderness, and articulates a general principle regarding his relationship with the creation taken as a whole. For Jesus, wilderness offers opportunity for restoring a right relationship between humans and non-human creation. 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 have a relationship to God that is entirely independent of humans, a relationship 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. Jesus’ refusal thus exhibits the genuine “other-regard” of his spiritual orientation, to which his Ash Wednesday teaching pointed, and suggests that whatever tremendous powers the human has in relationship to other creatures would 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).

Jesus’ refusal of the second temptation formalizes this orientation as a religious principle. The location for this temptation is no longer wilderness, it should be noted, but the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Transported to the pinnacle of the temple, he is invited to demonstrate his status as Son of God by throwing himself down, in defiance of the law of gravity and the biological constitution of human life. God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture to the effect that he will “not put the Lord your God to the test.” Accordingly, Jesus’ refusal is religiously significant: Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent the regular order of creation, even though doing so could dramatically alter his status and influence among the people. It would make of him something of the “superman” Messiah so many of his followers have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over nature is not what Jesus was about, as either human being or Son of God. What is Jesus about, in his relationship with God? We are mindful of the Apostle Paul’s assertion in the second reading from Ash Wednesday that in and through the cross of Christ God offers the promise of a “new creation” as a cosmic saving event. The idea that his refusal to the second temptation is fully consistent with that possibility will be evident in commentary for the Lenten weeks to follow.

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 is overlooking the entire habitat, 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). The choice Jesus confronts here is, in terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. As we saw in our comment on that portion of his teaching (see the entry in this series for the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany), the unfettered pursuit of wealth—in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations—is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and extinction of species. We can again imagine that the high mountain, as the representative of the earth’s ecology, rejoiced to hear Jesus’ refusal of both this pursuit and the domination “of all kingdoms of the world” it entails; the kind of ecological devastation in response to which the prophet Joel called on God’s people to repent will not occur in Jesus’ presence.

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit the following three principles: 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. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for non-human creation; and the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and by regard for “otherkind.” But, one might ask, are not these eco-friendly decisions merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God? His responses to the temptations were, after all, consistently expressed as a choice to “worship God” and to “serve only him.” Does caring for earth as such really matter for Jesus? Isn’t it rather obedient service to God that is the heart of the matter for Jesus in these encounters?

Perhaps. But our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be at the outset of our story. God, Genesis 2 tells us, 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.” 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 created as part of a package of improvements beyond what was already in place; humans are placed in the garden for “service of the non-human world, moving it toward its fullest possible potential” as Terry Fretheim puts it, “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development.” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, p.53). 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 our worship (e.g., Exod 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 Gen 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” (Quoted by Fretheim, p. 53, from Ellen Davis’ Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192). Furthermore, “What 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.)

Thus obedience to the will of God, according to this text, clearly involves 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. The reading from Genesis, undoubtedly selected to correspond to the story of the temptation of Jesus (where we fail in obedience to God, Jesus succeeds), thus provides essential background for understanding the ecological relevance of the temptation stories. What Jesus does for God is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. By the same token, the story of Jesus’ temptation illumines the meaning of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s will in the Garden of Eden. Jesus clearly trusts God’s word and obeys it, with good consequences for the creation. 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 have knowledge “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they did not recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. Not trusting the word of God that sets limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will in regard to their relationship with creation in order to satisfy their own needs and desires. 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 non-human creation. 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.

The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (p. 75).

Is death also an effect of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, as traditional understanding has it, following what appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading? The question is important for our investigation for a couple of reasons. First, it is important because evolutionary theory—essential for 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 idea that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development. But, secondly, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, then neither can death be regarded as a punishment for disobedience, an observation that will have considerable bearing on how we understand the events that come at the culmination of our Lenten journey.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that closely links sin and death. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, does not support it. 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 cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, however, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this regard, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77).

Seeing the full reality of death occasions ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death can then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations was the dominion of death. The possibility of starvation in the desert, the death defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, maintenance of imperial control.

Each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus into that dominion of death; each brings into play the power of death over life. The dominion of death, with its destructive consequences for the creation, is what entered the human story with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. On the other hand, what Jesus affirmed, both in his refusing the temptations and, as we shall see, in his subsequent journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. As the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life.” In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans but for the non-human creation as well.

The distinction between these two rival dominions, by the way, 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 the concept of dominion is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely “that human beings take responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of creation.” That notion of dominion is indeed the dominion of life. And the way of Jesus fully supports that idea of dominion; and it just as fully rejects the dominion of death.

 

Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Second Sunday in Lent

Psalm 121

Genesis 12:1-4a

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

John 3:1-17

Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness led to the three temptations, each of which would in some way have demonstrated power and will to dominate the creation, had he not refused. Jesus’ way through the Lenten landscape continues with a series of four encounters drawn from the Gospel of John. He engages in conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a leader of the Jews”, who came to him by night (3:1-2). He has a long talk about water and other matters with a Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob (4:5-42). He heals a man born blind and argues with critics of the action (9:1-41). And he responds to the pleas of two followers, the sisters Mary and Martha, who grieve the death of their brother Lazarus. Each of these encounters raises profound questions concerning the care for creation—his, God’s and ours. So we eagerly follow him on his way.

Our first reading for the First Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ way goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago; but God’s promises had not been forgotten. Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land; God would make them a great nation; and God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (3:2a).

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of the dark, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading, unfortunately), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his particular circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness in the land, and that darkness is not at all merely metaphorical. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman

legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil for the people. Under such circumstance, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had good reason, then, to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus prior to his visit was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation is joined.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” We need to take a close look at the following exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus about being “born again” or “from above.” O’Day rightly cautions the reader against reducing this dynamic narrative to a simple essence, such as, “like Nicodemus, the reader needs ‘to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8).’” Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above?” Nicodemus is confused; he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at. And it may easily escape us a well. Particularly in our North American context, O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns individual salvation. To interpret the key word anothen [from above/ anew] as “describing spiritual rebirth through personal conversion” she explains, “can disregard the decisive christological dimension” of the word. To make this reductionistic mistake privileges anthropology over Christology. That is, it emphasizes personal change more than the external source of that change, namely, the cross. In Jesus words in chap. 3, anthropology and Christology are held in a delicate balance, such that one cannot know the meaning of human life without grounding it in the reality of Jesus’ life and the corporate dimension of that life.

We would suggest, moreover, that O’Day in turn privileges Christology over pneumatology, in spite of the fact that she provides for the latter in correctly observing that being “born anothen envisions a new mode of life for which there are no precedents, life born of water and the Spirit, life regenerated through the cross of Jesus” (O’Day, p. 554-55, emphasis added). That is indeed the appropriate order for the conversation: first the Spirit, then secondly, Jesus lifted up on the cross.

Readers of this series might recall that, noting the prominence of the Spirit in the lessons for Advent, we suggested that when understood as confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” the presence of the Spirit was “key to a recovery of the ‘green’ meaning of the Advent season” (See the comments on the lessons for Advent 2 and 3). The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus shows that the presence of the Spirit is similarly essential to capturing the “green” significance of Jesus’ Lenten journey. As we observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again out in front. Interpretation of the text will benefit from letting go of what we “know.”

Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son, she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has, on the other hand, traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence. Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in these traditions has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is a neglect of nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 131).

It is this mystery, we would argue, that John has in mind when he has Jesus say that in order to enter the Kingdom of God one must be “born of water and Spirit.” That very combination of water and Spirit reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminded Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7).

Nicodemus is puzzled by the notion of a new birth. “How can these things be?” he asks. A direct answer to his question is this: these things can be by the power of the Holy Spirit. With reference to the Spirit’s presence in the texts for Advent, we cited Mark’s Wallace’s notion that the Spirit is “the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio).” Wallace’s appreciation for the significance of the Holy Spirit pales, however, in comparison with that of Johnson, who writes as follows:

So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, “Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in

the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work.

This is not to say, Johnson freely concedes, “that every person who reflects on the world would arrive at this same conclusion. But within the tradition of Jewish and Christian faith, the Spirit’s saving presence in the conflictual world is recognized to be everywhere, somehow, always drawing near and passing by, shaping fresh starts of vitality and freedom” (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 127. Johnson quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”

The paragraph above could well have been composed in reply to Nicodemus’ doubtful inquiry. Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson goes on to describe the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus. This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.” In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “ responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth.” (Ibid, passim, pp. 133-39.)

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus turns from the topic of the Spirit to that of Jesus and his cross, that is, to “the Son of Man who must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Christology is now indeed front and center, as O’Day suggested it should be, although we do well to remember even so that this Jesus throughout his life is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in Johnson’ well-chosen phrase:

The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17)

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God, to which the reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians called our attention on Ash Wednesday (2 Corinthians 5:17-19; see our comment on the latter text in connection with our reading of the second lesson for Ash Wednesday). We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn by this Trinitarian connection to the verse from the Gospel reading that goes to the heart of Jesus’ mission, John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This much noted verse—Martin Luther called it ‘the Gospel in miniature”—offers powerful support for Christians engaged in promoting care for creation. The assertion that God’s love for the whole cosmos is the motivation for God’s gift of “his only Son” would empower our work like almost no other statement of faith: if this is true, might not one more energetically and faithfully love what God loves? There is a caveat, however: the verse provides for this conviction and power if the word “world” can properly be read as cosmos, as it is in the Greek text but rarely in English translations. There is good reason to argue that it does.

So we ask, does John’s use of the word cosmos in 3:16 authorize a cosmic scope for God’s love, a scope that goes beyond human beings to encompass all of creation? Raymond Brown allows that it can, especially in the first half of John’s Gospel, with the caveat “that ‘the world’ can mean more than the physical universe, for it often refers to that universe inasmuch as it is related to man,” and it can also “refer more directly to the society of men.” Gail O’Day follows Brown here, and also in seeing as more prominent in the second half of the Gospel that “the world” “is rather consistently identified with those who have turned against Jesus under the leadership of Satan” (The Gospel According to John I-XII, pp. 508-09; Cf. O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, pp. 552-53). Even allowing for this more anthropocentric view, however, we would contend for a more encompassing interpretation in the light of the Gospel’s Prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

Given this opening, along with what we have just discussed with reference to the Holy Spirit, John clearly means to say that the whole created world (whether specified as human society or cosmic universe in particular texts) is the object of God’s love, and that Christ’s work in bringing people to faith is carried out in the cause of that all-encompassing love.

A Johannnine dictum from Joseph Sittler’s address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 rings true: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it, “Christ cannot be a light that lighteth everyone coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which everyone comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of humans because humans subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation.” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 41).

In answering our question this way, it is also relevant to note that salvation defined as “eternal life” does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase, “the world into which everyone comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: the blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include nonhuman with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos, even if the text does not explicitly say that it does!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?” The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has given us these grand questions for consideration on the remaining Sundays of our Lenten journey.


Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Third Sunday in Lent

Psalm 95

Exodus 17:1-7

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-42

Jesus’ encounter with the unnamed woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob happened as Jesus’ went through that territory on his way from Judea to Galilee. John says that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” There is some discussion of the nature of this “necessity,”

as to whether it was geographical or theological (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 167). We think it probable that both are significant. The combination of water (Jacob’s well), mountain (Gerazim), and alien territory (Samaria) had to be far too “convenient” for the author to resist, following on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. This combination provided the perfect narrative context for further conversation on themes from the encounter with Nicodemus: water and Spirit (living water), God’s presence (on the rival mountains, Gerazim and Zion), and Jesus’ mission to redeem “the world” (those others, the Samaritans, who worship God in their own way on their own mountain). In the context of our rereading the Scriptures for Lent, we find equally irresistible the encouragement in this passage regarding care of creation.

For the purpose of that rereading, it will be helpful for the reader to review our comment on the lections for the First Sunday in Lent, in which we saw Jesus as the model servant of creation that God originally intended people to be—tilling and keeping the ground or, more expansively, serving and protecting the garden, the habitat humans share with other living creatures. In response to the devil’s threefold temptation, Jesus refused to alter creation in service of merely his own needs, being mindful of all the creative words that come from God’s mouth; he declined to test God by defying the natural laws that govern the relationships of bodies in space, thus pretending to mastery over nature; and he repudiated the offer of all the earth’s kingdoms, with their treasure, the pursuit of which in our time is demonstrably the main cause of ecological destruction. Furthermore, in our comment on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus from the Gospel for the Second Sunday in Lent, we suggested that initiation into the service of creation is by being born both of water and of Spirit, and the scope of such service is extended to the “Kingdom of God,” or even more fulsomely, the whole world (cosmos), which God so loved that he gave his only Son.

Setting aside for the moment the details and subtleties of John’s narrative (amply discussed in the commentaries by Raymond E. Brown, cited above, and Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, on which we are dependent for several insights in this essay), this is its basic structure of this passage: Jesus brings

“living water” to foreign territory, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest from among her fellow Samaritans. While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food (would it be a problem to find kosher? They seem astonished on their return that he might have shared food with her!), he offers to give her that “living water,” and then ends up going home with her and the neighbors whom she recruits from her village. The metaphors of living water, sowing, reaping, harvest, and gathering fruit suggest that the setting for this encounter is, for all its careful assignment to the territory of Samaria, nonetheless a garden. An appropriate question might be, to quote an old Pete Seeger favorite, “whose garden is this?”

The story, we want to suggest, is a symbolic narrative based on the story of creation from Genesis 2. The Psalm for the day, after all, reminds us that our God is the God of creation: “God the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” Especially significant, perhaps, as we will see below, is the confession that ”the sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” God has sent Jesus into the garden, which has already been sown with people, i.e. this woman and her neighbors. The well in the garden contains water, but it is not living water. The woman’s arrival at the well in the middle of the day suggests isolation relative to the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later in the day. The “living water” that Jesus offers her is both creational and baptismal; that is, it is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Brown, p. 179. Now “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” in her, it inspires her to acknowledge him first as a prophet, and then as possibly the Messiah. That he tells the truth about her life is a sign of the “spirit and truth” in virtue of which people will worship God, as he had just explained to her (and, of course, as John intends for us readers of the Gospel to overhear).

She returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes (she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. The disciples return at that moment with food, which Jesus declines to eat it, because he has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food), “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” This work, we suggest, is what Jesus had in mind when he responded to the first temptation: “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God” and “serve and protect” work that Adam was assigned to do in the garden. The woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village, also ”in Spirit and the truth” concerning her life, reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. They invite him home to their village, where he dwells (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel!) for two days, during which time they also are convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” Thus does life in the Samaritan village become (anew) life in the presence of “I am” in the garden of creation. Jesus has served them all very well and “kept” them; he has moved God’s work in creating them forward toward fulfillment, restoring them to God’s presence and showing that he is, indeed, the “savior of the world,” as they confess.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) prompts us to return to our discussion of John 3:16 in the comment for the Second Sunday in Lent. There we asked how comprehensive the word is meant to be, noting that the verse solidly grounds care of the whole creation—if its meaning can legitimately be taken to mean what we mean today by “the cosmos.” We argued that while, on the one hand, its meaning in John is usually limited to that of “the human world” or the world in opposition to Jesus. On the other hand, an adequately dynamic and expansive understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus enlists in his conversation with Nicodemus, pushes our understanding to the most comprehensive interpretation of its meaning possible. If the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life,” as we confess, then the entire creation becomes the object of God’s love and Jesus’ saving work. In the present story about the Samaritan woman, the more limited meaning is intended: the Samaritans are part of those “others” who stand over against Jesus’ people; that is, the woman, though female and Samaritan, is saved nonetheless and her neighbors with her. What Paul wrote in our second reading concerning gaining “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand,” would appear to apply to her as it does to all who follow him; for she is being “saved by his life.”

But isn’t there more to be said? And more to be saved? What about the land on which they live? It is alien territory for Jesus and his followers, the heritage of people who worship God on a different mountain. Does it make any sense, we might ask, for Jesus to save the woman and her neighbors, without also in some sense saving their neighborhood? Or are we to conclude that because they now have the gift of “living water gushing up to eternal life,” that their surroundings—their environment, as we would refer to it today—is no longer of any concern to them, or to us?

The land was previously very important to them, as the woman’s comments about it to Jesus reveal. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan and one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribe’s ancestor. The presence of the well was also no doubt part of what made her feel confident in worshipping God on the nearby Mount Gerazim. Mountain ecologies, as we have observed previously in this series, are of crucial significance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain serves to deposit water on its slopes which is gathered into streams that flow in the open for at least a while before disappearing underground, where the water flows to the water table that can be accessed through wells such as Jacob’s. Thus, the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is entirely dependent upon “the mountain,” or, alternately understood, the God who is worshipped on that mountain. Indeed, as our first reading so forcefully reminds us, the absence of water causes the people to doubt that God cares for them at all, and they begin to regret their exodus from Egypt, on account of that lack. An adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

The prestige of “her” mountain is clearly paramount in her response to Jesus. In her misunderstanding of his offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, the Samaritan woman quite naturally asks about the relative value of worshipping

God on Mount Gerazim or Mount Zion. If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then, that perhaps the Samaritans should really worship God on Mt. Zion rather than Mt. Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is clear that to him that this does not mean that God should be worshipped in Jerusalem exclusively. On the contrary, even as they spoke, “true worshippers will come to worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Neither mountain, we infer, provides privileged access to God; the Spirit of God—which, as we recall from the conversation with Nicodemus as well, “blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”—serves to render God’s presence available everywhere, if somewhat randomly. But by the same token, neither mountain lacks status as a place in which God’s presence can be acknowledged and worshipped; either mountain, or all of them, each with its own eco-system to sustain, is valued by God as a place for divine self-disclosure.

These observations about the mountains give rise to a related concern, however. Does Jesus himself take the place of the mountains as the occasion for worshipping God? This would appear to be the implication of a statement by Gail O’Day, for example.“‘God is spirit’ (v.24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she concurs; but she goes on to say that “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (‘the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day, p. 568). From an ecological, care of creation perspective, this might be taken to constitute displacement of a creational emphasis to a Christological or even an anthropological emphasis.

We make three comments in response. First, that while we agree that Jesus’ presence does indeed initiate an “eschatological present” with respect to the presence of God, an exclusive claim is not to be made here either; the Spirit who is “the Lord, the giver of Life” does “blow where it chooses,” and while Jesus brings the Spirit, the Spirit also brings Jesus. Second, it is important to keep in mind that in addition to the “eschatological present” of God’s presence, Jesus also provides a model for care of creation. Jesus is God’s servant of the creation, whose task is the “salvation of the world.” Third and perhaps most significantly, if there is displacement here, it is not so much of mountains by Jesus, as of mountains by water.

In our texts, water is in the first instance the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And if it is true, as we have suggested, that the mountains are identified as the locus of God’s manifestation, at least in part because of their association with water, as the more universally present element on Earth, there is no real loss of the non-human creation in this displacement. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. So, a shift from mountains to water as the preferred locus of the manifestation of God’s Spirit would actually constitute a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation. So it was “in the beginning” when a wind from God swept over the face of

the waters (Genesis 1:2). There is no loss, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to bring into danger its life-sustaining and generating properties.

How is it, then, with water? As it was for Jesus and the Samaritan, water is an issue that will certainly bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue that will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or it will draw the world into final and all encompassing tragic confrontation.

A host of issues are inevitably linked: protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change. Some of these issues, as Larry Rasmussen points out in his 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants; urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; and private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions; and the integrity of creation’s own systems are at stake. Finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; it is a profoundly moving statement of a deeply religious and ethical proposal concerning global water policy. We have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues? Usually not. In our world and age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. From an ethical perspective informed by the example of Jesus, our comment on Jesus’ first temptation as an invitation to alter nature according to solely human calculation of need shows this approach to be not only inadequate but also evil. The command and control perspective also pertained to the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions. It was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus proclaimed the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account—assuming that we are right with respect to the meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates the fact that the presence of water is essential for all life on planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all otherkind with whom we share Earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” It was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all Satan’s temptations. We should do likewise and also to add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. And every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for this inestimable grace. 


Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Psalm 23

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

Jesus’ healing of the man born blind, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles.” While the story is not explicitly linked to the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel, Brown nonetheless finds features of the story that suggest the feast is important for its interpretation. We will argue that the context of the Feast is indeed very important for reading the story—as instruction for the baptized on the care for creation. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in the time of Jesus.

The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 326).

Like Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people; here it is linked to the presence of God on the mountain of Zion. (See that comment also for our discussion of the religious significance of water in our own time.) The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea): priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the weeklong festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the

temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water. . . .Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect. . .” (Ibid. p. 327.)

Brown points to two elements, then, that connect the story to Tabernacles: the water used in the ceremonies described above was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. The tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing is a theme of Jesus’ earlier participation in the Festival as well (Ibid, p. 376). We note, furthermore, that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city—was a major theme of the ceremonies. Also, it is noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva (water) and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony. Accordingly, when Jesus tells his disciples that the blind man was not born blind because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of this story; namely, beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life flourish in the city of Zion—with special attention to how water is used.

If this is then “a story of how a man who sat in darkness was brought to see the light, not only physically but spiritually,” as Brown suggests (p. 377), it is also about what that man experienced, namely, an act of healing of a bodily organ of crucial importance for beholding the acts of God, acts such as the crucially important provision of water. As we are told repeatedly, “the man Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” In recruiting the man born blind to assist in his own healing at the pool of Siloam, through a very proper use of water to heal and to cleanse, Jesus transforms a beggar by the wayside into a subtle and skillful witness to God’s work. The man is restored to his community and steps forward in joyful and extravagant praise of God’s work: “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind now can see. We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “the world came into being through him” (John 1:10).

Similarly, if this is also “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about how they failed to see what Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing as the servant of the creation, namely, the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” As Jesus says: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6.

This connection provides a plausible explanation for including 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. It was God’s eyes, it seems, that settled the choice. Through those eyes, it is suggested, God could see into the heart. How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 in the context of these readings suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm, at least in the King James Version

(“the valley of the shadow of death), most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come (“forever”). More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—the great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become, so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples: a person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees will trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he must also be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order.

With his counter assertion that the man was born blind, not because he or his parents were sinners but “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct casual relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have banished (Brown, p. 371). However, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way than the question of the disciples does, and perhaps more forcefully for modern readers: would God blind people, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” This cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: how can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the variety of animal life we see on the planet?

As we have noted in earlier installments of this series of comments, theologians have recently responded to this question with the idea that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it does have, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variability by which we would explain the man’s blindness is also the means to the creation of diverse species. In this view, humans are created with the responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise contained in the existence of both the species as well as of individual creatures within species in the presence of God (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation.) It seems to this reader that Jesus’ words and action here can be reconciled with this new view, while we obviously cannot assert that this is what John meant in telling this story. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of the work that “is pleasing to the Lord,’ as Paul mentions in our second

reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making in the face of anthropogenic changes in their environment count as “God pleasing” as well.

In conclusion, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both what God has done and is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. We do not think that John was merely making use of the metaphorical resources of the Feast of Tabernacles to make general claims about Jesus, such as “Jesus saves,” or Jesus makes the (spiritually) blind to see. John’s Jesus really does care for the creation. He said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of either human or divine self-serving manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation. Fortunately, however, it is not really true, as the blind man asserted, that God does not listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.


Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Psalm 130

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

With the lessons for the Fifth (and final) Sunday in Lent, we begin to confront the reality of the conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death that will culminate in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It will help bring to light the implications of this conflict for care of creation to recall, from the readings for the First Sunday of Lent and our comment on them in this series, how death came into the world and what that coming meant for human existence. Following the interpretation of Terry Fretheim and others but contrary to strong theological tradition, we think that death per se does not come into creation as a consequence of human sin. It is rather “a natural part of God’s created world,” as Fretheim puts it. The exclusion of Adam and Eve from the tree of life nevertheless serves “to make them realize the full reality of their death.” Because of their doubts about the trustworthiness of God, then, life and death “become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance.”

Jesus’ resistance to temptation in the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent, we suggested, engages this conflict. What Jesus refused in his temptations was the dominion of death. The possibility of starvation in the desert, the death defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, maintenance of imperial control—each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus deeply into that dominion and each brings into play the power of death over life. The dominion of death, with its destructive consequences for the creation, is what entered the human story with the disobedience of Adam and Eve.

On the other hand, what Jesus affirmed was the dominion of life, as exemplified in the care for creation for which humans are created. In our view Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibited “a responsible relationship of humans to the earth,” characterized by: “one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” His actions showed respect for wilderness as a sanctuary for the non-human creation, and it demonstrated self-limiting regard for the non-human neighbors with whom we share our own habitat. And we concluded that “what Jesus does for God” in his response to the temptations is “what God intended humans to do in and for the creation,” namely, to serve it and to keep it. (For this whole discussion, see our comment in this series for the First Sunday in Lent.)

As we have seen in readings for the succeeding Sundays of the season, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem add scope to this role of servant of creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who is the “the Lord, the Giver of life.” That Spirit, as Elizabeth Johnson writes, “is especially active in the ‘responsible care for

the network of earth’s life and its system,” and “is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.” It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. (For the reference to Johnson’s work, see our comment on the lections for the Second Sunday in Lent.) Then in his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus brought “living water,” that is, water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and the alienation of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet. (See our comment on the lections for the Third Sunday in Lent.) And finally, we suggested, with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation. At the same time, Jesus exposed the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. (See our comment on the lections for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.)

Now in the readings for this Fifth Sunday in Lent, the conflict between these two dominions of death and life deepens. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict as one between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is life and peace. And the contrast is sharpened: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but ‘if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” But here, too, the promise is clear: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8: 6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in the Easter Vigil readings of the Church are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). We recognize here the main themes of the drama to be played out over the dead body of Lazarus.

According to the author of John, the episode concerning Lazarus leads rather directly to the final battle between the two dominions in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. This battle is what sets the chief priests and Pharisees to planning Jesus death (John 11:45-53). Fear of death permeates the narrative from the beginning, as wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. But death haunts the story in other, more subtle ways as well: Mary and Martha summon him to restore their brother to health because he is near death; yet the disciples use his characterization of Lazarus’ condition as “falling sleep” as reason to put off the trip they would prefer not to make at all. When he resolves to go, they accompany him, but do so expecting to die (11:11-16). Jesus’ inexplicable delay for two days is in turn the cause of the heart-rending lament on the part of the sisters, their pain barely contained by their conviction that he could restore him to them if he only would.

What drives this narrative forward is an intriguing set of expectations: on the one hand, both actors and readers expect that Jesus can and will intervene in the course of a natural illness to prevent death; on the other hand, we also share the fear of the disciples that his presence and action will provoke the anger of those who oppose him. The first expectation, we want to suggest, shares the presupposition of the first temptation in the Matthean temptation story from the First Sunday of Lent: Jesus can intervene in nature in whatever way required to serve the needs of those he cares about. He can prevent Lazarus from dying; he can do something about

Lazarus’ death. The second expectation, felt as fear of trouble ahead, is an indication of growing doubt that Jesus is willing and able to defeat his enemies. This draws on the issue at stake in the third temptation, namely, the pursuit of power and wealth so as to be able to dominate his enemies. Additionally, these two somewhat rival expectations imply a common belief voiced by Mary to Jesus, “God will give you whatever you ask of him.” This statement is strikingly similar to the second temptation, which involved transcendence over nature and which Jesus refused in his response, “Do not put God to the test.” In short, the challenge for Jesus in these expectations held by his beloved friends is very much like that which Jesus met in his temptations. At stake here is their belief in him as “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” So how does Jesus respond this time? What does it mean for him to be the Son of God?

The focus of this Gospel reading is on the first expectation, the possible restoration of Lazarus. (The other, the pursuit of power and wealth, awaits the story of his entry into Jerusalem and the events that follow in Holy Week.) Even though he loves Lazarus, he delays in going to him for two days. But not because he shares the fear of his disciples; rather, there is obviously some greater purpose that guides his actions here. His followers regard him as a doer of signs and miracles, perhaps as it is reported that some of the Jews who accompany Mary to the tomb regard him so as well: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37). That earlier sign of healing the blind man is instructive, but not to the point they are making. Jesus knows himself to be something more, something quite significantly different that was indeed revealed in that event, as we suggested in our comment: namely, that he is the servant of God’s creation who does the works of God to the glory of God. As that servant, he brings sight to the blind and light to the world. What he does is always shaped and determined, we want to emphasize, not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, by what God wants for the world that God so loves.

Hence, yet more will be revealed now about the role of servant to creation, as his successive replies disclose. To the disciples, he says, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe (11:15). To Martha, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25). And again to Martha, on meeting the stench of death as they open the tomb, he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). Thus, even in the face of great personal loss and grief, and maybe quite especially and intentionally there, Jesus is revealed to be both the servant of creation and Lord in the dominion of life.

Jesus’ seemingly inexplicable delay in going to Lazarus thus serves the purpose of revealing God as the unfailing “giver of life” who overcomes the dominion of death, precisely in and through the dying and raising of a human being, and by the trust in God that such an event of dying and rising inspires in the human heart. God uses the death of Lazarus to deliver this revelation through Jesus; merely preventing Lazarus’ death would not serve the creation in the way God wanted it to be served, namely, so that faith in the dominion of life would be awakened. Is this a righteous use of death? The question is similar to the one we asked about the man born blind: his blindness, like Lazarus’ death, was so that God’s glory could be revealed. Like the righteous use of water in the story of the woman at the well in Samaria and the use of water in the healing of the man born blind, this story foreshadows Jesus’ own bodily death by virtue of which the

whole cosmos will be reconciled to God. The raising of Lazarus shares common purpose with both those earlier acts of restoration and with Jesus’ own death on the cross and his resurrection—they are for the restoration of creation and for the creation of faith that will carry that restoration of creation forward into the world.

The raising of Lazarus shows what we are to look for in the final conflict to come. But difference as well as similarity is instructive here: Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he dies in the company of friends. Although he will live again (and die again, we presume), this is an occasion for deep grief and anguish, such as his sisters and his friend Jesus display. Interestingly, interpreters puzzle over whether Jesus’ weeping is more grief or anger (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, p.4350); even though he might know what is coming next, he clearly joins in the sisters’ grief and dismay. This expression of pain and sorrow is very true to a believer’s experience within the context of the church, we would say: however much death is intended by God as part of God’s creation, it is felt as painful loss for those who live on. This is what Jesus’ own anguished grief rightly confirms (“See how he loved him!” others amongst the Jews who came with Mary exclaimed” 11:35-36). The relationship he has enjoyed with these friends is deep and precious to him. But however wrenching it might be for family and friends and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life, nor can it be given as reason for self-interested decisions as to the will of God. With Jesus and the psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

Which brings us to the final point we wish to make. Whether what’s at stake is one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting the dominion of death upon those who stand over against us in either indifference or enmity. That is what happens to Jesus, however. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. And when the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose:

“What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’” (11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course. As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” But that is the story for the next week to come, the week we call holy.

We conclude with this observation: we discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for creation. Jesus serves what God loves in the way it needs to be served. Jesus served God by restoring and improving the creation of God. He invites his followers into that same service with the assurance that he is indeed the Son of God, the resurrection and the life. Yes, Lazarus will die again. But for the time being, he has been set

free from the bondage of death, which is no doubt a much more joyful and meaningful condition than being tied up in a bundle of smelly bandages! He is but one creature within the cosmos, though, restored to life by Jesus on his way to a much greater and comprehensive fulfillment of the promises of God. We are reminded that Jesus is servant of all creation, who seeks the flourishing of all God’s creature, as even Caiaphas came close to acknowledging.


Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Passion Sunday

Psalm 31:9-16

Isaiah 50:4-5-11

Philippians 2:5-11

Matthew 26:14-27:66

The readings for Passion Sunday and Easter Sunday are the most significant readings of the entire church year. They tell the story that is at the very heart of the Christian witness. Thus, if care of creation belongs to the core of Christian experience, as we have argued in this series that it does, we can expect to discern in them themes that support that care. And so we do: the two lessons for Passion Sunday helpfully contain main elements of the framework we will use to interpret the Passion narrative. In our comments for the Sundays in the Season of Lent, we have described Jesus as the one who serves God by faithfully serving creation. The church’s reading of Isaiah 50 identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that service. The famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians seconds that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). Furthermore, Christ’s service of creation is faithfully guided by the will of God. The reading from Philippians emphasizes the point: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” As we found in our comment on the lessons for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and “wise.” We might call this the servant of creation’s rule.

The description of Jesus’ service to creation in the Philippian hymn contrasts sharply with the actions of humans portrayed in the story of Adam and Eve’s temptation. As we wrote in our comment when this text was read on the festival of the Name of Jesus,

“Grasping after divine status” is, after all, an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind as narrated in Genesis 2: Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. As the wily serpent knew, they would most certainly want to slip the noose of mortality if there was a way. If they are indeed made only “a little lower than God” and “crowned with glory and honor,” why not reach for the top? Why not exercise our powers as though we are actually divine, determining for ourselves the purposes, values and uses of all things below us? Vested with such powers of reason and spirit as we manifestly are, why not live as though there are no limits to our being, including those imposed upon our animal bodies, embedded as they are within the ecology of the earth and subject to the dying that is an inherent aspect of its biology?

Just so, we have shown that these temptations closely parallel those Jesus rejected in his own temptation in the wilderness (see our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent). In the reading for this Sunday, the prophet speaks righteously for Jesus in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, we can in a moment turn to the passion narrative from the Gospel of Matthew. However, it will be helpful first to recall from our comment on the story of the raising of Lazarus last Sunday how the rule of the servant of creation governs Jesus’ engagement with the conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death that will culminate in the cross. The immediate context of Jesus’ obedience to God in that story was to begin with the intimate company of his friends and followers; in the end, however, the narrative opens up to the larger conflict that draws in the religious and public authorities. While there may have been truth in what Mary, sister of Lazarus, said to Jesus, “God will give you whatever you ask of him,” what governed Jesus’ action was the servant’s rule: the servant of God does what God asks of that person, so that the glory of God might be revealed. Because what God wanted for creation eventually coincided with what Jesus’ friends were asking of him, and what he clearly wanted to do as well, Lazarus was raised from the dead and not simply restored to health before death. At the same time, the action had consequences not intended by the followers, although they feared them; those consequences were definitely foreseen by Jesus, of course, and by his Father as well, from John’s point of view: the raising of Lazarus leads the Pharisees and priests to press for agreement that, as Caiaphas said to the council, “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed (11:50). In sum, godly service to the creation leads eventually to the death of the Servant himself.

We will find that the passion narrative in Matthew follows the same pattern. Returning to the Gospel of Matthew, we pick up the narrative we left at the end of a long season of Epiphany, to readings in the Gospel of John during Lent. On the final Sunday of Epiphany, we recall, Jesus taught his disciples that “no one can serve two masters. . God and wealth.” This teaching provided occasion for us to review James Gustave Speth’s account of the multiple factors of the relentless pursuit of wealth that contributes so overwhelmingly to the degradation of Earth’s environment (see our comment in this series on the readings for the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany). On the following Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, we followed Jesus down Mt. Tabor towards Jerusalem “to confront the authorities,” as we saw it, “that hold the land in destructive, desert-causing bondage to the pursuit of power privilege and wealth.” As Jesus goes, his disciples are in “dispute amongst themselves as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom.” The appropriateness of Robert Smith’s comment (from his commentary on the lections for Lent in the New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999,) makes it worth repeating again here:

They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power. It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids. All the nations do it. Corporations do it. Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it. It all seems so natural. It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, “of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!”

But is it natural? Where does it all come from? From God? Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees

and rivers, over birds and beasts? Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women? The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south? Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal? (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, we answered Smith; this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ teaching on the mount has made clear. Instead, what comes from God is a pattern of service: it is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.

Our time with the Gospel of John provided us this “foretaste of the healing of creation,” in the company of the servant of God who serves the creation God loves. So now we must go with him to Jerusalem, and enter into his very “passion” for that creation.

We follow here the outline of the passion narrative developed by Warren Carter, in his

Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp.498-540. In our commentary on each of his six sections, we frequently draw on his exegetical insights, with attribution to that section of his work; the suggestions we make with reference to care of creation, however, are our own, unless otherwise noted.

1. Matthew 26:1-16 – The Preparatin

Matthew draws Jesus’ teaching to a close with words that echo those in Deuteronomy 31:1 at the conclusion of Moses exhortation” to choose life.” Jesus has, as it were, responded to Moses’ exhortation in “saying all these things,” namely his four teaching discourses, much of what we have read from Matthew on the Sundays in Epiphany, and his discourse about the coming of the reign of God in Matthew 24 and 25, a passage which is read on the first Sunday in Advent (see our comment on that Sunday’s lections in this series for a discussion of the coming of God’s reign), with more to come closer to the end of the church year. Jesus’ teaching clearly represents a choice for life, or more broadly stated, serves the dominion of life (see our discussion on the relation of Jesus’ teaching to that of Moses in our comment on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). But in the same sentence, Matthew tells us for the first time that Jesus’ death will take place during the Festival of the Passover, the meal Moses instituted to recall God’s liberation of the people from bondage in Israel. The contrast seems deliberate, and it is intensified by what follows: while the “chief priests and the elders of the people gathered” and “conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him,” Jesus is sought out at the house of Simon the leper by a woman carrying an alabaster jar of very expensive oil, which she uses to anoint him. She has “performed a good service” for him, he explains to his scandalized disciples; she has prepared him for burial. The extravagant gift is in Jesus’ view a proper use of the expensive oil for service to one who was himself engaged as the servant of creation; her act is “good work,” a phrase that “describes the actions that disciples do to embody God’s empire” elsewhere in the

Gospel (5:16) (Carter). What she did, Jesus promised, will be “told in remembrance of her. . . wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world.” Meanwhile, Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who does not know how to value things righteously. The anointing woman serves the servant of God. On the other hand, Judas betrays the servant of God for whatever his enemies offer. The service of mammon, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life.

2. Matthew 26: 17-35. The Last Supper.

As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Thus the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised them becomes a sign of the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. Imperial Rome and the conspiring Jewish leaders have assumed the role of imperial Egypt.

At the same time, however, the wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people (Exodus 24:8). It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and who “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).” His detailed exegesis is important:

In Leviticus 25 the noun [release] appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor; land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted” (see Matt 5:3-6). In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34, it indicates relief from imperial taxes (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is

a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a

transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power (Ibid.).

Release from sins “has personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions” (Ibid., emphasis ours). It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it looks forward to a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the Earth. The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane.

Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal now ended is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation. We recall again the statement of Wendell Berry we quoted in the context of our discussion of Moses exhortation to “choose life” (See our comment on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany): “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are, like the oil with which the woman anointed Jesus, fruits of creation put to use sacramentally in the restoration of creation.

3. Matthew 26:36-46. Agony in Gethsemane.

Is it significant that Jesus’ most anguished moment of prayer to his Father occurs in the garden setting of Gethsemane? We think so. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission. It is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” Carter comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience.” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation.And when we pray the prayer he taught us, we pray as the servant of creation prays.

4. Matthew 26:47-56. Jesus’ Arrest

Judas betrays him with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way, although he believes that his Father would send legions of angels, twelve legions actually, more than enough “to overwhelm the crowd with its swords and clubs and more than enough to deal with the whole of the local Roman military!” (Carter). He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life, and his choice of life will be vindicated in his resurrection.

5. Matthew 26:57-68. Jesus’ Trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin

If Jesus will not mount a military campaign to establish himself as Messiah, what is the nature of his power? Looking for a reason to condemn him to death, Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority. We see again the servant of God’s response: it is not a question of what Jesus is able to do, but what God wants him to do. His power is the cosmic power of God’s future reign. Jesus’ teaching on the coming kingdom in Chapter 24 and 25 is part of the teaching brought to conclusion at the beginning of this passion narrative; we have had occasion to comment on it only in connection with the Gospel on the First Sunday of Advent. (The material in that comment, the first in this series, and the others for the season of Advent, is relevant to Jesus’ answer here.)

6. Matthew 26: 69-75. Peter’s Betrayal

The crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. The first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls. Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies. But the call of the bird reminds us that non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time.

7. Matthew 27:1-2. Jesus is Handed over to Pilate

The Sanhedrin and Pilate the Roman governor are linked in the dominion of death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

8. Matthew 27:3-10. Judas’ Money.

Judas’ repentance provides counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin. By the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” But it is too late to stop the course of events toward death. Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the earth is home for God’s creatures. The prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled: as “the

God of all flesh,” who asked “is there anything to hard for me?” promised:

In this place of which you say, “It is a waste without human beings or animals,” in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without inhabitants, human or animal, there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In this place that is waste, without human beings or animals, and in all its towns there shall again be pasture for shepherds resting their flocks (Jeremiah 33:10-12; cf. 32:27).

The restoration of creation for both humans and animals will come in the very place where it seems most unlikely, land bought with the price of the servant of creation’s betrayal. The economy of the dominion of death is transformed by inclusion within the economy of God’s dominion of life.

9. Matthew 27:11-26. Jesus ‘Trial” before Pilate

The travesty of the “trial” exposes Roman justice to be no justice. “Amazed” at Jesus’ silence in the face of charges that imply rejection of Roman sovereignty, Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what the “people” demand, against the counsel of his wife who joins Judas as a witness to Jesus’ innocence, namely, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: “Roman justice is all washed up” (Carter). In the cause of justice, water always tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children is an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience, it is an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return” (cf. 23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus, water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

10. Matthew 27:27-44. Jesus is Crucified

The theme from the temptations returns: passersby deride Jesus, saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” The chief priests and scribes mock him: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants—the healing and restoration of creation.

11. Matthew 27:45-56. Jesus Dies

As Jesus hangs on the cross, “darkness came over the whole land.” Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breaths his last, the earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (24:27-31)” (Carter, p. 536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (20:25-28)”: “They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travel (from Galilee). Their service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538).

12. Matthew 27:57-66. Jesus’ Burial

The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, but later, that he has risen from the dead.

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