Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reflection for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost by Dr. Dennis Ormseth

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A

Jesus calms the storm—not dominating nature but restoring a relationship of peace!

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for:

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Psalm 85:8-13 1 Kings 19:9-18 Romans 10:5-15 Matthew 14:22-33

Following “immediately” on the story of the “feeding the five thousand” as this Sunday’s Gospel does, the text provides opportunity for extending our consideration of the relationship between Jesus’ care of humans and the ecological contexts in which that care occurs. There we saw how placement of the story in “a deserted place” illuminates Jesus’ care for human well-being as part of his care for the whole of creation. And we made a few suggestions about how this relationship might be reflected in the life of a congregation. The narrative of today’s Gospel redoubles the learning, except that now it moves in the opposite direction. Here the movement of the story is from mountain wilderness to the disciples on the sea and it illuminates the significance of Jesus’ relationship to creation in his care for human creatures.

Jesus sends his disciples out on the sea to meet him on the other side, while he moves more deeply into wilderness and then ascends “the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23). Jesus’ movement, Warren Carter suggests, “evokes Moses’ ascent of Sinai, where he prays (Exod 32:30-34; 34:8-9). It also alludes to worship on Mt Zion (Isa 2:2-3)” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p.309). Of course, this is not the first time Jesus ascends “the mountain.” Just as the story of the feeding of five thousand in “a deserted place” reminded us of his first temptation in the wilderness, so also does this ascent to a mountain recall the third temptation, in which Satan took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s purposes for the creation, affirmed by that story, may be assumed here also, as the ascent recalls not only the mountain of temptation but also the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (5:1). Indeed, as Carter notes, this is the first scene involving a mountain ever since Jesus’ descent in 8:1 at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Carter, p. 309).

We have argued earlier in this series that Jesus’ frequent “return to the mountains” carries much significance for care of creation. Our comment on the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount is relevant here as well:

What exactly is it about mountains that renders them appropriate sites for divine epiphanies and revelations? Why does one expect to encounter God there and to obtain guidance as to how one should live? That the mountains manifestly transcend the plain where life is normally lived is obvious, as also is their seemingly eternal duration through time. . . . [S]tanding before them is an impressive experience; and awareness of their enduring presence greatly enhances their credibility as witnesses on God’s behalf. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols” (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint. Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (p. 114). (For Southgate’s observation that such places need to be protected as part of our responsibility for care of creation and the reference of this quotation, see our comment on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany).

Jesus joins in the mountains’ praise of God.

Jesus’ return to the mountain at this point thus underscores his intimate relationship with God, for which the remoteness of the mountain from daily life provides social space and psychological distance. Jesus, as it were, joins in the mountains’ praise of God.

In Matthew, the mountain stands for all creation

Jesus’ ascent of the mountain serves an additional purpose, however, in that it reintroduces the mountain to the narrative as a complex metaphor for creation, understood as an entire living system. As we noted in our comment on the assigned lessons for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, for today’s readers of the Gospel,

a mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some measure to the entire globe, for example, by the measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them in their search for understanding the dynamics of global climate change. To those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the well-being of the whole Earth.

What was Jesus praying on the mountain?

Jesus’ ascent of the mountain at this point in the narrative of the Gospel thus underscores his relationship not only to God but also to the mountain and the creation that it represents. Again Carter insightfully points to Jesus’ action as obedience to “his own teaching on secret prayer (6:5-6). Presumably from 6:7-15, he prays for the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of God’s empire, the doing of God’s will, the provision of food and forgiveness, and for trust that God will accomplish God’s purposes. The subsequent miracle derives from his relationship with God (cf. 11:25-27), hallows God’s name, and expresses God’s empire and will” (Carter, p. 309). We would sharpen the point, because we think Jesus’ prayer for the coming of God’s empire would specifically include the request that God’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—in conformity with his role as Servant of Creation. Indeed, his very presence on the mountain, understood as the representative of the entire creation, already represents something of a realization of that prayer. And the encounter that follows upon his descent does so even more dramatically.

God’s presence is in the silence.

The text admittedly says nothing of Jesus’ time on the mountain, other than emphasizing his solitude there. The reading from 1 Kings 19:9-18, however, suggests a pattern of action that is supportive of our interpretation. When Elijah, also alone, on the mountain of Horeb, encounters God in the silence after wind, earthquake, and fire, his conversation with God spells out God’s will for Israel. As Carol Dempsey points out, as Earth quiets itself, “God gives Elijah a series of directives that offer the prophet hope (vv. 15-18) and, more specifically, that deal with the problem of covenant infidelity” (Dempsey, New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 160). What follows in the narrative of 1 Kings is a working out of those directives. Similarly, we would suggest that what happens upon Jesus’ descent also serves to respond to the problem of faithfulness (considered somewhat more generally than covenantal fidelity) as a crisis in the relationship between God as creator and human creatures.

In the Elijah narrative, we note that God’s presence is emphatically not identified with the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, but rather with the subsequent silence. So also, when Jesus rejoins his disciples and finds them in peril, the sea similarly quiets itself. In both narratives, the presence of God—for surely Jesus here stands in for God, as the disciples confess him to be “Son of God”—is signaled by the quieting of creation’s turbulence. So also, in both narratives, the resolution of the crisis comes as a restoration of faith.

The relationship of God to the creation is typically characterized by the quiet after the storm.

Why is this significant? It suggests that the relationship of God to the creation, in such moments of decisive significance as these epiphanies are, is typically characterized by the quiet after the storm, or a state of rest like that which followed God’s creative activity on the seventh day of creation, or like the peace that followed the raging of the storm in the narrative of the great flood. In the moment of that stillness, the people are freed from their fear of the God they encounter in the experience of creation’s awesome energies. Jesus’ approach breaks the power of the fear that so easily casts our relationship to nature in a conflicted, oppositional mode. Thus, in his descent from the mountain, Jesus brings with him the state of peace between himself, God, and the creation, a state of peace for which he might well have appealed in his prayer on the mountain.

It is important to emphasize that the storm and the quiet are complementary aspects of one experience of God’s presence. There is a tendency in the interpretation of this text to view the wind and the seas as representative of chaotic forces in opposition to God, which, because they endanger the humans in the narrative, Jesus must subdue. Carter, for example, writes that “walking on the sea is something God does, expressive of God’s sovereignty over the sea and creation. . . In walking on the sea, Jesus does what God does. He manifests God’s presence and demonstrates God’s reign over the sea and all the opposing forces it represents. He removes what impeded the disciples, enabling them to cross the sea” (Carter, p. 310). Carter emphasizes God’s power over the forces of nature and, so here, what will commonly be understood as the supernatural power of one who can “walk on water.”

We would stress Jesus’ calming of creation’s turbulence as a sign of his right relationship with all the forces of creation, . . . the dynamic harmony he knows from his visit to the mountain.

While Carter appropriately notes that Jesus’ “presence is responsible for the calm,” and acknowledges that the episode “is another in a series of references to restoring creation under God’s reign: the notion of rest in Matt 11:28, Sabbath (12:10), the abundant yield (13:8, 23, plentiful food (14:20), [and, alas!] the subdued sea,” the characterization of that presence as effective domination is typical: “For the fifth time in the scene (walking on water, talking as God, extending hand, saving from water, calming the storm), Jesus does a Godlike act, manifesting God’s reign over the sea. The sea is subdued and set in its place as God intended it (Gen 1:6-13)” (Ibid., p. 312; our emphasis). By contrast, we would rather stress his calming of creation’s turbulence as a sign of his right relationship with all the forces of creation, a relationship into which he would draw the disciples, even as he “rescues” them from their alienation from the sea into the dynamic harmony he knows from his visit to the mountain.

Jesus is not the controlling and dominating Savior who willfully alters creation for the sake of his own power.

In the era of climate change into which Earth is entering, it serves the cause of the Lord, the Servant of Creation, better, we are convinced, when we take care to present him as one whose relationship with the Creator serves to inspire a peaceful, cooperative relationship with the creation. He is not the controlling and dominating Savior who willfully alters creation for the sake of his own power or for the power of those who believe in him. Phrases from the Psalm for the day underline this interpretation:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase (85:10-13).

Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores a dynamic harmony to the creation.

The vision of Jesus walking on the sea at first terrified the disciples and then inspired Peter’s own boldly over-confident adventure out over the troubled waters. As such, the story therefore ought not be understood as a legitimation for faith to seek transcendence over nature. On the contrary, it serves to illustrate how faith contributes to the maintenance of the right relationship between human beings and the energies present within the creation. Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores a dynamic harmony to the creation. Let the sea roar: it need not be destructive of faith in the Creator, whose voice is heard in the silence after the storm.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Commentary on Readings for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year A

Care for Earth and Feed the Hungry—One and the Same!

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for:

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 Isaiah 55:1-5 Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

Jesus enacts God’s will to feed the hungry in the desert. Creation provides!

Matthew’s well-known story of the feeding of the five thousand has parallels in the other three Gospels, which, as Carol Dempsey rightly observes, “indicates its prominence and importance in the memory and life of the early church” (New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 157). The church has made important use of this story to communicate God’s steadfast love: as the text says, when Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (14:14). The action embodies themes that have deep roots in the biblical witness and bear weighty social implications. Warren Carter summarizes these, citing texts too numerous to include here,

Jesus enacts God’s will that hungry people be fed. . . Through Jesus’ deed, God acts faithfully to sustain creation in anticipation of the new creation in which God’s reign is established in full and there is abundant food for all . . . Jesus’ act attacks the injustice of the sinful imperial system which ensures that the urban elite are well fed at the expense of the poor. . . Jesus enacts an alternative system marked by compassion, sufficiency and shared resources. His action imitates God’s action in saving the people from the tyrant Pharaoh and feeding them in the desert (Exod 16) (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 305).

Feedings and Eucharist first and foremost meet the needs of the most vulnerable.

The story of the feeding was told against the background of hunger and food shortages, both natural and human-caused, which fell “hardest on those with limited access to resources, especially urban laborers, crafts workers, and traders” living in cities which “lacked institutions and laws to protect people from starvation” (Ibid., p. 264). The church’s interpreters often point to this story, on the other hand, as a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper. As they did in celebrating the Lord’s support then, so we are also now in the Eucharist compassionately welcome into the company of our host, Jesus, who in the “blessing and breaking” of the loaves and fish also gives himself to us, not in spirit only, but also in body (Carter, p. 307; cf. Dempsey, p. 157).

The feast to which we are invited is “the feast of all creation.”

The importance of the story for the church, both early and late, thus magnifies its significance for the church’s care of creation. Two aspects of the reading are particularly provocative. First is that the church has traditionally seen fit to set this story liturgically within worship that includes praise of God for taking this kind of care for “all living things,” indeed, for “all that he has made.” For this, says the Psalmist, “all your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you” (145:10; the verse is not included in the assigned reading, but can easily be added to verses 8 and 9). Here, we thus proclaim, Jesus does what Psalm 145 says God does: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” What Jesus exhibits here is God’s love for the entire creation: “You open you hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (145:14-16; emphasis added). The invitation of Isaiah 55 notwithstanding, with its clear call to human participants, the feast to which Jesus invites us is a feast in which all creation participates!

Jesus is in the desert, outside of empire, benefitting the poor and marginalized

Secondly, Matthew tells us that this event took place in “a deserted place.” Jesus has crossed a body of water, a “withdrawal” that is occasioned by news of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod. This action signals, as William Carter comments, Jesus’ refusal

to play in the tyrant’s world and by the tyrant’s rules. It is to make space for a different reign, God’s empire, marked by life giving structures and compassionate practices such as healing and feeding. Such a space is not found in the urban center with their sharply differentiated society, carefully controlled power, and protected self-interest (cf. 13:53-58). It is found on the margins, in an insignificant place, a deserted place, or wilderness, a place of no use to the elite but of central importance to God’s purposes and very threatening to the center (cf. 2:3-6; 3:1). The beneficiaries are not the powerful but the poor and marginalized (Ibid., p. 305)

The reference to wilderness reminds us of Jesus’ own encounter with Satan at the beginning of his ministry when he, too, suffered from want of food for forty days. In actions that we found key to our understanding of Jesus as the Servant of God who serves God by serving creation (see our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent), he not only refused the political dominion offered him, but also the associated violation of the creation’s integrity—he would not turn stones into bread, neither would he cast himself down to be born up by angels; he will persist in being Servant of God, who serves creation, and refuses to grasp equality with God.

No space in all creation lies outside the reach of God’s grace

Might the reading not then ground the interest of the church in preserving wilderness, first of all as a place set apart to experience God and God’s empire (see our comment on the readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)? Secondly,” wilderness” is a privileged metaphorical setting for the meal of the Eucharist, understood as an event that naturally takes place in “deserted space”—space for which the power elite will resist conservation, if for no other reason than that it provides sanctuary for those who live in opposition to its oppression. To be sure, the other meals that similarly foreshadow the Lord’s Supper take place in a variety of settings—no space lies outside the reach of God’s grace. But this first meal is notable for taking place where the imperial economy of Rome plays no part. When Jesus’ disciples suggest that they should send the people back to the villages from which they came to purchase food, he forbids them. But neither will he feed them by supernatural intervention, such as “turning bread into stones.” Without him resorting to imperial dominion or supernatural power, the people are fed by the simple act of sharing what was already at hand amongst the crowd, which, especially in the context of wilderness, exhibits a remarkable sufficiency of God’s provision.

The disciples join Jesus as servants of all creation

In other stories of miraculous surplus such as I Kings 17 (Elijah) and 2 Kings 4 (Elisha), Carter notes, God is “more than able to meet the needs of God’s people; here, significantly, the “disciples act as servants, a basic identity and praxis in the community of disciples (6:24; 10:24-25; 20:27)” (Ibid., p. 308). So it is in the empire of God. Jesus’ disciples are, as it were, “co-servants” of creation along with Jesus. Disciples play a significant role in both the redistribution of this bounty and in taking “up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full,” a remarkable remembrance of early care for the wilderness.

Care of earth and care of the poor go hand in hand as two aspects of the service of creation

So should it be with our celebration of the Eucharist: Jesus and his disciples share a small amount of bread amongst those who have been gathered, and all always share sufficiently in this abundance. But the community ought always to see that proper care is taken at the end of the meal, to show respect for the place in which it was served. The community that gathers for fellowship following the service should always be mindful that social ministry and care of the Earth are two aspects of the one service of creation. Let there be time for the enjoyment of the congregation’s gardens, prairie restoration, running water, and rain gardens.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Creation Corner column, July 2011: Hopeful messages

Inasmuch as the Lutherans Restoring Creation web site ( sets out to offer some hope that the environmental crises might be responded to in a positive, restorative way, that, indeed, it is God's will and work that such be done, and that it is in our hands to accomplish the same, the focus in the Creation Corner column for July 2011 has that emphasis.

And because much can be learned by people of faith about the subject from the secular press, examples here will be cited from those sources.

Sandra Steingraber, in a piece from the June 2011 issue of In These Times wrote of something called the "well-informed futility" syndrome, a phrase coined in 1973 by Gerhart Wiebe, that suggests that when we are overwhelmed by information about a credible problem we may feel we haven't the personal resources to effectively respond to it. Thus we can become paralyzed by it, and that sense of futility prevents us from taking any action to solve the problem.

Her subject in that article, confronting climate change and overcoming our fossil fuel addiction, entitled "Despair Not" ( has now been responded to by readers in the current August 2011 In These Times issue and on-line at .

Readers are urged to view that dialog. Steingraber, an Ithaca (NY) College biologist, is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (1997), Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood (2001), and Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (2011).

A second source providing hopeful encouragement is the July-August issue of the Utne Reader, which takes its articles from the "alternative" (not mainstream) press ( .

Articles there, in the order they appear, include excerpts about

...elementary education environmental literacy (Governing) and the "greening" of public schools (Sustainable Industries), p. 15

...the "patron saints" (Wisconsin Benedictine sisters) of green living (Sojourners), p. 20-21

...landscape architecture and wildlife crossings (Landscape Architecture), p. 23

...predictive models of climate change (OnEarth), p. 27

...human shelters in wilderness (Colors of Nature), p. 35, 37

...four excerpts on our complicated relationships with animals, including articles from the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat; the book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them; the magazine The Believer; and the book Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want pgs. 50-59

...being "grounded" ("earthing") as an aid for overcoming chronic pain and insomnia (Spirituality & Health), pgs. 70-71

Even the advertisements in the current Utne Reader issue offer some helpful advice, such as for an eco-friendly auto club, an advanced degree in ecological psychology, a water bottle not made of plastic, green festivals, and the new book by Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder (also reviewed in the August issue of The Lutheran, p. 42) and available from .

And, thirdly, from a foreign source, The Guardian Weekly ( comes these pieces: editorial from May 27, "At war over climate", notes that the USA military is "taking on global warming skeptics", and cites several sources.

...Greenpeace, perhaps the world's most recognizable and sophisticated global eco-charity, is to launch its Rainbow Warrior III from Bremen shipyards in northern Germany(July 15). Greenpeace has helped to "bear witness to some of the more blatant acts of ecological destruction--- from whaling and oil exploration to nuclear testing and industrial fishing---that were occurring in the remote oceans." Doing climate-change research in Greenland, monitoring the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and trying to stop Arctic off-shore drilling have been other pursuits. In the coming year the maiden campaign will be to sail up the Amazon as part of a protest against deforestation.

...In Australia, a carbon emission-cutting tax plan targets the nation's 500 worst polluters (July 15) international court for crimes against the environment is being proposed by a candidate for the French presidency (July 22). Eva Joly won the primary race for the environmentalist party, Greens-Europe-Ecology. She is the fraud prosecutor who successfully brought charges in the 1990s corruption scandal of the oil company Elf.

Note: Michael Ochs writes this column from Williamsport PA.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Commentary for Readings on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for:

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. Psalm 119:129-136; I Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:26-39;

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reflection on Readings for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by Dr. Dennis Ormseth

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A

Listen to true prophets! Righteousness and Justice for All Creation!

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for:

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Psalm 86:11-17; Isaiah 44:6-8 or Wisdom 12 :13, 16-19; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 3-43

Notice the ecology of these parables!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The narrative approach to the interpretation of Paul’s theology, for which the authors present a strong argument in the opening chapters of the book, is particularly appropriate to interpretation of this passage. “While itself brief and frustratingly allusive,” the passage “depends on a certain story about the past, present , and future of creation in God’s saving purposes. Creation ‘is waiting with eager longing’. . , ‘was subjected to futility’. . , in hope that it ‘will be set free’ . . .” (Ibid., p.71; the elided words are the corresponding Greek terms, which we are not able to reproduce here.) The account has “a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it also entails a transformation,” which allows the authors “to construct the outlines of a narrative trajectory, while the employment of [gar] and [hoti] indicates causal links between the elements, thus constituting a plot.” Furthermore, they note, Paul introduced the comment about creation groaning, saying “we know that . . ,” thus apparently “appealing to knowledge that he can reasonably presume his readers share” (Ibid.).

2. The narrative’s “past” includes some event of “making/founding/creating” the object of which is in a condition of “current, and presumably prior . . . bondage to decay.” This “creation” has, additionally, “been subjected to futility, of an unspecified nature, not of its own choice, though the subjector is not named.” Bondage and subjection represent “the negative dimensions of its past and present experience, which are transformed with the resolution of the story” (Ibid., p. 72). The “present” is the co-groaning in co-travail of creation and Paul’s community. The “future” anticipated in the longing of creation for the revealing of the “sons of God,” the hearers “who have the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ and “wait for adoption as God’s sons”, and the hope of creation to be “liberated from bondage to decay” and to “obtain the freedom of the children of God.” Thus, as the authors see it, “the plot looks forward to a final transformation which resolves and surpasses the negative state of decay and futility” (Ibid.).

3. Turning to a more detailed analysis of key phrases, Horrell, Hunt and Southgate argue that “creation” refers here to “nonhuman creation, whatever precisely is or is not included in Paul’s implicit definition” (Ibid., p. 73). “Bondage to decay” refers, they think, not to death as the consequence of the Adamic fall, but more comprehensively to the ‘unfolding story of Genesis 1-11, in which corruption affects all flesh. “Subjection to futility” refers, similarly, not to any specific act or cause, but to the fact that “the existence of creation (and of humanity) is futile and frustrated, since it is unable to achieve its purpose, or to emerge from the constant cycle of toil, suffering, and death” (Ibid., p. 77.)

4. With respect to the present, the creation’s groaning is “a co-groaning with Paul and other Christians and the Spirit, a shared travail that also represents a shared hope, though some aspects of that hope are distinctive to the ‘sons of God,’ who are described here as those who have ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’” (Ibid., p. 79.) The creation, specifically, is “awaiting the revelation of the Christian believers,” and this “unveiling is related to their adoption as sons spoken of in verse 23” (Ibid, pp. 79-80). The “adoption as sons” probably includes “redemption of their bodies” in a resurrection from the dead which in Pauline eschatology is “the initial event in a series that will eventually encompass all creation. . .” The adoption is “important not simply in itself, but insofar as it heralds a wider process of eschatological transformation. The hope that always accompanied the creation’s subjection to futility was and is the hope that the creation itself will be liberated” (Ibid., p. 80-81).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reflection on Readings for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A

The Parable of the Sower as Sign of God’s Provision in Nature

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for:

4th Pentecost Psalm 65: [1-8] 9-13 Isaiah 55:10-13 Romans 8:1-11Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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

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

Exploit creation and we reject Jesus the Servant of Creation!

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

Sowing seeds yields an abundant harvest.

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

What good may come from sowing everywhere!

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

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

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

See how God creates the order of creation

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

The creative action of God is continuous!

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

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

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

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

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

God the Sower will achieve God’s purposes for creation

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

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

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

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

Rejection of Jesus the Servant of Creation thwarts the harvest

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

God’s empire is an alternative to the Roman Empire

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

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

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

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

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