Scripture enjoins us to care for earth, sky, and water as “the commons” that we all share.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Tom Mundahl
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
James 1: 17-27
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
We have spent the past several weeks feasting on the Bread of Life. Just when we think that perhaps there will be a break from the theological perplexities of Johannine bread, we are confronted in Mark’s Gospel with more bread and conflict over how it is eaten.
Perhaps a quick review of Jesus’ conflict with “Pharisees and scribes” in Mark is in order. Early in the Gospel, questions are raised about observance of rules governing table fellowship, Sabbath, and the authority to heal. In fact, this conflict is so severe that “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (Mark 1: 45). The question “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2: 16) was at the core of the objections raised by the religious elites and their retainers. Yet, immediately preceding today’s text, we learn that Jesus continued his role as servant of all—including all creation—regardless of the risk: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mark 6: 56). This claiming of all the land—villages, cities, and farms —shows a bold critique of the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” that operated as a major principle of Jesus’ opponents.
Fortunately, even today’s First Reading from Deuteronomy helps us understand an alternative to this narrowness.
Couched as Moses’ instruction to Israel before entering the new land, the Deuteronomic tradition balances the gift of land and torah with its demands. Think of Moses’ discourse as the instructions for putting a piece of IKEA furniture together. Without them, the pattern for relating to the God of gift, people, and the land is lost. And what should be seen as a gracious whole is reduced to a list of ‘screws, dowels, and wood.’ But when the gift nature of the land provided by the one who has freed them from slavery (Deuteronomy 5: 6a) is recalled, the “statutes and ordinances” may be seen as something that will bind the generations because they will be “made known to your children and your children’s children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) These “commands of God” create community.
Entry into the land of gift requires this pattern be kept by the People of God on behalf of all—even animals—who dwell there. The commandment concerning Sabbath provides rest for all, from slaves to resident aliens, to beasts, to oxen, donkeys, and livestock (Deuteronomy 5: 14). There is no attempt to separate the beneficiaries of this generous command, no sense that those who might be seen as inferior could be labeled “common” or “unclean.” All are part of “God’s commons,” God’s creation, and are owed the gift of refreshing rest.
A similar concern for sharing the benefits and care for God’s creation is found in the first installment of what will be five weeks of continuous readings from James. Far from being a “straw epistle” basing God’s favor on performance, the author of James claims that “friends of God” (see David Rhoads, “The Letter of James: Friend of God,” Currents in Theology and Mission, Dec. 1998, pp. 473-486) are brought to life by the “word of truth” which makes them “a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1.18)
This “first fruits” offering is made, not at the temple, but in “doing”—in caring for orphans and widows in distress. That is, by looking for needs to be met rather than finding ways to “blame victims” by declaring them “common” and “unclean.” Certainly, in today’s world, the needs of God’s creation must surely be included.
These themes are echoed in our gospel reading. Not only has Jesus defied the authorities by teaching and healing everywhere, he now continues his running ideological battle with the scribes and Pharisees.
These suspicious religious leaders now turn their attention to the lax observance of regulations regarding “washing hands before eating” shown by Jesus and his disciples. This provides Jesus the perfect opportunity to contrast the commandment of God with human tradition. After shining a bright light on corban, that end-run around the command to care for parents (Mark 7: 10-13), he makes clear that the command of God is not intended to erect ritual walls separating the allegedly faithful from the rest by declaring the non-observant as defiled by “the common.” (It is important to note that the Greek word used to translate “defile” in verses 2, 5, and 15 is related to koinonia, a Pauline designation of “community”). Instead, God’s command intends to increase “common” faith, mercy, compassion, and justice.
This religion of “purity” which focuses on the distinction between the observant “insiders” and the “unclean” outsiders is the very source of the power wielded by scribes and Pharisees. It is a power that is based solely on “human tradition” and has nothing to do with “the commandment of God.” (Mark 7: 8). Jesus makes it clear that the real violations of “the commandment of God” have little to do with hand washing and rites of purification, and everything to do with what comes from the heart, the center of being: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly” (Mark 7: 21). These are the impulses that really threaten what is common.
Whether 7.19b (“Thus he declared all foods clean.”) is, as Ched Myers claims, “an interpretation of the interpretation” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988, p. 220), the theme of declaring cleanness, beginning with the leper (Mark 1: 41), is central to Mark’s Gospel and to the community embracing new creation. As we celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord, we regularly recall Peter’s vision and visit to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, powered by the vision and voice proclaiming: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10: 14 –here the same Greek word is translated as “profane”!).
Jesus, the servant of creation, will not allow the word “common” to denote defilement. For he celebrates that which is “common” as he eats with tax collectors and sinners, heals a woman with gynecological problems, and tells stories about seeds, lamps, and birds to celebrate the unity of creation and to help us imagine new creation.
As the church has been rediscovering the call to care for all that is “common,” we have often failed to see that it is at the very center of the biblical tradition. Whether it is the psalmist’s song that “the earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it “ (Psalm 24:1), the creation narratives, the Torah itself with the concern for resident aliens and animals, the whole Sabbath tradition with its concern for resting the land and maintaining its just distribution (Leviticus 25: 1-55), Jesus’ concern for freeing people from oppressive “purity laws” found in gospel readings such as ours, or the final vision of the new and open city (Revelation 21-22), this concern for the “common” is clear.
Recently, there has also been a rediscovery of “the commons.” Rooted in ancient traditions of shared grazing, maintaining hunting grounds, and recognizing the joint need to cut turf, this was codified in the English Charter of the Forest (1217) that protected these activities from royal interference. Although the “enclosure” process ended these rights, this concept has re-emerged today both as a way of imagining an “information commons” and also as an image to help us move away from an unhealthy fixation on “the private” (see www.onthecommons.com).
Perhaps this notion of “the commons” has re-emerged because what we share in common is under such threat. Increased purchase of bottled water paves the way for the privatization of clean water for those who can afford it, never mind the persistent and increasing pestilence of plastic bottles. Most troubling is the persistent warming of God’s Earth. As Bill McKibben writes, “Our atmosphere has been de facto privatized for a long time now--we’ve allowed coal, oil, and gas interests to own the sky, filling it with the carbon that is the inevitable by-product of their business” (Bill McKibben, “The Commons Offers a New Story for the Future,” in Jay Walljasper, All that We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, New York: New Press, 2010, p. xix). This week’s readings point us toward all that is common.
Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN