Our human systems of self-reliance prevent us from using the gift of creation well.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Robert Saler
Reading for Series C: 2013
One of the most insidious aspects of being caught up in systems of injustice is that we as individuals find ourselves culpable for wrongdoing even if we have not made the conscious decision to perpetuate sin. I might be going about my day engaged in activities that seem perfectly benign, and indeed beneficial: going to work, maintaining my household, engaging in recreation and travel with friends. But each of those activities, in the North American context at least, is implicated in larger webs of real and potential injustice. My salary at my workplace allows me to live, like virtually all North Americans, at a level wherein my basic needs are more than taken care of, even as much of the world’s population goes without adequate food and shelter. My recreational activities, praiseworthy as they might otherwise be, testify to my complicity in the ongoing consumption of natural resources at an unsustainable rate.
While Martin Luther’s “low” theological anthropology and estimation of natural human capacities, particularly as reflected in the severity of his late-Augustinian doctrine of original sin, is often criticized for being too pessimistic or even irrelevant to contemporary concerns, it is worth noting that the notion of original sin does name a kind of pathos by which we realize that even best aspects of who we are and what we do are inextricable from injustice and its effects. The bare fact that there is virtually no action that we can take—including spending our time working for environmental justice—that does not benefit from/participate in disordered and unsustainable systems evokes the inevitability of sin in our lives—and perhaps also brings forth the cry for deliverance.
The Joshua reading for this week is ecologically interesting in that it marks the transition of the Israelites from dependence upon the miraculous appearance of manna during their peregrination in the desert to agriculture—once they have successfully brought forth produce from the land, the manna is no longer necessary. This is, in many respects, a praiseworthy achievement, and of a piece with the Israelites taking possession of the land that God has promised them.
However, there is something striking about the fact that the Israelites’ agricultural achievement is marked by a transition away from being fed by the sheer gratuity (not to mention improbability) of God’s manna. Part of what is at play here is a tension that goes back to the stories of humanity transitioning away from the garden in Genesis 2-3. On the one hand, Adam and Eve clearly trespass God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they are expelled from the garden as a result; in the aforementioned Augustinian/Lutheran tradition of “original sin,” this transgression has generally been seen as the root of subsequent human depravity.
On the other hand, within both rabbinical and later Western Enlightenment contexts (as well as in some early Christian church fathers, such as Irenaeus), this move away from the garden was often read as a depiction of the “maturing” of humanity, with all of the promise and peril such maturing holds [cf. Robert Saler, “The Transformation of Reason in Genesis 2-3: Two Options for Theological Interpretation,” Currents in Theology and Mission Vol. 36, No. 4 (August 2009)]. Like a child that is weaned from absolute dependence upon its parents for food, and a young adult who moves from her parents’ home, the Israelites reaching a point of relative self-reliance for providing their own food carries its own sort of potential for both sin and blessedness.
I say “relative,” because—as the rest of Israelite history as recorded in the Old Testament vividly depicts—it is precisely when Israel “forgets” its dependence upon God’s continued mercy and providence that the nation slides into its characteristic evils—idolatry, injustice towards the orphan and the widow, rapacious practices towards the vulnerable. To receive self-sustenance as a right arrogated rather than a gift given is a cornerstone in the construction of sinful systems.
This theme—the perils of self-sustenance—reverberates through the familiar account of the so-called “prodigal son.” In this story, the son’s most significant learning is not his own inability to provide wisely for himself by prematurely spending his inheritance money. Rather, the most significant thing that he discovers is his father’s ongoing willingness to practice sheer gratuity—forgiveness, seemingly excessive celebration, and welcome beyond shame. To the extent that the “father” in the story does indeed signify God, then the message becomes clear—recognizing the ongoing “giftedness” of what we have received is the foundation of right use. Joseph Sittler puts the matter well in his famous sermon “The Care of the Earth:” “Abuse is use without grace . . . . If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment” (Sittler, “The Care of the Earth” in The Care of the Earth, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).
We as humans will build systems of self-reliance, and those systems will both bless and harm. There is inevitability to this, and the preacher should not sugar-coat it. However, preaching on these texts also presents an opportunity for the preacher to invite the congregation into delight for the sheer gratuity of the gifts that God gives us—in our lives, in church, and in creation itself. And cultivation of such delight in the minds and hearts of the congregation may become the occasion by which new possibilities for right use of these gifts occur.