The Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year B

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series B – 2017-18

By Dennis Ormseth

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12 

Psalm 23

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18


A non-too-wise seminarian once remarked that he didn't think he would use the metaphor of the shepherd in his work with confirmands, in as much as in his experience few of them knew what a shepherd did, and if they happened to know, they wouldn't  appreciate being compared to sheep who needed herding. Sheep were for them just very stupid animals. Granted the importance of taking context into consideration in preaching, the metaphor is probably still too valuable as comfort at the hospital bedside or the funeral home to abandon it, at least for older people and those who do have rural roots. Which is a good thing for preaching care of creation, actually, because the metaphor in fact has special value, as a means of linking not only such youth and their urban families, but us all, to the earth. The metaphor is intimately connected to images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character.  In the 23rd Psalm, for instance the pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, Arthur Walker-Jones suggests, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity's relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.”  Accordingly, he urges, the metaphor


. . . could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish.  Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources.  Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God's involvement in nature and history (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).


Walker-Jones' point is well-taken, of course, but the condition he seeks to remedy needs to be considered more fully to take full advantage of the metaphor. Indeed, that very separation between humanity and nature is the more important issue raised by the readings this Sunday in the season of Easter. 


The difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand, as John has it, is that the latter “does not own the sheep”, and “does not care for the sheep.” Those two assertions draw our discussion into the realm of economics. The relationship of the hired hand to the sheep is a matter of self-interested self-preservation: when it serves his interests, he is happy to receive his wage for tending them; when on the contrary, it goes against his interests, as when the wolf threatens, he runs. And so the metaphor discloses the lamentable condition that is close to the heart of the environmental crisis of our world. The sheep, as we commonly encounter them, are part of our human economy. As “hired hands” we know them as such, and perhaps only as such. The reality is that the way the hired hand relates to the sheep is pretty much the way we in our society relate to nature in its entirety. We don't really know it, and we don't take time and effort to get to know it, except in so far as we have special interest and occasion to do so as part of our quest for our own economic well-being. Consequently, in terms of a Senegalese environmentalist's maxim, nature won't really be for us something that we genuinely love: “We won't save places we don't love; we can't love places we don't know; we don't know places we haven't learned” (Baba Dioum, quoted from “Toolkit:  Our Watershed Moment,” available from Minneapolis Area Synod EcoFaith Network). We are, in this perspective, far and away the “hired hands” whose main interest in the sheep is a good supply of lamb chops to eat or wool to keep us warm, when we force them to render up their lives for us.


There is another economy at play in this narrative, however, one with significantly different principles. Like the human economy, this one, which Wendel Berry in his masterful essay “Two Economies” calls the “Great Economy,” which “includes principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” But these principles and patterns differ markedly:  including all things, everything in the Great Economy is “both joined to it and everything else that is in it.” Its scope, in other words, is universal: “[B]oth known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of seriousness and an extremity of humility” (Wendell Berry, Home Economics, North Point Press:  Berkeley, California, 1987, pp. 56-57). Because it includes everything, Berry observes, this Great Economy actually can't be fully known by humans, which means that “humans can live in the Great Economy only with great uneasiness, subject to powers and laws that they can understand only in part” (Berry, p. 57). By necessity, they cannot choose not to live in it, although they “may choose to act as if they do not.” If humans do “choose to live in the Great Economy on its terms, then they must live in harmony with it, maintaining it in trust and learning to consider the lives of the wild creatures” which it also includes (Berry, p. 58).  This inclusivity is temporal as well as spatial; “we cannot foresee an end to it: The same basic stuff is going to be sifting from one form to another, so far as we know, forever” (p. 59).


Both of these two economies concern values, but the values are derived differently: we participate in the “little human economy” by virtue of “factual knowledge, calculation, and manipulation; our participation in the Great Economy also requires those things, but requires as well humility, sympathy, forbearance, generosity, imagination” (p.60-61). And while the human economy “can evaluate, distribute, use, and preserve things of value, it cannot make value,” which originates only in the Great Economy. Indeed, “when humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.” Recognizing that the values of the human economy are in this sense secondary, it must also be managed so as to “make continuously available those values that are primary or given, the secondary values having mainly to do with husbandry and trusteeship. A little economy is obliged to receive them gratefully and to use them in such a way as not to diminish them” (p. 61-62). Indeed, in a passage that leads to an observation crucial for restorative action, Berry remarks that,


. . . a little economy may be said to be good insofar as it perceives the excellence of these benefits and husbands and preserves them.  It is by holding up this standard of goodness that we can best see what is wrong with the industrial economy.  For the industrial economy does not see itself as a little economy; it sees itself as the only economy. It makes itself thus exclusive by the simple expedient of valuing only what it can use—that is, only what it can regard as “raw material” to be transformed mechanically into something else.  What it cannot use, it characteristically describes as “useless,” “worthless,” “random,” or “wild,” and gives it some such name as “chaos,” “disorder,” or “waste”—and thus ruins it or cheapens it in preparation for eventual use (Berry, pp. 64-65).


Like the hired hand of the metaphor, we abandon such goods to the wolves that shadow our industry and commerce.


The remedy of this absence of care comes when we acknowledge the existence of the Great Economy, and we are astonished and frightened to see how completely the industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy. The “invariable mode” of the industrial economy's relation “both to nature and to human culture, we see, is that of mining: withdrawal from a limited fund until that fund is exhausted.” In relationship to land, for instance, the industrial economy “removes natural fertility and human workmanship,” reducing the land “to abstract marketable quantities of length and width.” We would like to make our control of “the forces of nature” complete, without any limits on human capacity to employ them. We assume that such control and such freedom are our “rights,” which seems to ensure that our means of control (of nature and of all else that we see as alien) will be violent . . . . Nuclear holocaust, if it comes, will be the final detonation of an explosive economy  (Berry, pp. 68-69).


Seeing the human economy “as the only economy,” we regard its errors as political failures, and we continue to talk only about “recovery.” When we think of the little human economy in relation to the Great Economy, on the other hand, we “begin to understand our errors for what they are and to see the qualitative meanings of our quantitative measures,” and the “industrial wastes and losses not as 'trade-offs' or 'necessary risks' but as costs that, like all costs, are chargeable to somebody, sometime” (Berry, p. 71). This changes everything in our reading of the economy:


We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the Great Economy, the loser's losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption, which both defines and requires neighborly love. Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a “side” that we can join nor are there such “sides” within it. Thus, it is not the “sum of its parts” but a membership of parts inextricably joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole” (Berry, pp. 72-73). 


In the “membership of the Great Economy everything signifies; whatever we do counts.  If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys.  We can presume that we are outside the membership that includes us, but that presumption only damages the membership—and ourselves, of course, along with it” (Berry, pp.74-75).


The Good Shepherd, it can now be recognized, is truly and fully at home in the Great Economy. For Jesus' statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  The reading of Psalm 23 underscores this insight. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the  shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel's proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh's inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61).


The “good” or model shepherd thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his] own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God's command.


The Great Economy clearly participates in the divine economy of the Trinity, grounded in God's active love for God's people. We've already heard about this economy this Easter Season, as we took note of it in our comment on the readings for the Second and Third Sundays.  It is the economy of “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” in the words of M. Douglas Meeks, which was manifest in the sharing of goods in the early Christian community (Acts 4:32-34).  It is the economy in which


. . . God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God's act of liberating/creating is God's suffering and self-giving. God's work of suffering is the source of God's claim in, that is, God's property in creation. God brings the world into being through God's costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God's because God's power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God's grace.


God's owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God's possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113-14). It is the economy of love reflected in the great summation of the gospel in the second lesson, “we know love by this, that Jesus lays down his life—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17).


It also relates to the economy of the Triune God as described both by Mark Wallace in his Fragments of the Spirit and by Elizabeth Johnson in her Ask the Beasts, which we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. As Wallace observed, “Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit's presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit:  Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:  Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136). It is filled by this Spirit that Peter addressed those authorities of the temple who objected to “a good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:8-9). And as Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization, Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ's resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts:  Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury:

London, 2014, p.208).


Here in the Easter Season we in fact might well identify the Great Economy with the Economy of the Resurrection in which all creation is raised up. In this Economy, the separation of humanity from nature is overcome, and if we trust our metaphorical imagination, we can learn to see in moments of revelatory import signs of death and resurrection that are built into the creation. Berry's favorite example is topsoil: We cannot speak of topsoil, he writes,


. . . indeed we cannot know what it is, without acknowledging at the outset that we cannot make it . . . For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call “unearthly”: It is making life out of death . . . . A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.”


Yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus wonderfully involves all creation. And no less wonderfully, there is also the mystery of the sheep who are so much at home in the creation that they virtually disappear into it: a small flock of ewes, Berry has observed,


. . . fitted properly into a farm's pattern, virtually disappears into the farm and does it good, just as it virtually disappears into the time and energy economy of a farm family and does it good. And, properly fitted into the farm's pattern, the small flock virtually disappears from the debit side of the farm's accounts but shows up plainly on the credit side. This “disappearance” is possible, not to the extent that the farm is a human artifact, a belonging of the human economy, but to the extent that it remains, by its obedience to natural principle, a belonging of the Great Economy (Berry, p. 64).


Not bad for “stupid animals.” We humans should do so well.