Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Lent in Year C 2016
by Dennis Ormseth
Second Sunday in Lent in Year C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3:17- 4:1
Jesus' encounter with “some Pharisees” in the Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent serves to draw the reader into the atmosphere of fear that will haunt Luke's narrative from this point forward. Whether or not the Pharisees genuinely intend to befriend Jesus is doubtful; more likely is that Luke's report is intended to remind the reader that the mission of Jesus takes place under threat of the royal tyrant who killed John the Baptist. As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, the Pharisees have heretofore rejected Jesus as a prophet, and “after his attack on them, have a 'deep resentment' against him which they put into action by seeking to trap him in what he says (11:53)” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 221).
Thus the report of Herod's intent to kill Jesus illustrates well how the domination system functions to suppress prophetic disruption: laying hold of Herod's reputation for brutality, the Pharisees seek to get Jesus to cease and desist from his mission. As Johnson describes the exchange,
we discover the malice and hypocrisy of the Pharisaic message. If Jesus “must” (dei) suffer in the city, that means that it is God's plan and that he is a prophet. But we have already learned about the lawyers and Pharisees that they reject prophets and “reject God's plan” (7:30). So the message about Herod is in reality a test. If Jesus does seek to save himself, he is exposed as a fraudulent prophet. If he does go on to the city, they will indeed need to confront his claims explicitly and reject them explicitly . . . [T]his message is a helpful ploy. They may yet turn Jesus from his appointed path” (Johnson, p. 221).
As before at the beginning of this chapter, however, when Jesus was similarly informed of Pilate's murder of Galileans, (part of next Sunday's Gospel reading, we note), his reply is a stunning refusal to heed their duplicitous concern: “Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem'” (13:32-33). He thus counters the threat, first by exposing it as a stratagem of a wily fox meant to intimidate him—(Is it perhaps these Pharisees themselves who are the fox?). And, secondly, by pointing to his works of healing, for which any truly responsible person of authority would in fact be grateful. Indeed, he counters, it is their rejection of him that endangers the people: He would be for Jerusalem as a hen with its brood, sheltering them under her wings—an image of God's compassion and protection, as at Deuteronomy 32:11 and Psalm 91:4. Their rejection of him, on the other hand, will lead to the abandonment of the people's house, a prediction of the destruction of the Temple, and so the abandonment of the people by God (Johnson, p. 216, 219, translates v. 35 with an awkward passive sense, “Look, your house is being left,” and interprets it as either a performative pronouncement, meaning the rejection of the people who reject the prophet,” or as “a prophetic prediction of the destruction of the Temple.”)
Jesus' twofold response to the Pharisees' attempt to intimidate him thus models his refusal to be deterred in the fulfillment of his mission. As with Satan in the wilderness, he resists that temptation to seek his own well-being, and he continues on his way of healing. And at the heart of that response is clearly something fundamental to his mission. In his commentary on this passage, David Tiede points out that Luke is concerned here to “indicate that Jesus was obedient only to God's will as he set his face “to go” to Jerusalem. His “word plays on the Greek terms ‘to go’ . . . and ‘to will’ or ‘intend’ hold the passage together” and drive the action forward. The exchange represents a “powerful clash of wills and intentions” between Jesus and his opponents, in which “Jesus' 'action' and 'being directed' are a unity of will” (David L.Tiede, Augburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988. p. 256-7). His action in resisting the joint domination project of Herod and the Pharisees is sustained by his obedience to God's will.
As with the readings for the First Sunday of Lent, the account of God's covenant with Abram in our first reading provides textual context which further illuminates the significance of this encounter and Jesus' obedience to God's will for our relation to God's creation. At stake in this narrative is God's promise to Abram of progeny and land, for which, as Abram points out, contrary to God's pledge (“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”) he has at this point no evidence of God's will to keep. God's response is again structured in two parts, first the reiteration of the promise regarding progeny, accompanied by a sign, directing Abram to behold the stars. We readily recognize the phenomenon: the multitude of stars in the heavens inspires awe at the beauty and the plenitude of God's creation. And accordingly, the text tells us in a passage that will echo later in the writings of the Apostle Paul, and subsequently in the reformation led by Martin Luther: Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6).
The implications of fulfilling this promise are nonetheless fraught with conflict. The text next turns to the promise of land, which is complicated by the reality that the land is already filled with the nations that are listed at v.19 (not included in our reading). The land was already as full as Sarah's womb was empty. The sign in this instance comes in the form of a dream in the darkness of a deep sleep, following on what is for modern readers a mysterious animal sacrifice which God directs Abram to make. The ritual of cutting animal carcasses in two, laying them out over against each other, Frederick Niedner explains, is
a covenant ceremony of an ancient type in which parties pledge to keep their word to one another on penalty of death. After Abram cuts in half the animals God has directed him to collect, God in effect declares, “If I fail to keep my word about your having all this land, you may do to me as we have done to these animals here slaughtered (Frederick A Niedner, “First Sunday of Lent,” in New Proclamation, Year 2003-2004, Advent through Holy Week, Harold W. Rant, ed, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, p. 156).
The “deep and terrifying darkness” of Abram's dream evokes the genuine terror attending to the prospect of taking possession of the land as God promises. But the fire of God proceeds through the bloody halves of sacrifice animals, anticipating the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, led by a cloud and a pillar of fire through the two halves of the sea. There will indeed be a “tremendous clash of wills and intentions” before this narrative is played out. But there is a way through the problem of possession of the land to the enjoyment of its blessings by the children of Abraham. Against the fear and doubt with which the episode began, Abram's faith is strengthened by this image of the absolute will of God to fulfill God's promises.
So also does Jesus go to Jerusalem, impelled by a confidence in God's eventual blessing that is like unto Abram's. Jesus, Luke tells us, goes in confidence that he will be greeted with the hosannas announcing God's blessing on “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (13:35). Terry Fretheim makes a distinction between blessings that are “constitutive,” as opposed to merely “creational,” that helps us see the significance of this blessing:
The creational blessings are life-enabling and life-enhancing, but they are finally not sufficient for the fullest possible life. The constitutive blessings mediated through the elect are essential if the best life possible is to be experienced for everyone. They bring focus and intensity to the blessings of creation, make them more extensive and abundant, and decisively give new shape to both the human self and the larger community. Through relationships with the chosen family, life for individuals and communities has the potential of becoming even more correspondent to God's will for goodness and well-being in creation . . . . The larger issue at stake in the divine choice of this family is a universal one: the reclamation of the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life (Terrence E Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament; A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 107).
The necessity of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem is of the order of the Abrahamic, constitutive blessing. He goes to Jerusalem as Abram went down into Egypt and returns, trusting in God's promises to bring him through the darkness of conflict over possession and control of the land. He thus carries forward the vocation of bearers of God's covenantal promise. In and through this journey, God is working to address larger issues than simply the bad behavior of Herod and the treachery of the Pharisees. Dwelling in the land is creational blessing; dwelling in it in a way that is beneficial to all of its inhabitants and its neighbors is blessing of another order.
Accordingly, what a church brings to its community “in the name of the Lord” ought to aspire to such higher order blessing. This is an important realization for people of faith dwelling in the United States of America. As is commonly observed, and today much emphasized in relationship to our will and capacity for welcoming refugees and migrants, we are a nation of immigrant peoples. It is a matter of great creational blessing to live here and enjoy the land's great bounty—at least for those of us who are privileged to live in communities whose wealth and educational level can be counted upon for a high standard of living. But who will provide for us the Abrahamic blessing that expands the circle of well-being to include all? Who does so sustainably in relationship to the land on into our common future? The episode of our Gospel suggests it could be the followers of Jesus, the Christian churches; and in truth, the first reading suggests we could be that in concert with other assemblies of Abrahamic faith. The point is, how do the people of God become a constitutive blessing in the land, rather than just another group in contention for dwelling space and the creational blessings that accrue to that space as we bring it under our control?
Our country's history is marked by the contentions that are always more about domination of territory for the blessings it provides than about the general well-being that they can be used to create. We all have our battle fields and monuments, our flag poles, and our competing spires rising over the landscape to mark our claims to dominance; what are the strategies we need to engage to order to, in Fretheim's words, “reclaim the entire creation in view of sin and its deleterious effects upon life”? The readings have at least given us a place to start: attend to the marvelous works of creation to be inspired by the awesome and gracious creativity of our Creator; resist the politics of fear by carrying out acts of healing in creation wherever there is opportunity, whether for humankind or other-kind: resist the threats of the wily fox, be the sheltering wings for frightened and hurting people, whether they be “our own” or “those others;” pray with the psalmist for God to “teach us God's way and lead us on a level path,” always hoping to see “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And above all, be both patient and persevering: “be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:11-14). “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way,” says Jesus. On the third day his work will be done. We see the pattern: the promises of God are about life after death, about new life in the land because the power of death has been faced in faith, and about the wonderful new possibilities that rise on the other side.
Suggested Hymn of the Day: ELW 327 “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow.”
Prayer Petition: God of all creation, you are the stronghold of our lives. Shield us from the temptation to give into the destructive powers that would intimidate us. By your promises of loving care, draw us out of fearful responses to the crises of racial justice and ecological harm that confront us. Show us your way through them to reconciliation with all those with whom you share our homeland, and to restoration of the earth on whose well-being our common life depends. Lord in your mercy.