The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany in Year A

The people's care for creation is grounded in God's care of creation.

Readings for Year A - 2013-2014

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary by Dennis Ormseth

 

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany in Year A

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40 (33)

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

 

The Gospel for this Sunday contains more examples of what Warren Carter describes as "the exceeding righteousness or life of justice" which Jesus sets forth in his Sermon on the Mount. As with those lessons from the previous two Sundays, Jesus here cites scripture and then proceeds to intensify its ethical demand. As Carter characterizes these sayings, violent retribution, punitive court actions, and the corrupt imposition of imperial power are to be countered by non-violent resistance to a domination system that aims to humiliate those it holds in subjection. As an alternative to that system, Jesus envisions " a system intent not on securing wealth but on ensuring justice and economic equality." This system will provide opportunities for adequate support for all, by means of "creative, imaginative strategies which break the circle of violence," and empower the subjugated to act with "dignity and humanity in the midst of and against injustice and oppression which seem permanent" (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY, 2000, p. 144, 150-54). The reading concludes by articulating what might be regarded as the guiding principle of this life of righteousness: love not only your neighbor; love also 'your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Carter, p. 154-55).

 

What is of particular interest here from the perspective of care of creation is that, as Carter puts it, "the purpose of such indiscriminate and active love is so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." Indeed, the basis for such love is "God's gracious and indiscriminate action as creator." Carter explains: 

 

God's life-giving and loving actions in creation attest to God's treatment of humans. Just as God makes the sun rise/dawn, Jesus the light dawns (same verb) in the darkness of oppression, sin, and death (4:15-16). Disciples continue his mission as light (5:14). God gifts life indiscriminately and mercifully through sun and rain to all people (Ps 145:9; Wisdom 15:1), regardless of moral status (evil, good; righteous, unrighteous). Though the evil and unrighteous are enemies of God's purposes, God's comprehensive and undeserved kindness extends to all. Disciples are to imitate God's loving actions (Carter, pp. 155-56).

 

Love for one's enemies, in other words, entails seeing them as part of God's beloved creation. To love of one's "enemy" involves responsibility for sustaining that alien life as part of the world God graces with the necessities of life. In terms of contemporary ecological idiom, we might say that loving one's neighbor or enemy is to see them as part of an inter-dependent system of nature in which all creatures flourish together. But does the Scripture allow for such an interpretation? We maintain in what follows that it does.

 

It is significant that for Jesus such love represents perfection like God's own (5:48): action towards one's fellow human being, whether neighbor or enemy, is to be  consonant with the divine will toward creation in general. The importance of this point is underscored by our first reading from Leviticus. While Jesus' insistence on such love for one's enemy is presented as in some sense an advance beyond the commands of Torah, the reading suggests that strictly speaking such is not the case. While the terminology differs,  the counsel here also is for likeness to God: "All the congregation of Israel," Moses is to say, "shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (19:2). And although this command is applied chiefly in terms of cultic actions and social relationships, the people's relationship to Earth and other creatures are clearly included within its scope. In our reading, for example, harvesting the land is to be done in such a way as to provide food for the "poor and the alien" (9:19). The point is similar to the one Jesus makes: God's providential provisioning is intended for the benefit of all, irrespective of economic status or ethnicity.  And verses following closely on our reading identify a more general concern to live in accord with God's creation with respect to domestic animals and plant life (19:19, 23-25).

 

The people's care for creation, whether humankind or other kind, this suggests, is grounded in God's care of creation. The command to be perfect or holy as God is perfect and holy shifts the relationship between humans and creation from an ethical framework to a theological one. Walter Brueggemann argues for the importance of this distinction in noting that there are two trajectories of command in the Torah. The first, lodged primarily in Deuteronomy, leads to an emphasis on social justice, consisting in a "social practice in which the maintenance, dignity, security, and well-being of every member of the community are guarded in concrete ways" (Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp. 187-8 ).

 

The second trajectory, lodged primarily in the Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch, is framed primarily in terms of purity. While the first reflects the "needs and sensibilities of the economically disadvantaged," this tradition "reflects the theological sensibilities and needs of those who experience life as profoundly disordered, and who have no doubt (and so testify) that Yahweh has provided concrete disciplines whereby the life-threatening disorder may be overcome." Whether the disorder is cosmic, social, or behavioral, one might "look to Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, to counter the chaos with a powerful ordering and continual reordering of creation." Importantly, such "threats of disorder are not primarily understood to be moral," but rather "palpable, material, physical, and can be managed only by careful and powerful attention" (Brueggemann, pp. 191). Here the corresponding social practices include "procedures, practices, and agents by which an ordered, reliable, livable life is maintained and guaranteed" in "zones of holiness" inhabited by Yahweh, which "prevent the disordering power of impurity from disrupting the life of Israel." When "inevitably, order is not maintained, impurity enters into the life of the community, so that processes need to be initiated in order to overcome the threat to community" and to institute the reestablishment of purity. The material nature of the threat, however, suggests a strategy of containment of the contamination, as opposed to one of ritual removal and restoration.

 

Significantly, Brueggemann suggests as contemporary analogues the need to address the "danger posed by nuclear waste products that cannot be willed away but must be managed, and that persist as threat for all foreseeable future", and management of pollutants like mercury, the threat of which "cannot be wholly detoxified, even by our technological finesse" (Brueggemann, p. 192). We might add the even more difficult management of the perverse threat of carbon dioxide, also a naturally occurring substance which in excessive concentrations in the atmosphere contributes massively to destructive changes in climate. While the antidote to such disorder in Israel was "to sort out and make distinctions, so that nothing is wrongly mixed that will disturb the order that belongs to the holiness of the Creator," these contemporary threats are not likely to be successfully addressed by the development of new cultic barriers set up to protect against them, however carefully defined.  In the face of such difficulties it is understandable why Christian environmentalists turn rather to the resources of the first trajectory, and make their appeal for creation care almost exclusively on the basis of standards of social justice. This is especially true, given that, as Brueggeman notes, conventional Christian interpretation of the Old Testament in general is "likely to favor the justice tradition at the expense of the holiness tradition," under the assumption that "the ethical commands of the Old Testament continue to pertain to Christians, while the cultic commands can be left behind" (Brueggemann, pp. 193-4)

 

Brueggemann resists this development, however, for reasons that are relevant to our concern for care of creation. Both trajectories, he urges,

 

belong crucially to the horizon of command for the God of Israel. The justice command witnesses to Yahweh's preferential option for the ordering of a neighborly community. The holiness commands evidence the claim that God's preoccupation is with God's own life, which must remain protected from all profanation. One tradition looks toward the neighbor; the other looks toward the well-being of Yahweh.

 

Maintenance of the tension between these two interpretive trajectories, he suggests, "is crucial in Israel's testimony that God is 'for us,' but that God is also jealously for God's own self, and takes with dreadful seriousness every threat of profanation to God's own life (cf. Ezek 35;22-23.)" (Brueggemann, p. 193). God's own relationship with the creation as its creator, we might say, is as important as God's relationship with us; the creation's righteous ordering, independently of our place in it, is the unceasing object of God's active love. Thus, when we see that "the Christian community continued to value the holiness commands,"  as we do in Jesus' own word from this Sunday's Gospel with its link between holiness and the order of creation, we need to carefully assess its continued significance for us. Brueggemann suggests that the trajectory can keep the commands of justice taken by themselves from becoming "separated from the theological, Jahwistic matrix in which they are given to Israel" and moving "in the direction of a purely political program," a common weakness of much church-based environmental activism. In place of having always to move from social justice to embrace eco-justice, our care of creation might be more effectively grounded in God's love for the whole creation. And perhaps most significantly, the concern for holiness provides an entry into the deep anxiety concerning disorder in relationship to various changes in contemporary life (Brueggemann, pp194-95).

 

Brueggeman illustrates the importance of these  points with reference to the church's struggle over homosexuality: while the purity trajectory of the text "provides no warrant for exclusionary ethical decisions in the face of the gospel," he writes, it "may help us understand pastorally the anxiety produced by perceived and experienced disorder" (Brueggemann, p. 196). May it not similarly help us understand the anguish of those who experience the destructive impacts of pollution of various kinds on the order of creation that sustains all creaturely life? It has the possibility of putting the church in touch with the deep sense of loss, grief, and anger on the part of those for whom the earth and sea and all its creatures are truly sacred, and whose death is experienced as irreparable loss and senseless sacrifice to the idols of human greed and hubris. It will surely lead the church into a deeper understanding of the nature of creation's life-giving order, just as it did for those priests charged with preserving the sanctity of Israel's worship of Yahweh,  inspiring them to construct the profound reaffirmation of divine order  that we still have in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis. 

 

A powerful instance of such thinking is the bio-regional pastoral letter of Roman Catholic bishops in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, "The Columbia River Watershed:  Realities and Possibilities." "We're trying to establish a sacredness in the world around us," one of its authors explains, to which Larry Rasmussen adds:

 

establishing such sacredness assumes the lead tenet of all, not only Christian, religious sacramentalism: Material reality bears a value humans share and name but do not bestow. Such value is inclusive of all being and the manifestation of "the life-creating, sustaining, and redeeming presence and promise" of the divine throughout creation. Sometimes called the 'sacramental principle,' the conviction is that life-affirming grace is present to and through creation as God's own abiding presence "for, with, and within the past, present and future of creation in its natural-ecological and socio-historical dimensions" (Larry Rasmussen, Earth Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York: Oxford University Press. 2013, pp. 257-8).

 

This understanding is more fully developed in the pastoral letter of the U. S. Catholic Conference, "Renewing the Earth: An Invitation to Reflection and Action in Light of Catholic Social Teaching." As  Rasmussen points out, this statement acknowledges that the environmental crisis  is so daunting as to require conversion, in this instance "a conversion to Earth and God in the same moment and together."

 

But where is the power to change hearts? "'In the sacramental universe itself,' the bishops answer.  Nature bears God's presence and power. . . Those who reverence God's presence in creation and understand themselves as part and parcel of the world as sacrament will be moved to care for creation as 'the sacred trust' it is, the bishops contend.  In a time when humans are estranged from 'the natural scale and rhythms of life on earth' by economic and technological super-development, 'a vision of a sacramental universe. . . can contribute to making the earth a home for the human family once again" (Rasmussen, pp. 261-2).

 

A sensibility shared, in Rasmussen's view,  with the teachings of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism,  and Eastern Orthodoxy, this sacramentalism's "most emphatic note" is well expressed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's conclusion to a "Wall Street Journal editorial: 'For if life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it.'" Rasmussen underlines the claim with  "sacramentalism's most emphatic note: This extravagant and indivisible life is a freely offered gift of God and the medium of grace, a gift ritually borne into the worshipful presence of God and renewed there in contemplative and liturgical practices" (Rasmussen, p. 263).

 

It is worth noting in this context that our second reading describes the community of Jesus' followers in Corinth as God's temple: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16). With ancient Israel and the followers of Jesus in the early church, we, too, might "look to Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, to counter the chaos with a powerful ordering and continual reordering of creation," and so be caught up both in the beauty of God's perfection and in our participation in God's restoration of creation.

 

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

 

 

 

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