The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series B: 2017-2018

by Sigridur Gudmarsdottir


The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B
With themes from Planet Earth Sunday in the Season of Creation

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Blue planet

“Let me tell you something, the sea, the saltwater, the waves, they are my mother, the sea is my mother, it is my mother’s Ancestor. I know this. I have known this since I was small. Further, I will tell you the sea has names, many names, names for the reefs, names for the sea grass beds, names for the sand bars, and the sea has boundaries, we know these boundaries, they did not come here recently . . . .

White people think the sea is empty, that it has no Law, but the Law and the ceremony is there in the salt water, in the fish, in the sea bids, the dugong and the turtle, it is there and we knowledgeable people are holding it.” (John J. Bradley, “Singing through the Sea: Song, Sea and Emotion,” Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, Equinox, 2008, 18)


Our planet is a blue planet. 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, playful streams rolling down hills, sleepy swamps, raging oceans, roaring glaciers, tiny droplets, heavy rain, still pools and peaceful rivers. The blue planet flows into continuous water cycles of condensation, precipitation, evaporation and convection. The blue planet is the only astral body that we know of that harbors life. Water is life, it flows in our veins, it creates our boundaries, ebbs and flows, and breaks them again.


The text cited in the beginning of the commentary comes from the Northern territory of Australia, south-east of Darwin. The woman speaking about the salt water as her mother is Dinah Norman Marrngawi, a senior elder of the indigenous people of Yanyuwa in Australia. According to John J. Bradley, the Yanyuwas consider themselves to be “saltwater people.” Their homeland long ago was comprised of the Sir Edward Pelley Group of Islands and the coastal regions closest to the islands. They were dislocated by the colonial masters of Australia many hundred years ago to Borroloola, which is more inland. However, their cultural memory, their identity stems from being salt sea people and the name that they have given themselves, li-Anthawirriyarra, means “the people whose spiritual origins are derived from the sea” (Bradley, 17).  Marrngawi speaks about the water bodies as mother and origin. She emphasizes that the oceans have their own laws which is revered by the humans who understand and respect them. Knowing this water-law, revering this blue maternal memory and it boundaries is what makes them wise and knowledgeable.


Chosen for us for Planet Sunday the response from Psalm 146 speak to us about the Creator of heaven and earth. And “the seas and all that is in them,” the psalmist adds. We are used to think about the relationship between God and humans, but the psalmist seems to focus on the relationship between God and the entire blue creation, when he states that God keeps the promises he has made to the heaven, the earth, and the seas. God is faithful to God’s own promises to the blue planet. The psalmist links the human situation to the cosmic order in the next verse. God brings justice, food, freedom, sustenance and healing, for strangers, orphans, widows and outsiders. God who is faithful to God’s own hydraulic promises and natural laws provides ecological justice.


The first textual reading from Isaiah 35 brings hope to the weary. The metaphors of the divine hope are blue, these are metaphors of running and gushing water. Isaiah tells us that God’s salvation are waters breaking forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert, the law of planetary compassion for bodies as well as nature. Likewise, the second reading from the book of James reminds us that all our endeavors are futile if we do not practice compassion. According to James, compassion is not an abstract idea distinct from our behavior. Our actions speak louder than our words.


If our textual readings from the Old and New Testament combine ecological justice and the laws of compassion, the gospel for Planet Sunday takes us back to the maternal. “Let me tell you something, the sea, the saltwater, the waves, they are my mother, the sea is my mother, it is my mother’s Ancestor. I know this. I have known this since I was small,” Marrngawi says, reminding us that the laws of justice and compassion break forth like the sea.


This maternal face belongs to the borderlands, posited in the story where Jesus is leaving his familiar Galilean surroundings to bring hope and joy to people that are ethnically mixed and religiously diverse. Jesus comes to the city of Tyre under cover. He does not want anyone to know his identity. He does not want to be sidetracked. But the stubborn Syrophoenician woman fights for her child and her desperate maternal love breaks forth like water in a desert in the text.


This sea of compassion is resilient, it does not give up; it is so stubborn that it may have made the Son of Man change his mind about healing the Gentiles. Her relentless, active prayers are answered, old boundaries are broken, bodies are healed, faith is restored, and the law of compassion wins.


We do not know the name of the Syrophoenician woman who met Jesus on the edge of the borderlands. We know that she was a mother and had strong, resilient compassion for her child. Her law of love was mirrored by his cosmic compassion that broke forth like water in the desert. Such a planetary love is not empty. It has its own Law, ceremony and practice. And like the sea, it has many names.


Sigridur Gudmarsdottir.