The kingdom of God is a new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Third Sunday after Pentecost in Year B
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
The lectionary for the Third Sunday after Pentecost includes two readings, the Gospel and the second lesson, the interpretation of which present clear choices for or against a mandate for care of creation. First, with respect to the interpretation of Jesus' parables in Mark, and more generally as well, Ched Myers raises the issue of the popular expository tradition of seeing parables as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” This, Myers insists,
. . . is exactly what they are not! The parables are perfectly consistent with Mark's overall strategy of realistic narrative, in which any and all apocalyptic symbolics are kept 'grounded.' Jesus insists upon articulating the 'mystery of the kingdom of God' in utterly mundane, indeed agrarian terms: it is like this! In describing the frustrations and hopes of any peasant farmer, Mark's Jesus is not exalting the terrestrial into the heavens, or shrouding the plain and common in arcane mysticism, but rather bringing 'theology' to earth in a concrete discourse intelligible to the poor (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, p. 173).
In keeping with his political reading of the Gospel, Myers emphasizes the political significance of this perspective. Jesus' preaching of the kingdom “envisions the abolition of the oppressive relationships of production that determined the horizons of the Palestinian farmer's social world. Such images strongly suggest that Mark is articulating an ideology of the land, and the revolutionary hopes of those who work it.” Modern interpreters who romanticize the “earthly stories of rural Palestine” and probe for “heavenly meanings” miss the point entirely (Myers, p. 177). That Mark’s narrative world corresponds “to the main social spheres of Palestinian Judaism (land and table, house and village, synagogue) indicates his concern to apply the kingdom to the whole of public life. . . . The narrative stresses therefore that the messianic community represents both an alternative kinship/family model (3:35) and a new political identity, the 'confederacy' (3:13)” (Myers, p. 184)
While agreeing with Myers thus far, we would extend his emphasis on the importance of the agrarian context of Jesus' preaching to include additional values typically missing in the modern, urban culture. As Norman Wirzba writes,
Agrarian life, with its concrete and practical engagement with the forces of life and death, makes possible the intimate knowledge of and sympathy for the earth that are indispensable in the care of creation. Urban life, on the other hand, since it limits the vital connection between humanity and the earth, has the potential to thoroughly insulate us from the grace of life and health. Rather than promoting the sense of our interdependence with each other and with the whole of creation, urban life daily confronts us with the work of our own hands and so gives rise to the illusion that we live from and for ourselves. . . . Agrarian life, because of its difficulty, makes it more likely that we will become attuned to the cruciform character of creation, to the sense that the way of life is through suffering and sacrifice (The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 72-73).
With little sense for “our vital connection with the earth” as “not simply a resource, but rather a source of inexhaustible life,” in the presence of which any successful endeavor has to be seen as “the result of cooperation with a goodness that is already there,” we are set up to miss the meaning of parables like those in the fourth chapter of Mark:
At the root of agrarian life we find the experience of waiting and watching, of letting go and trusting the grace of life to accomplish what we ourselves cannot perform. Farmers, though they prepare the soil, plant the seed, work diligently to eradicate pests, understand that they themselves do not cause the seed to grow. The power of life is entirely beyond their or anyone's control. They know themselves to live at the mercy of forces of life and death that comprehend us, even if we do not comprehend them (Wirzba, pp.73-4).
Do we read Mark 4:26-29 as anticipating an apocalyptic harvest yet to come (emphasis on the last line, “he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come”)? Or does the “vocation of the disciple/reader” rather lie, “not in trying to provoke the harvest (for that happens 'of itself'), but in tending to the “sowing,” the point of the harvest image being to assure the listener that Yahweh's judgment upon the powers and their system will indeed come, and so give the lie to the counter assertion of 'realists' that nothing will ever change,” as Myers suggest? (Myers, p. 179). With emphasis on “the earth produces of itself. . . ,” might not the parable of the unknowing sower rather envision the manifestation of God within the ordinary processes of life, as Bernard Brandon Scott suggests: “These narratives in their literalness are metaphors for God. The God of the everyday need only be seen in the everyday” (Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1989, p. 371). And a hearer who knows that mustard is an “unclean” plant (read “invasive species” in current terminology) that nonetheless can grow into a large bush that—if more humble than the imperial cedar of Lebanon, nonetheless gives ample shelter for the birds—will expect the kingdom to become, not another oppressive empire, but rather a new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation (See our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A, 2011 for this interpretation based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52).
The second lesson for this Sunday, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17, presents a parallel choice of interpretations with respect to the crucial verse of interest, 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” Does the concept of “a new creation” refer “primarily to the transformation of the whole cosmos or [merely] to the conversion and renewal of individual human being, as a recent discussion frames the issue?” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 167). The latter, more anthropological reading is argued by Moyer Hubbard on the grounds that “Paul's focus on the Spirit as the bringer of new life” calls for a view of conversion “as a complete and irrevocable break with one's former way of life.” Others, including David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate, on the other hand, contend that Paul's theocentric and eschatological perspective requires a fully cosmic reading of the concept. “The Christ-event,” they argue, “in Paul's view not only makes possible the transformation of individual believers but also, and more fundamentally, marks the decisive eschatological interruption which announces the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. . . .” The “new creation” both of 2 Corinthians 5 and of Galatians 6:15 “may plausibly be construed as focused less on the individual's new identity . . . and more on the sense that what God has achieved (or is in the process of bringing about) in Christ is a cosmic “new creation”: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in, this new creation, in which the former distinctions (between Jew and Gentile, etc. no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, et al, pp. 168-70).
Taken together, these rival interpretations of the Gospel and second lesson for the Third Sunday after Pentecost support or discourage a firm mandate for the care of creation. Either God is in the midst of all things, working to bring about the restoration of the cosmos with all its inhabiting creatures OR God is present only to human individuals, who by virtue of their conversion by the Holy Spirit have come to believe “heavenly truths,” to which they in turn become witnesses in faith and life. While neither the Psalm nor the first lesson from Ezekiel 17 can be called on to definitively settle the question, at least for this Sunday, the psalm's sense that “the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” because they are “planted in the house of the Lord” lends considerable weight to a more embedded, ecologically, and even panentheistic reading. Likewise, the image of “planting” a “sprig from the lofty top of a cedar “ on the “mountain height of Israel” (from Ezekiel 17) imagines God as a gardener who brings things to new life, providing habitat for creatures of the earth, both human and non-human.
Congregations with a concern to promote care of creation will, of course, prefer the more agrarian and cosmological readings. Especially those churches situated in urban settings might also do well to support this preference by providing opportunities for their members and neighbors to experience the conditions and values of agrarian culture, an alternative youth camp or mission trip experience, for instance, that would bring participants into relationships with farm life in rural, third-world settings. Congregations with open land will provide space and encouragement for community vegetable gardens; children of both the congregation and the neighborhood will find great delight in actually sowing and harvesting their own seed. Taking such actions together as a congregation promotes awareness of the community of Christ as a community that is fully integrated into the great community of God's creation, and participant in God's work of restoring the cosmos.