Season of Creation
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Hear the Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa
1 Timothy 2:1-7 (Roman Catholic, too)
Luke 16:1-13 (Roman Catholic, too)
Traditionally there has been a split in South Africa when it comes to environmental issues. The late Steve De Gruchy explained that we have two agendas – firstly what the refers to as the “brown agenda” the traditional development agenda – concerned with poverty – housing , sanitation, unemployment. The second agenda is the “green agenda” and this has characteristically been the agenda of people who are not poor – “greens are concerned with saving the whale or the rhino, protecting endemic flowers, removing alien species and preventing urbanization. But beyond the fads of suburban elites, we must acknowledge that the mature green agenda focuses on such things as climate change, access to water, reliance on fossil fuels, erosion of top soil, dumping of toxic waste and deforestation. While we may hold that such concerns are born of the privilege that the non-poor have for thinking about things other than poverty, that in itself does not make these concerns any less correct. Any reading of the environmental data will make it unquestionably clear that these are fundamental issues that also strike at the heart of social regeneration, for they are precisely concerned with the sustainability of society into the next generation. And for those who believe that God has created the earth good, and that we human beings hold it in stewardship for the next generations, the green agenda is also of deep significance for Christian believers In our search for social regeneration, then, Christians and others are confronted with these two agendas – the brown agenda with its focus on poverty, and the green agenda with its focus on the environment.
The solution he argues is to develop an “olive agenda” – “the mix of green and brown suggests an olive agenda; which in turn provides a remarkably rich metaphor – the olive – that holds together that which religious and political discourse rends apart: earth, land, climate, labour, time, family, food, nutrition, health, hunger, poverty, power and violence.”[i]
Pope Francis brings these two agendas together as he challenges us to “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” [ii]
Hearing the Word
Comments on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Three voices can be heard in this passage. Firstly there is the voice of Jeremiah himself, in anguish over the plight of God’s people. He pleads with God to end their suffering. Secondly there is the voice of the people of Israel who complain that God is absent, their harvest has failed and a hard winter is ahead of them. Thirdly there is the voice of God, angry because the Israelites have abandoned him to serve other gods. Jeremiah feels both the pain of the people of Israel and the broken heart of God at the lack of his people’s obedience.
In the Bible communal suffering is understood to be caused by being estranged from God through unrighteousness and injustice. It would seem that the solution to the pain would be for the people of Israel to repent of their ways, and turn back to God. But they seem to be paralyzed, fearing that God has totally abandoned them. And so Jeremiah longs to be the mediator – bringing them back to God. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Balm is an aromatic, medicinal substance derived from plants. Gilead was an area east of the Jordan River, well known for its spices and ointments. The “balm of Gilead” was, therefore, a high-quality ointment with healing properties. The Bible uses the term “balm of Gilead” metaphorically as an example of something with healing or soothing powers.
His tears become a symbol of balm and healing, bringing peace and also rain soaking the drought stricken fields. Tears are a symbol of repentance and also of healing and new life. [iii]
Comments on Psalm 79:1-9
This Psalm is also a lament. This time they do not mourn the drought and failed harvest, but the destruction of God’s temple. The Psalm is very graphic, describing the horror of the disaster, bodies eaten by birds, human flesh attacked by wild animals, blood pouring like water. The suffering is too great and the people cannot cope any longer. They beg for forgiveness. “Help us and deliver us” (v 9). Later on at the end of the Psalm they express their confidence that God will heal and bring new life “we your people the sheep of your pasture will praise you for ever” (v 13), Lamentation and confession is cathartic and the first step towards healing.
Comments on 1 Timothy 2:1-7
This passage reminds us that the Church’s prayers should be global in their scope. Supplication, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings are to be made for everyone (v. 1) so that must include the poor, the needy and victims of injustice and environmental degradation. Prayer for ‘those who hold power kings and those in high positions’ (v. 2) is directed to ‘a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ for everyone. Taken more widely, we look to our leaders to facilitate a quiet and peaceable life for those who are victims of injustice, and to do so with an eye to the flourishing of creation that makes this possible. Peace and prosperity in the Biblical understanding is ‘shalom’ very different from the ‘prosperity’ gospel that is often preached which equates prosperity with worldly possessions. A healthy environment and a just society are both necessary for such an outcome. Poverty and environmental degradation go hand in hand. As Pope Francis says in the Laudato Si “The poor and the earth are crying out”[iv]
The passage reminds us that prayers should not just focus on our own list of petitions and those close to us, but that we must remember that we are part of the global community and pray for the Earth community.[v]
Comments on Luke 16:1-13
The shrewd manager (or the unjust steward)
If there was a contest for the strangest parable, this one would win it! Jesus’ encouragement to “make friends by means of mammon” (translated in the NRSV as ‘make friends by means of dishonest wealth” is hard to understand! The central character of the story appears to be being commended for dodgy deals or acting ‘shrewdly” (v 8).
The context of Luke 16 is money- there are two stories – the dishonest Steward and the Rich man and Lazarus, and this should be the context of our discussion. Luke generally has harsh things to say about the rich:
- He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (1:53)
- Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (6:24)
According to Luke, being rich is not a good thing. This is probably because in first century Palestine to be rich often meant exploiting somebody through land foreclosures, charging interest , or collaborating with the ruling Romans.
The manager faces economic ruin and so he decides to reduce the debts of those who owe his master. According to the Old Testament forgiving debts is a morally good thing to do, even though the motives are selfish. That the rich man commends the manager is striking; should we accept this commendation? Jesus calls the manager ‘adikia’ – literally unjust – so what does the story really mean then?
The point of the story is not to emulate any character. The rich man is evil. The manager is equally evil, despite his reduction of debts, which is only enacted to save his own skin (an act that earns the admiration of the evil master!)
What is important is to look at Jesus comments that follow the story: “For the sons of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (16:8). This is so true – people take advantage of the systems of this world to benefit themselves, and Christians should have different values.
So then what should we make of Jesus’ advice to “… make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”? Is Jesus not telling us to follow the example of the dishonest manager? No, .the manager made “friends” in order to be repaid in social dividends whereas throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus teaches that making “friends” was to be done without hope of reciprocation, we are only freed from the power of mammon when we are free to give it away:
- Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (6:30)
- But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great. (6:35)
Jesus is instructing us to do precisely the opposite of the dishonest manager – rather than making deals with the poor for personal gain Jesus calls us to genuinely make friends with those who cannot repay us thus creating social unity between rich and poor. We will be ultimately judged on our levels of compassion –how did we use our money? – “make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
Where does our treasure lie? Ultimately the issue comes down to our love of mammon, or money and possessions. God calls us to be released from the hold of money, to use it to help the poor. If we love our mammon and possessions then we will use them shrewdly or dishonestly, seeking personal benefit like the dishonest manager. If we are freed from them, we can use them for kingdom growth.
Many people have tried to make the dishonest manager an example of wisdom to be followed – which goes to show that we tend to interpret the Bible in a way that supports a consumerist Western lifestyle. [vi]
Interpreting the Word
The readings from Jeremiah and Psalms are lamentations. When we consider the state of our country – crime levels, environmental degradation and levels of inequality, we must indeed lament. Ecological grief is a new challenge – fear of the future as we consider climate change. Acknowledging ecological grief is not submitting to despair and it should not ‘switch us off” from the issues, because we feel helpless to act. Just as grief over a loved one often helps us to put into perspective what is important in life, ecological grief can give us a stronger commitment and love for the places and species that inspire and sustain us. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to mobilise us to act and prevent such losses[vii]. In the Bible, suffering, and particularly communal suffering, is often a consequence of sin. So in lament we also confess – we must recognise the need for change. We cannot accept a society where the poor live in shacks with no access clean running water, while other homes have more toilets than inhabitants. We cannot accept a society where profit is made for shareholders by degrading the face of the Earth. In our lament we must hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth.
Timothy calls us to prayer. There are many levels of prayer – for instance in our recent situation of drought in the Western Cape, there were many calls to prayer. Do we pray for rain? Do we pray for South Africans to learn that water is precious, and the learn to save and treasure it ? Through the fears of “day Zero” and having no access to piped water – do we pray that Capetonians will understand more about the inequalities of their city and understand a little more about how life feels for those in informal settlements who queue every day for water – who have always been living Day Zero?
In Luke, God is on the side of the poor and the marginalised. What does that say for us in South Africa? Just as in Palestine at the time of Jesus , wealth comes from somewhere. We live in a shockingly unequal society – where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The children of the educated have access to better education, the children of the wealthy inherit property and resources that enable to them to progress faster and further. The Church must take a stand to be on the side of the poor and the Earth. What does restributive justice look like in our settings?
Preaching the Word
The strands of the readings today call us to three actions, lament, prayer and action. With so many different challenges facing us – how do we pray, how should we act?
Our goal should be this: we should be headed toward God’s shalom – toward God’s realm of peace with justice that includes all of creation. That is the big picture. God’s shalom is life in all its fullness – a “community that has enough to care for all of its members, that is safe from major threats, that is economically sufficient, that is in harmony with the natural world, and that embodies justice for all.”[viii]
Shalom is not found in individual prosperity – it is found in community, in the collective wellbeing of the web of life. It is not about personal wealth , but about common good. And so we lament where shalom is not present – the water crisis, the environmental degradation, the abject poverty faced by so many. We pray for shalom to come – justice, clean water, safe living spaces and protection of eco-systems. And we act that God’s kingdom may come here on earth as it is in heaven.
Living the Word
What actions can we take to bring about shalom?
In our personal lives, we can consider the impact of our live style on the planet and the poor. What changes can we make to fuel use, plastic use, electricity use?
Our church building can become a role model for all who visit. Indigenous plants, organic vegetables, water tank, recycling bins, solar panels, LED lights, Creation Care services, outdoor activities for youth – there are so many ways to work towards shalom. When someone walks through our doors can they see that we worship a Creator God? And we must consider our budget – are we partners in justice? Can we support churches in disadvantaged areas to be able to put in water tanks? What are we doing with our investments? Many churches run on income from interest on stocks and shares. Do we concern ourselves with the impact of those businesses on the poor and the environment?
by Rev Dr Rachel Mash, Southern Africa
[i] Oikos, God and the Olive Agenda: Theological Reflections on Economics and the Environment, S De Gruchy – 2009
[ii] Pope Francis : Laudato Si
[iii] Scottish Eco-congregations Creation time resources 2013
[v] Scottish Eco-congregations Creation time resources 2016
[viii] Progress Toward Shalom Rev. Peter Sawtell, Eco-Justice Ministries, November 4, 2012